A command-and-control approach to dress codes causes problems for Acme

Acme’s management reorganization finds that a command-and-control approach results in a culture clash



The macroeconomy is moving in the right direction, perhaps too rapidly for those trying to manipulate it into something dynamic. As a result, the money gurus in Washington felt compelled to raise the federal lending rate by yet another 25 basis points. Normally such a small move wouldn’t have much effect on the day-to-day operations at the Acme plant across the tracks on 12th St., but this time the inside-the-Beltway event provided enough of a jolt to generate another scenario for your reading pleasure.

Eight of Acme’s key managers, including its director of human resources (HR) and corporate counsel, resigned simultaneously to pursue their dream of an entrepreneurial adventure, a move they had been planning for several years. Very hush-hush, they never discussed their plan at the office and were careful about being overheard when they gathered at the golf course, hunting camp or cocktail party.

This bold move by the gang of eight forced Acme into an ad hoc management reorganization effort in spite of its lack of effective succession plan. Now, panic reigned on Acme’s Mahogany Row.

The resulting power vacuum sucked in resumes willy-nilly from the four corners of the globe. Although several perfectly competent Acme employees tendered their names for consideration, the remnants of the crippled hierarchy considered these employees as suspect and unworthy. Instead, they brought in new blood to shore up the crumbling ramparts and reestablish the former tranquility.

The newly entrenched outsiders, mutual strangers all, who formed the reconstituted management team, devoted their time to staking out and defending nascent empires. Whether through insecurity or egocentricity, the group was oblivious to the cultural issues that are such an ingrained part of the company they’re trying to lead.

For example, individual Acme departments functioned as true teams. Coworkers cherished their mutual trust and respect, the open communications, the flex-time and cross-training that picked up any slack, the consensus about operational changes before making policy changes. When a team had a vacancy, each team member interviewed the job candidates and cast a yea or nay vote. Coworkers also spent lunch hours in heated discussions about their next innovation or, on more boring days, challenging other departments to a friendly game of euchre or bridge. Diversity is another source of employee pride and most employees have at least a passing familiarity with the native language and customs of their coworkers.

Musa Paradisiaca is a typical example of the diversity the teams embraced. Although born on the Asian subcontinent, Musa’s family immigrated to the United States when he was 2 years old in search of medical care for his severe facial scarring. Blessed with an innate grasp of mathematics, science and languages — he speaks five with no discernible accent —  Musa earned a master’s degree in mechanical engineering before he was 20 years old. Upon graduation, he enjoyed a successful career at a string of manufacturing companies, ultimately being promoted to vice president of plant operations on his 45th birthday. But that employer filed for bankruptcy less than one year later, and Musa immediately jumped ship into Acme’s welcoming arms to serve as the company’s technical services manager.

It’s a job he loves. In the four years he’s been with Acme, Musa has become a capable corporate spokesman intent on increasing Acme’s market share, a possibility attributable in no small part to his extensive personal network and the depth of his industrial background. He’s been there, done that —  and he delivers the Acme marketplace message in terms that resonate with both prospects and established customers.

Musa wears a neatly trimmed, full beard of snowy white for two reasons. The first is a religious tradition. The second addresses the realities of the face-to-face contact his job entails —  the beard hides his scarring quite effectively. But a hirsute disguise can present problems.

Acme’s brand-new vice president of aftermarket support and sales, Eddie Pousrechts, always knew that as the first-born son in a family with a long history of military service, he would follow in his dad’s footsteps. That’s why young Eddie joined up just one day after the momentous birthday that rendered him eligible to enroll.

During the next few decades, he proved his mettle, earned his medals and refused to settle for anything less than progressive advancements in rank. After serving enough time to qualify for a full pension, Eddie parlayed the leadership traits he learned into various management positions in private industry.

There, too, Eddie developed admirable credentials and a spotless track record. But it was his management style that the panic-stricken Acme executives found most appealing. They firmly believed a command and control approach would eradicate the chaos running wild on 12th St. Eddie took that as his marching orders.

His earlier career molded Eddie’s view of what constitutes a proper uniform of the day. In fact, he has definite opinions about suitable attire for the job, for leisure activities and for nearly any other possible activity in which people can engage. All spit and polish, Eddie looks at Musa, one of his direct reports, and finds it difficult to see anything more than a fast-talking, overpaid, aging hippie.

During his first week on the job, Eddie determined that he needed to instill greater esprit de corps and, at the same time, improve the corporate landscape he had to face each day. On Friday afternoon, Eddie issued his order to Musa: “Shave the beard and get a haircut before you return on Monday morning.”

Musa patiently tried to explain his situation, but Eddie, his mind made up, wouldn’t tolerate insubordination and, instead, encouraged Musa by asserting that a man must have strength and courage to do something that he finds uncomfortable and difficult.

Musa displayed tremendous courage on Monday when he reported to Eddie’s office clean shaven, the highly irregular contours of his scarred face dotted with tiny red razor nicks. Eddie looked up from his desk into Musa’s steely glare and did a double-take, appalled at the grotesque sight standing before him. Musa merely turned and went to his own office.

This isn’t what Eddie had in mind for corporate landscape improvement. By Monday afternoon, Eddie demoted Musa to a desk job at the Acme call center, where Musa would interact with customers only as a disembodied voice on the phone. When Musa objected, Eddie remained calm and fired Musa for disobeying a valid order. Musa displayed additional courage when he filed suit for wrongful discharge.

How could this situation have been avoided? How should a company deal with culture clashes?

An academician says:

The issue of dress and appearance has come to the forefront as the United States becomes more multicultural, and as companies become more international. The rigid codes really don’t make sense anymore, and moreover, they are illegal. Dress and appearance codes must take into account religious, ethnic and gender differences. Moreover, codes also must take into account medical considerations. For example, courts have found that policies prohibiting beards discriminate against African-American men who are susceptible to a skin disease that is aggravated by shaving.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t have a dress code. But the code should be tied to business considerations, such as safety, hygiene or the need for an employee to have a professional appearance. Every employee should follow the dress code, but Acme should have the flexibility to handle unique situations.

What Acme needed to do avoid this issue was to have a dress code that took these considerations into account, and to make sure that Eddie (and everyone else) was aware of the policy, and furthermore, was in compliance with the policy. Musa probably should have gone to the HR department at the first sign of the problem. HR is usually the keeper of the code and could have explained it (and the law) to Eddie. That may have resolved the problem before it escalated.

I will defer the question of the validity of Musa’s suit to the wise counsel of Julie Badel, however, my take is that Musa has a strong legal case. He was doing quite well on the job with his beard on and I see no evidence to suggest that Eddie’s order to shave it off (as well as firing him) was based on any compelling business reason.

Professor Homer H. Johnson, Ph.D.
Loyola University Chicago
(312) 915-6682
hjohnso@luc.edu

An attorney says:


Mandating dress and grooming codes and being inflexible about them may work in the military, but it often doesn’t fare so well under discrimination laws applicable to private employers.

Both reasons for Musa’s beard may provide him with fodder in his law suit against Acme. If Musa’s religion requires him to wear a beard, his employer must reasonably accommodate his religious beliefs unless to do so would cause the company undue hardship. There is no apparent reason for Eddie to require employees to be clean shaven; any argument that it would be an undue hardship for Acme to continue to let Musa work with his beard would not prevail in court. It appears that he has been doing an exemplary job for the four years he has worked at Acme, notwithstanding the beard.

Eddie’s ban on beards provides Musa with another arrow in his quiver of legal wrongs. Although Musa’s facial scarring is not considered to be a disability within the meaning of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the ADA also protects employees against employers who “perceive” them to be disabled. Banishing Musa to a lower-level desk job where he would have no contact with customers and then firing him for objecting is precisely the kind of conduct the ADA prohibits. The company acted based on a perception that its customers would react adversely to Musa’s facial scarring.

If Eddie’s behavior with Musa is any indication of how Acme is run, perhaps there were other reasons for the mass defection by Acme managers. Many companies value diversity in the work force. Eddie’s actions, however, appear to be a throwback to an earlier and less tolerant era that are totally out of place in today’s work environment.

Julie Badel, partner
Epstein Becker & Green, P.C.
(312) 499-1418
jbadel@ebglaw.com

A corporate consultant says:

This case isn't about a culture clash. It’s about objective, fact-based management being subordinated to management by personal preference.

In its zeal to stabilize the business, Acme sought a command-and-control management style, but it's clear the Acme didn't intend to impose an arbitrary, discriminatory, litigious style of people management. Otherwise, they'd never have promoted Musa into his current position. Instead, Acme intended the command-and-control management style to focus on business results.

Eddie made his decision about Musa before he even assessed business results. He didn't look at his staff’s historical achievements, and didn't bother to study the metrics of successful performance at Acme. He considered neither of these inputs important. Instead, based on standards typically associated with the animal kingdom during mating season, he made a decision based on appearance alone.

Appearance matters. One can't be 4-ft., 5-in. tall, weigh in at 300 lbs., and be a spokesperson for the effectiveness of a diet plan. In this case, however, there was no linkage between business results and Musa's appearance. A cursory review of Musa's performance to date would have revealed this.

As for how this case could have been avoided, I see three possibilities.

First, because of the effect of the exodus, Acme should have briefed each of its new executives, clarifying that avoidance of further destabilization was a high priority for the near future. Acme should have outlined a collaborative form of management for the first three or four months, the intent being for longer-tenured executives to mentor the new executives. In an effort to accelerate the healing process, the seasoned Acme executives also should have briefed the new executives about the quality of their respective staffs, if for no other reason than to equip the new executives with the tools to reassure and positively reinforce their staffs during so tumultuous a time.

The second way in which this case could have been avoided was for Eddie to have done proper reconnaissance. He should have studied the historical performance of his staff members, and he should have checked with HR and other executives before making such a decision, particularly in light of Acme's recent hemorrhaging.

Musa himself had two options that may have prevented this litigation. First, since Eddie wouldn't listen to him in a face-to-face meeting, he could have written a brief memo to Eddie asking him to reconsider. Second, he could have gone to HR. Armed with a track record of successful performance, it's hard to believe any competent HR executive would endorse Eddie's decision.

I don't think Acme could reasonably have anticipated the colossal, Napoleonic buffoonery of Eddie's actions, so I hope Eddie, rather than Acme, is held accountable.

Francie Dalton
Dalton Alliances Inc.
(410) 715-0484
fmdalton@daltonalliances.com

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