bradIf you’ve seen me at a conference, this is going to be hard to imagine.  But when I was immersed in the world of Fortune 50 HR departments, the professional equivalent of a home ec class, I thought the best way to fit into a world where I was an obvious interloper was by simply dressing the part.

I was a sweater vest aficionado, preferably anything in Argyle.  The socks, naturally, matched whatever pattern I happened to be wearing – a fact that makes me want to go back in time just to kick my own ass.  I had 10 pairs (or a laundry cycle’s worth) of Express for Men Producer pants, and a revolving rack of Banana Republic button up shirts.  Plus I always had some cardigan ready, just in case it turned chilly. I wish I could go back and kick my own butt, frankly.

My old boss used to actually call me “Brad” (which got old when she stopped using my real name entirely) after the flamingly fabulous fashionista famous for his role as stylist Rachel Zoe’s sidekick (see pic on left).  That sentence alone is cause enough to mandate my surrendering my man card.  But it was an accurate moniker, since “Beau Brummel” or “Little Lord Fauntleroy” are kind of archaic, if equally accurate, references.

I looked at labels and paid for the privilege of building someone else’s brand equity (“check out my new shades – they’re Armani. Emporio, not Georgio.”)  I got a subscription to Vanity Fair (which I still have, but less for the September Issue and more for Michael Lewis).  I actually went to Fashion Week, where I learned that violent was going to be the next big thing.  And this was well before Instagram or Facebook photos, so this wasn’t for show. It was part of my strategy of making it in HR as a dude, because while we talk about the theoretical construct of gender diversity, truth is that there’s about as many men in HR as your average Tori Amos concert.

I thought that fashion was my key to business success, mainly because I could relate to the women around me, who seemed so preoccupied with it, the perpetual topic of conversation in every HR meeting or even hallway encounter.  No shit – you’re worried about getting a raise, and the person responsible for signing off on it is probably preoccupied with last month’s Marie Claire.

Which is funny, because while it was a constant subject of conversation and fascination – I actually got to go to executive leadership meetings in exchange for dressing in the CHRO’s favorites of the aforementioned outfits at one employer – HR ladies have less actual fashion sense than your average 4H member.

I say this anecdotally, based only on 4 multinational employers’ HR groups that I personally experienced, which is 200 or so HR Ladies, tops (a small sample by volume, if not by weight). While HR looks like a pair of Payless shoes, they spend their time pretending they’re Prada.  It figures fashion is always in fashion with your general generalist.

How things look on the outside instead of how they really are on the inside isn’t a phenomenon that came to companies with employer branding – it’s been a core HR competency since the day the term “Human Resources” came to replace plain old “personnel.”  The ubiquitous use of the word “talent” to describe anyone pulling a paycheck points to proof of this phenomenon.

HR is an insular world, and that I thought what any designer was doing for any particular season was relevant to my life underscores what I discovered the first  time I put on “modern fit” dress slacks.  It might look good superficially (well, used to), but ultimately, they’re a little too restrictive to ever truly be comfortable.

The silo of stilettos and girl talk that was the universal culture of sitting in a big company’s “center of expertise” (not that there was any expertise in said HR centers) are, by design, isolated outposts far from where the workers they work with actually work.  Employees actually had to put up their badges to a camera at one company to get into the recruiting department’s waiting room.  External candidates actually had to go through a metal detector before they even let them enter the building.

Talk about candidate experience – try getting patted down for an informational interview.  That you could see the CEO more easily than your business partner if you were a mid-level manager at that particular employer should tell you something.  At another employer, recruiters literally had to candidates in and out, with a secure door separating the reception area from the waiting room.  At least once they ran the gauntlet, we were dressed professionally enough to abide by the 8 paragraph long policy about work attire in the employee handbook, far longer than the one sentence dedicated to employee intellectual property assignments (hint: they surrender them in perpetuity).

But, you know, employers can get away with that shit, somehow – probably because that’s precisely the kind of policy HR creates, enforces and obsesses over. If they didn’t, they’d likely open themselves up to obsolescence, and it’s pretty hard to afford Lane Bryant shopping sprees without a salary.

By Matt Charney

Matt serves as Chief Content Officer and Global Thought Leadership Head for Allegis Global Solutions and is a partner for RecruitingDaily the industry leading online publication for Recruiting and HR Tech. With a unique background that includes HR, blogging and social media, Matt Charney is a key influencer in recruiting and a self-described “kick-butt marketing and communications professional.”