Attire Does Make the Board Member By: Mark Rogers
One of the memorable stories from my days as a practicing attorney takes place on an exceptionally humid day in August more than a decade ago. I had a hearing that day in one of my cases at Suffolk Superior Court in downtown Boston. The case was a civil matter that involved several parties. As is typical in a discovery hearing, most of the firms sent an associate as opposed to the senior partner who had been assigned to the case. However, as the attorneys in the case gathered in the courtroom in advance of the hearing, we were all surprised to see a senior partner from one of the firms stride into the room. He was a very seasoned and well-respected attorney who had gained a reputation as a tough litigator. What also stood out to the attorneys was the fact that this senior partner was not wearing a suit coat. He had a shirt and tie, suit pants, but no suit coat. It really caught us off guard – as it was our experience that as an attorney you ALWAYS wore a suit coat in the courtroom. We didn’t say anything to him, presumably because we all thought the same thing – maybe the veteran status of this attorney accorded him some leniency in terms of courtroom attire. As we soon found out, it did not. The judge began the hearing with a 3 minute “dressing-down” of this attorney. The theme of the judge’s lecture to the attorney was the appropriate level of respect an attorney should provide – not to the judge, his client, or the other attorneys, but rather as an officer of the court to the entire judicial process. The judge stated (in a fairly stern tone) that that level of respect should be exemplified in the manner in which the attorney represents his/her client, addresses the court, and even their attire.
This story came to mind recently when a friend I was meeting with told me that he was off to a board of directors meeting. His outfit: khaki pants and a polo shirt. It was the typical thing one would wear at the office on a casual summer Friday. His appearance was fine for the meeting we had in the coffee shop that afternoon, but is it appropriate attire for a board meeting? In my opinion, no, it is not. At one point several years ago, business casual became the “norm” for the workplace attire in many professional industries (although that trend seems to have reversed in some industries with time). But when did it become appropriate for corporate board members to fashion casual attire in the boardroom? In many ways, I believe the lecture from that judge that hot August day about respect represented by attire has applicability in the boardroom. As a member of a board of directors, you are there to represent the interests of the organization’s stakeholders, be it the shareholders in a public or private company, or the public at large in a non-profit charity.
So what is the appropriate attire at a board of directors meeting? Speaking from the male perspective, I do not believe it is necessary to wear a three piece suit to board meetings. I believe it is fine to wear a suit coat and button down shirt with no tie. The important thing to understand is that the attire a board member wears to a board of directors meeting should reflect their approach to the seriousness of their commitment to the organization and its stakeholders.