Signalling, anti-signalling and dress codes

A few months back, I read Rob Henderson‘s seminal work on signalling and anti-signalling. To use a online community term, I’ve been “unable to unsee”. Wherever I see, I see signalling, and anti-signalling. Recently, I thought that some things work as signals to one community but anti-signals to others. And so on.

I was reminded of this a couple of weekends back when we were shopping at FabIndia. Having picked up a tablecloth and other “house things”, my wife asked if I wanted to check out some shirts. “No, I have 3 FabIndia shirts in the washing pile”, I countered. “I like them but maintenance is too hard, so not buying”.

The issue with FabIndia shirts isĀ  that they leech colour, so you cannot put them in the washing machine (especially not with other clothes). Sometimes you might get lucky to get a quorum of indigos (and maybe jeans) to put in the machine at a time, but if you want to wear your FabIndia clothes regularly you have no option but to wash them by hand. Or have them someone wash them for you.

That gave rise to the thought that FabIndia shirts can possibly send out a strong signal that you are well to do, since you have domestic help – since these shirts need to be hand washed and then pressed before wearing (the logistics of giving clothes for pressing near my house aren’t efficient, and if I’ve to do it consistently, I need help with that. I end up wearing Tshirts that don’t need much ironing instead).

On the other hand, the black T-shirts (I have several in various styles, with and without my company logo) I wear usually are very low maintenance. Plonk them into the washing machine with everything else. No need of any ironing. I don’t need no help to wear such clothes.

And then I started thinking back to the day when I would wear formal shirts regularly. Those can go into the washing machine (though you are careful on what you put in with them), but the problem is that they need proper ironing. You either spend 20 minutes per shirt, or figure out dynamics of giving them out for ironing regularly (if you’re lucky enough to have an iron guy close to your house) – which involves transaction costs. So again wearing well cleaned and ironed formals sends out a signal that you are well to do.

I think it was Rob Henderson again (not sure) who once wrote that the “casualisation” of office dress codes has done a disservice to people from lower class backgrounds. The argument here is that when there is a clear dress code (suits, say), everyone knows what to wear, and while you can still signal with labels and cufflinks and the cut of your suit, it is hard to go wrong.

In the absence of formal dress codes, however, people from lower class are at a loss on what to wear (since they don’t know what the inherent signals of different clothes are), and the class and status markers might be more stark.

My counterargument is that the effort to maintain the sort of clothes most dress codes demand is significant, and imposing such codes puts an unnecessary burden on those who are unable to afford the time or money for it. The lack of a dress code might make things ambiguous, but in most places, the Nash equilibrium is most people wearing easy-to-maintain clothes (relative to the image they want to portray), and less time and money going in conformity.

As it happened, I didn’t buy anything at FabIndia that day. I came home and looked in the washing bin, and found a quorum of indigo shirts (and threw in my 3-month old jeans) to fill the washing machine. My wife requested our domestic helper to hand-wash the brown FabIndia shirts. While watching the T20 world cup, I ironed the lot. I’m wearing one of them today, as I write this.

They look nice (though some might think they’re funny – that’s an anti-signal I’m sending out). They’re comfortable. But they require too much maintenance. Tomorrow I’m likely to be in a plain black t-shirt again.

The Necktie Index

I’m currently reading Roger Lowenstein’s When Genius Failed – about the rise and fall of the hedge fund LTCM. So when LTCM was in trouble, the employees there came up with a measure called the “necktie index”. I’m not able to find a good link to it, and unfortunately physical books don’t offer an efficient “Ctrl+F” option so I’ll have to paraphrase and put it here.

The necktie index states that the more senior officers of the company wear neckties, and the more the meetings they attend, the more trouble the company is in.

I think this concept is generally true, and applicable more widely and to all companies. The more the number of employees wear neckties (compared to normal business days), the more the trouble the company is in. The indexing to “normal business days” is important because different companies have different normal dress codes, so normalization is required.

On a related note, I read somewhere that sometime in the beginning of this decade, when most other investment banks had a business casual dress policy, Lehman Brothers insisted that all its employees wear suits and ties to office. And you know what happened to the firm.

Now UBS has released a 43 page dress code, insisting its employees wear ties, among other things. It probably gives you an indication of where the company is headed.

On a less related note, I used to work for a startup hedge fund whose first office was a room inside the office of a fairly large BPO/KPO company in Gurgaon. And every week, “inspirational quotes” from the founders of the BPO/KPO would go up on the walls, along with their photos. And this was fairly well correlated with the decline of the stock price of that company.