A Social Response to Corporate Indecency

Photo cred: Mike "ortizmj12"
Photo cred: Mike "ortizmj12"

Did social media cause us to demand honesty and personality in business?  Or was the development of social media an inevitable result of the inauthenticity and lack of trust that shadowed corporate America?

A concept that I’ve long thought about since first learning about business, was that I didn’t want to be that “stuck-up, fake” business person.  I wanted the business world to “loosen up”.  I wanted to help change the mentality.

I watched Mark Hughes, author of Buzz Marketing (I highly recommend this book) speak the other day and he said something that really resonated with me.  It’s also in his book:

“Corporation mistrust is just a few headlines away: Enron, Adelphia, MCI, Tyco etc…Corporations have demonstrated that they can easily lie, mislead, or obfuscate…the solution is to abandon any appearance of a corporate look. Corporate looks slick.  Corporate looks like there’s something being hidden amid seeming perfection.”

It got me thinking a lot.  It explained my perspective of the business world very well.  It also got me thinking about social media (surprised?).

Then Jennifer Wilbur posted this rant on Arik Hanson’s blog.  It got me thinking even more.  Jen rages:

“Is it just me, or do people talking about someone acting “professionally” often seem to make judgments based on one’s dress, language and polish, rather than on the quality of one’s ethical behavior and technical savvy?”

She speaks about this problem of the professional image being viewed as more important than having strong professional qualities. She also brings up the breach of trust by corporate America.

…but this has always been the case.  At least, as long as I’ve known it, it’s always been about clean resumes, cleaner suits and cleanest images.  So why the sudden shift?  Why is it that NOW we’re calling for honesty, trust, transparency, personality, and all these concepts that have become the center of conversation?

Did social media cause us to believe in these values?  I don’t think so.  I believe the shift to these values is a social response to a negative and dangerous “professional mentality” that could no longer be allowed to exist, and social media is just one method we’re using to change it.

Regardless of “embracing social media”…Are you still thinking with the old “professional business mentality”?

27 thoughts on “A Social Response to Corporate Indecency

  1. Well said David.

    I think that many of the last events are making us shift towards honesty and integrity, because we realize now that unless we do the right things, all of us will lose. The change in business mentality is another part of this, is people saying “Let’s cut the bullshit, and be people”. Humanity is starting to be more appreciated than looks. Big things are happening. I’m just curious about how fast it will happen.

  2. David,

    Professionalism is ones attitude toward the culture of the business, company, and industry. It varies from firm to firm and industry to industry. It is part of one’s social skill – almost like not talking with your mouth full of food. While it means you dress a certain way, it’s part of the social contract one should abide by in the work place. It’s less about looks but more about comfort in association an identity where we all say I look a certain way to put myself, my company, my industry, and, by association, my coworkers in the beat possible way. It also includes ethics around moral behavior but, in the end, it’s still a behavioral quality of the attitude.

    It’s very different from skill, however, which is the technical knowhow to complete a task well. But skill does not define professionalisum. It just is a measure of one’s ability to get the job done. And a person can have all the skill in the world, if they call people names in the workplace, don’t shower, or don’t have the right clothes for their job (like a lawyer going to court with jeans on or a trader not wearing a tie), they won’t get far because they lack the social skills to move ahead.

    1. Christopher,

      Right, and obviously there’s a line that shouldn’t be crossed. (You should shower) I’m not saying that acting professionally is a bad thing either. I’m saying that the “corporate look” has developed a connotation of greed, lies and mistrust. While this is certainly a stereotype and does not apply to every corporate entity, it is the perception that people have today and it has caused a shift in the values that we focus on in the business world.

      To take it a step further, for the sake of discussion I’m going to ask…WHY?

      Why is it that lawyers have to wear a suit and traders have to wear a tie? Does it make them better at their job? Is it not all an arbitrary perception that suits are professional attire? I just think that judging someone’s adequacy in the business world by their image (within reason) rather than by their skills, has been long overdue for a change.


      1. Society make that choice. Somewhere along the line, we said ties are acceptable work clothes for a trader. Over time, some societies have changed but since some cultures value tradition and/or fear fast change, they stick with it. Because I’m in the trading industry, I wear a suit and tie everyday. But not every industry chooses that uniform. The tech industy is one of them. That’s their society’s choice.

        What you’re asking is where do these traditions come from and why don’t we change them. A cultural and social psychologist would have the answers. But I say it’s because, over time, we as a culture decided one industry wears one type of distinctive uniform and another industry wears something different. And we, as humans, either value that tradition or fear change. But change happens.

        Even the tech industry used to wear ties and now they generally don’t. Maybe Wall St. will change. But what your asking us to explain is nearly impossible because we’d have to know why a society made a choice hundreds or thousands of years ago and why we change so slowly.

        1. Well said. But I’m not asking you to explain why these standards were set/where they came from. I’m asking you to think about the relevance of these standards in today’s society. Maybe they were reasonable when they were created, but that does not mean we should assume they’re reasonable now just because that’s how things have been done in the past.

          The image shouldn’t continue to determine the value.

          1. It does determine value. Humans do that all the time. We buy good looking fruit because an apple that doesn’t look good might make us sick. We don’t buy rusty cars because they might break down. So we don’t employ people who can’t groom themselves or participate in a culture because we can’t trust them.

            Value is relative but we generally value healthy looking things, people, whatever because we feel it will give us the most from out hunt for food, our money, and our overall success.

            The clothing might change; we might all be able to wear PJs to work one day and it might be the norm and the tie might become unprofessional. But the judgement of that tie wearer as being a poor performer won’t go away because that culture sees them as out of the norm.

            Judgement is here to stay. It’s how we evolved and survived. Even though some survival needs have changed, the protection we get by judgements will never go away. What changes is how we define safe and normal. When we all trade in a hoodie and someone walks in wearing a tie, that person will stick out and people will wonder why they look different and will be considered unprofessional.

            1. Perhaps the distinction I’m trying to point out is the concept of judgmental standards vs individual judgment.

              Yes, people have and always will judge others. You are absolutely right.

              What should occur though is a shift away from blanket judgments (all business people should wear suits).

              Each person should be able to wear and act in a way that aligns with who they are. People will always make they’re own individual judgment. Looking forward to the day when our judgment isn’t determined by “social standards”.

              I feel like the bias is just changing now, but there’s still a bias. Before we looked at shirts and ties as more valuable. Now we’re looking at shirts and ties as less trustworthy. Neither are fair judgments.

              Perhaps it’s naive to think that people can rely solely on personal judgment without taking into consideration social biases, but that doesn’t mean it’s not right.

              1. People have a choice. I’d they don’t want to wear suits, they can choose a different company/industry alltogether. My closest friend is a technical guy and makes a good living. He could make more by switching industries. But he chooses not to because he likes the dress code at his job (and other reasons, too).

                And because I wear a suit for the financial industry, people might judge me as greedy, a crook, an all around evil person or just a “clone” as Anita says. But I don’t care. If I did, I would choose a place of work, a career, or a society that met my needs – made me feel comfortable.

                If you were personally judged by your look then you don’t want to be in that company or industry. No one is saying you have to stay.

                You’re right everyone should be able to wear what they want such that it aligns with who they are. And they can do that today… Nothing stops them. And it is wrong to judge a book by it’s cover – especially when the cover was not a choice they could make. But you need to use macro observations to make micro decisions.

                It’s actually a very complex issue that’s hard to resolve in my lenghty ramblings alone.

                For what it’s worth, I think you’re quite the “professional” and i have no idea what clothes you wear or whether you have good grooming habits.

                Great topic! Awesome conversation! Keep it up!

                1. haha ok this is the last one in this thread only because the damn width is getting too small! Thanks for a great conversation and for your very kind words Christopher.

                  I do have to disagree with you on that last point. I don’t think people should have to change industries because of the industry’s image. What if your friend loves trading, but is only doing tech because the image suits him better. Is that right? Should he not be able to do what he loves rather than be forced to do something else because the image of what he loves makes him uncomfortable?

                  Feel free to start a new comment thread haha. It’s true, this is a very complex issue that is hard to really deliberate in text.

  3. Hey David,

    I don’t know about anyone else, but I dream of the day when I can wear pajama pants and a hoodie to work, simply because that’s an outfit that makes me feel comfortable, and when I’m comfortable I can feel focused on what’s in front of me (tasks, projects, etc.).

    Now I understand that pajama pants and hoodies are never going to be the office norm, unless my home is my office, but I’ve never understood the “corporate look.” With the new call for trust and authenticity within companies, I think (and hope!) that companies will start focusing on the personal self and encourage their employees to be who they really are.

    I definitely agree that there is a dress code line that should not be crossed, but as was stated earlier, just because someone dresses all sharp and dapper, does not mean he/she is competent. It’s all about one’s attitude, personality and skill set. Dress codes should come last after those three.

    Wishing I was in pajama pants and a hoodie,


    1. Well said Rich. I think a lot of people work better when they’re able to dress and feel comfortably…and just to clarify, I’m not saying dressing up in a suit is a bad thing. If that’s the style that you feel comfortable rocking, then by all means go ahead. I feel bad for you though because “those” companies soiled the image of a suit and tie for the rest of us

      1. I could be talking out my butt with this, but I see offices that force the suit and tie wardrobe as being similar to the schools that require uniforms. It makes the students/employees feel restricted and confined, and it could create an environment where the employees want to “rebel” against executive orders. But maybe I’ve just seen one too many movies and Simpsons episodes.

        Definitely agree that if you want to rock the suit and you feel comfortable, well then rock on!

  4. How you guys know I was ranting? I might have been raving. 😉

    This issue of conduct v. appearance has been a focus for me for years. In my early years of this PR career of mine, I struggled watching a few “professionals” that appeared stellar, but were horrible when no one was looking.

    It’s less about what they are wearing exactly than than about someone’s overall style. You CAN be a little different and still be professional. Anyone with decent judgement skills will see this.

    And I’m happy to see this is happening more and more lately.

  5. Conduct…a powerful word. Each day & every day of our lives, we need to ask for the grace to conduct ourselves as we would like our children to conduct themselves.

    We have flaws & will make mistakes, but trust (they key metric of all brands) is exponential when we are transparent. I hope all our corporate executives are open to seeing this.

    1. You continue to inspire more thoughts Mark. Really interesting thought about how we would like our children to conduct themselves. Definitely puts an interesting perspective on the conversation.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  6. I like where you’ve taken the discussion. What immediately came to my mind is the shift in culture. We spend more time at work than any generation prior. We’re expected to put our whole selves into our work. There has been a slow shift away from the 80 hour work-week back to a work-life balance. (Some of which can be contributed to the Gen X/Y factor and influx of social media.)

    That work/life balance hasn’t fully spilled over into the ‘professional culture’ just yet. We still judge people based on looks. I could have a million dollars in my pocket, but the sales people at the car dealership aren’t going to talk to me if I come in looking like I just finished mowing the lawn. I don’t look professional, so therefore I can’t afford their car.

    I admit that it used to be when I first met someone who looks out of place (ratty tees, dirty, ripped jeans, unshowered)I questioned their skills until they proved to me otherwise. Not so much anymore, as sometimes I wish I could be the person in ratty tees and ripped jeans!

    Did Social Media have anything to do with the broadening of my mind? No. It was my experiences with people in professional settings, being forced to wear suits in non-suit environments, and dabbling in corporate culture for a brief period. In fact – I tend to be wary of the person in the suit who believes that how they look is more important that how they perform.

    I hope that as I move forward in my career I am able to embrace the ‘new professionalim’ and move away from situations that love traditional professional business mentality.

    What’s the next blog-stream Laura, Arik, Jen and David?

  7. First of all David, great post.

    I would like to hit on both topics that seem to be getting some air time here. On the issue of corporate trust, I believe that it was the corporate mistrust that allowed social media to get legs. Instead of listening to what the brand wants you to think, people now listen to what their friends, followers, readers, and favorite writers think.

    As for appearance, I have worked in a handful of industries from finance to bartending. After three years of nothing but dark suits and power ties, I was over it. That is when I made the decision to go into business development for a technology company and now a marketing firm. The one constant from the transition from a suit and tie to jeans and a polo is me. However, it is positive that I feel more comfortable and my dry cleaning bill is less.


  8. No, social media didn’t encourage us to change mindset, nor has it evoked a feeling of more trust needed. Trust (or lack of it) has been around for eons, since man lit the first fire and someone worried about their flame being stolen.

    Every single individual is responsible for two things – how they’re perceived and how they perceive others. Trust comes from how you act every day. Trust comes from what you say and how you say it. Trust comes from following up on words, commitment, promises.

    The same goes for you trusting others. I’m generally of the rule that you get my trust until you break it, then you better work damn hard if you ever want it back.

    So the whole trust issue is an ever-constant, and being trustful and trustworthy is something only you can do.

    All social media has done is allow you to get a more open view as to how much trust is in you, and the people and companies you deal with.

    1. Very well said Danny. Would you say that we are now, generally speaking, striving to build more trust in our business relationships, as compared to say 10 years ago? While trust or the lack thereof has existed forever, there definitely seems to be a recent shift in focus.

      1. I think people and companies are more aware of how easy and fast it is for your indiscretions to be shared with a wider audience because of social media. So perhaps in that respect, a more concerted effort is being made to do things right.

  9. You know, I’m not sure social media is what brought about our need for more authenticity, trust, and transparency. I think that came from watching the downfall of our nation’s economic status. How can we trust anyone that’s gotten us into this mess? If they’ve operated in business suits, clean resumes, whatever you have, and we’re here now — why would we continue to trust that?

    Yes, part of it is Gen Y, but the collective We got punched in the face and that punch shattered our rose colored glasses. Screw what you wear, how you comb your hair, the shine on your shoes — what do you do everyday in your WORK that shows you’re improving your business and your industry?

    Of course, in the right time and place, professional dress and the corporate appearance are a necessity. But, I think it’s been proven in the day to day that a suit and a corner office do nothing to prove talent or character.

    Good stuff.

  10. Hi David

    I think we’re tired of being clones from a model that’s broken. The corporate look is just an external embodiment of what’s broken, at the core.

    So the real issue is how do we fix the core. Not an easy task. So we rebel against the corporate look.

    I’ve met enough genuine, compassionate people in suits whose conduct is faultless; as well as poseurs who mouth the right anti-authority lingo, and use the emotion for their personal benefit.

    My guidelines are to asses:

    Is the person responding from a ‘command-control-i win all’ position or ‘lets get this done together and we all win’.

    I look for the non-verbal markers. The pro who looks at home in formal clothes because she’s focused on the task at hand. The shifty who divert attention to the inane [e.g. we’ve always done it this way] to distract from the real issues.

    People who look at filling in the hours and others who figure out ways to get work done.


    Another part of this big change is that our language is still evolving to imbue new meanings or create new words.

    Being a through professional is a great compliment – it implies integrity, responsiveness and a commitment to deliver my end of the bargain.

    If the old business mentality has permanently damaged the connotations of ‘professional’, its time to create a new language too.

    After all, we’re still an evolving species. The cockroach hasn’t evolved much and its been around longer than we have. 🙂


    Anita Lobo

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