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On the public service – “Pink hair, and in the stuffy public service no less?”

By Apartment613 on March 20, 2012

Photo by J. B. Hildebrand,

Post by Nick Charney

Recognising that “Government Town” might be one of the adjectives that come to mind when thinking about Ottawa, we recruited public-servant-blogger-renaissance-man Nick Charney for an occasional series on the culture of the public service. He will be highlighting the interesting personalities running our national government and the cool stuff they get up to in the nation’s capital. You can read more from Nick on his blog CPSRenewal.

I was chilling at the Bridgehead in Hintonburg, making some final notes in preparation for my impending conversation on the confluence of fashion and the public service, when an interesting juxtaposition floated to the surface: one of the trendiest parts of town is directly connected to one of the city’s largest hubs of government activity.

Does the proximity between Tunney’s Pasture and Hintonburg mean that bureaucrats wander out of their cubicles in search of food at lunch time? Does taking in Hintonburg on a daily basis effect them any meaningful way?

But before I could finish my thought, Jes walked into the coffee shop.

There is usually some apprehension when meeting someone for the first time, you know, that awkward approach when you innocently ask, “Excuse me are you… ?” Luckily Jes is a little different than most, she’s easy to spot at a distance, even among a crowd. “Just look for the girl with the pink hair,” she told me when I first set up the interview.

Pink hair, and in the stuffy public service no less?

Apparently she’s been rocking it for a year now without any major incident. “Sure, some people have asked me flat out, ‘What’s the deal with your hair?’ But the majority of people are pretty open to it. Just because I work in government doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be able to express myself,” she said, though to be honest, I know a couple of directors who might take issue with her on that one.

Jes points to her bubbly personality and her work ethic as key reasons why the machine hasn’t turned her pink hair to cubicle grey. “If I was a slacker I wouldn’t get away with it, I wouldn’t have the freedom I have now”. Just as Jes finished her sentence, a young girl came up to her to tell her how cool her hair was. “It happens more than you’d think,” Jes said smiling.

Before we got too deep into our conversation, I had a confession I had to make – I know nothing about fashion. It was a confession Jes took in stride. “You don’t need to know much about fashion in order to take care of your appearance.” Then she baited me a little, “Passionate people just tend to take better care of their appearance, you can see it,” she said.

Given that many people tend to characterize me as passionate about my work, I took the bait. I removed my jacket, stood up and asked Jes to measure my passion based on my appearance. She happily obliged, gave me a quick up and down, and rendered her verdict, “If you really cared about your job, you wouldn’t be wearing jeans.”

Not what I was expecting, but was she right? I have been in a bit of a funk lately. I used to wear dress pants to work all the time… “You have to dress for the job you want, not the one you have,” she continued. Looking back her advice was sound, if not eerily familiar advice given by Wayne Gretzky about hockey. But to be honest, I’m not sure how many public servants actually think like that, let alone allow that thinking to dominate their wardrobe choices.

So how many public servants are truly passionate about their jobs?

“I’d say about thirty to forty percent of public servants like their jobs, but maybe ten percent are truly passionate about what they do. The cliché is fairly true; many are simply here for the pay and benefits. To a certain extent I am guilty of this too; the stability allows me the freedom to spend my off hours working on my company. I know a lot of creative people who started out the same way and eventually left the public service because it drove them nuts. Actually, one of the things we never really talk about is how much peer pressure there is to stay in this sector once you land a job in it. Everyone talks so much about the stability; it’s as if nothing else matters. Even my own mother tells me not to quit because of it,” she said.

But given the depth and breadth of the expected cuts I asked Jes whether or not she thought that stability would continue to be a key attractor for people looking for work, and she conceded that she feels (as I do) as though the stability – once the hallmark of public sector employment – was in fact slowly eroding. But even that doesn’t stop people keeping a low profile, “Standing out, for any reason, is usually frowned upon in the public service. Much like the tremendous amount of societal pressure to keep your government job, there are equals amounts of pressure to dress the same as everyone else and to speak the same as everyone else. If I had to describe the culture, I’d say it’s one of blending in. But blending in can be dangerous, it’s insular, it leads to tunnel-vision; and it also leads to a lot poor style decisions.”

“You mean like the people who wear Harley Davidson T-shirts and chaps to work on a daily basis?” I asked (and yes, for the record I’ve run into a couple in my time in government).

“You have to dress for success, or at least make the effort. If you don’t, it makes people wonder what else you don’t put effort into, and that is never a good thing. It’s all well and good to argue that someone’s work should speak for itself, we want to believe that, but the harsh reality is that appearances often do matter. Besides, if you were called into a meeting that was above your pay grade wouldn’t you want to at least look the part?”

This is an issue that I know all too well, having been unexpectedly sent to a certain central agency to sit in for senior manager very early in my career. I recall it was a Friday afternoon, and luckily, for some reason, I was sporting dress pants, a shirt and a tie. In retrospect, I can honestly say that looking the part definitely took some of the edge off, because quite frankly I was completed outgunned.

“I honestly think people just need to start paying more attention, in the office to what they do, and in the morning to what they wear. When you start to pay attention to things like texture, weight, colour and how things come together to form a cohesive whole, everything becomes vastly more interesting. I think the majority of public servants feel like they lack control. Not only are they told on a daily basis what to do but they are often told how to do it, taking control over something as simple as your appearance may have positive spillover effects into other areas.”

“Can style really do that?” I asked.

“Style is simply identifying trends, ensuring coherence and maintaining relevance. Aren’t these abilities ones we want to cultivate in public servants more generally? Again, I think it comes down to making decisions actively as opposed to passively accepting them. Public servants seem to default to passive acceptance, when what they should be doing is taking active control.”

Having just launched her new business venture, Jes is definitely practising what she preaches. In fact, the experience has taken her a little bit outside her comfort zone, but she’s loving every minute of it. “There has been a tremendous amount of partnering interest since launching, it’s very exciting, but I’m also finding out that I’m not a great salesperson. I’m too politely Canadian to be pushy about it; and everyone expects everything on the web to be free. But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to continue to experiment, with my business and with style more generally. I think we need more experimenters in the public service. If you can’t do it at your desk yet, do it on the way to it. Start with a style risk, what’s the worst case scenario? You don’t wear the outfit again. Who knows, it might lead to greater risk taking elsewhere in the office. Finally, I truly believe that how you present yourself is intimately tied to self-esteem, sometimes we just need to be reminded to invest in ourselves, the workplace isn’t always the best at that.”

It’s really not; and that might be the key takeaway from my conversation with Jes. The system doesn’t encourage us to try something new, often that has to come from within. But new doesn’t have to be grandiose. It can be as small as switching back to my dress pants in the morning, or holding your head up high because you look the part when you walk into your next meeting.

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