11/11/2014 04:49 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

When a Tie is Not Just a Tie


My husband has a beef about ties. Or, more precisely, about the lack thereof.

A future sociologist exploring the culture of work at the setting of the 20th century and dawn of the 21st would undoubtedly take note of the changing mores of appropriate office wear. The era of casual dress crept up on us slowly, but now every organization this side of Wall Street seems to have taken up the khaki banner. (And even Wall Street is apparently not immune to the trend.)

The hippest companies sport a tieless C-suite. Try googling images of "CEO" and you'll find that while many of the male prototypes do wear ties (in the spirit of pop culture fantasy, there are a handful of women on the page, as well), a startling number gaze confidently out from above tie-less, casually unbuttoned collars. (Of course, you'll also find the ubiquitous shots of Mark Zuckerberg and his ilk, sporting the best of couture Old Navy.)

As someone who is self-employed, working in my home office, I have my own appreciation of casual dress. Truth be told, the ability to dictate my own wardrobe -- specifically, to wear sneakers as much, and heels as little, as possible -- was one of the deciding factors in going into business for myself. While I'm a firm believer that pajamas do not make for a productive, workwoman-like atmosphere, I also don't believe there's any great productivity advantage to being uncomfortable.

And my husband is a casual dresser, himself. Although our closet is spilling over with ties of every description, he rarely wears one to work. Why should he? It's not required -- in fact, it might even be looked upon with suspicion. These days, dressing too well for work might well signify you'll be slipping out at lunchtime in search of a better job.

So what's wrong with the tie-less look? My husband's point -- well taken -- is this: It's phony. It's meant not so much to provide comfort as to telegraph a message about relationships. "Look at me," it says, "I'm just one of the guys. Don't stand on ceremony with me!" The tie-less executive is a bit like the millionaire politician in work boots. The boots have a specific purpose, and the purpose has nothing to do with doing the dirty work. It's all about spin.

This message is part and parcel of other messages we're hearing from hip corporations these days. Hierarchies are flattened! Vacations are unlimited! Work should be fun!

What's wrong with messages like these? They mask a much harsher truth. Many Americans are working longer hours and taking fewer vacations than at any time in recent history. How truly flat a "non-hierarchical organization" can become remains to be seen, but it's certainly true that many employees today go to work without any certainty they'll have a job tomorrow -- something yesterday's employees, in hierarchical companies with tie-wearing executives -- rarely faced. Far from being "just one of the guys (or gals)," today's CEOs may preside over companies that have unprecedented control over employees' lives -- all the while earning salaries on average 350 times more than their worker-bee "chums." And is it a coincidence that the rise of the tie-less executive has corresponded to the steepest decline in union membership since the Great Depression? Or that so-called "right to work" laws, which many believe amount to dressed-up (pun intended) union-busting, are on the rise around the country?

Look, like I said, I'm all for casual dress. And, as any regular reader of my blog knows, I'm all for innovative thinking around company programs and policies. I believe there are many companies that try to do the right thing by their employees, and I applaud them. I certainly don't think the answer is a return to Don Draper/Peggy Olsen formality. But I do think my husband has a point.

It's vital that when we see the popular image of a roll-up-your-sleeves, one-of-the-guys CEOs, we see it for what it is: a silly bit of spin. He may not be wearing a tie, but he still holds the reins.