www.wellsaid.com August 2014

In the workplace, what does your clothing communicate? As one of my ultra casual clients once retorted, "It's covering for our bodies--what's the big deal?" Our ancient ancestors would agree; they wore animal skins and vegetation solely for protection and comfort.  It didn't take long, however, for early humans to re-purpose these coverings for a range of functions and distinctions--from religion, to gender, to social status. As Mark Twain jests, "Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society." To Twain's point, influence is the key word. Clothing in the workplace is a big deal, because it significantly influences how others perceive you and respond to you.


To optimize your career advancement, please consider the tips below to ensure your clothing communicates professionalism, credibility, and competence. Also, please enjoy my two recent interviews on the topic with Business Insider:  


"How Your Clothing Impacts Your Success"



"What Business Casual Really Means"



Thanks very much for your loyal readership, and best wishes for your continued communication excellence!


Kind regards,


Clothing Communicates:

When Too Casual Is A Career Casualty


By Darlene Price, Well Said, Inc.

"I've really tried to learn the art of clothes,

because you don't sell for what you're worth unless you look


--Lady Bird Johnson 


During my 20+ years of working as an executive communication coach, one of the most frequent career roadblocks I've observed is inappropriate dress in the workplace. Many highly intelligent, well-qualified, capable men and women are often disqualified or dismissed because "they don't sell for what they're worth." They've left the 'business' out of business casual, which often causes senior leaders to perceive them as unprofessional. It's frustrating, because clothing certainly does not indicate one's actual competence and credibility; it does, however, influence others' perception of those qualities--and oftentimes, perception is reality.


When is too casual a career casualty? Consider these three examples from my client files: 

Susan, a savvy social media whiz, applies for the Director of Internet Marketing position in the company where she's worked for five years. She wears to the interview a form-fitting spaghetti-strap top, no jacket, mini-skirt, and strappy high heel sandals. The interviewer does not hire her and tells the Human Resources manager, "Susan's resume is very impressive, but if she doesn't convey professionalism in her own image, I can't trust her with the company's image."  


Mark, an outgoing, well-liked sales rep shows up for his company's regional product training event wearing jeans, an un-tucked golf shirt, and flip-flops. At the first coffee break, the new general manager of the division approaches Mark, introduces himself,  and says, "This is a business meeting--I suggest you go change into business attire."


Pat, a technology genius, is the smartest go-to guy in the company when it comes to encryption and security. A client's system had been hacked; their chief officers and board members call a face-to-face meeting with Pat's senior leaders to learn exactly what went wrong. Pat arrives at the meeting wearing a faded WrestleMania t-shirt, wrinkled cargo pants, dirty sneakers, a baseball cap, and a five o'clock shadow. Despite Pat's reasonable explanation for the data breach, the client CEO sends an email to Pat's senior leaders the next day which reads, "Members of our board and executive management team are concerned that your employees are too casual to be entrusted with our mission-critical data."


Susan, Mark and Pat teach us that the consequences of dressing too casually can result in career casualties, such as missed job opportunities, a negative first impression, the loss of credibility, and jeopardized client relations.


Why does clothing matter? Caroline Dunn and Lucette Charette of the National Research Council of Canada found that people are affected by your appearance whether or not they realize it, and whether or not they think appearance is important. According to their research, your appearance strongly influences other people's perception of your financial success, authority, trustworthiness, intelligence, and suitability for hire or promotion.


What's more, their research found that when you combine your appearance with communication skills, not only is perception affected, but also people's behavior toward you. For example, clothing plus communication skills determine whether or not others will:

--Comply with your request

--Trust you with information

--Give you access to decision makers

--Pay you a certain salary or fee for contracted business

--Hire you

--Purchase your products and services


What's the remedy? The solution is simple. In the workplace, put the 'business' back into business casual. Though dress is a very personal matter, it is also a very public and professional matter on the job. Maintain a professional appearance in the office, at client sites, and any business function. If your company has a dress code, find out what it is and follow it. If not, create your own. Here's a summary of the business casual dress code from ten of the FORTUNE World's Most Admired Companies of 2014:


What is appropriate? Dress pants; pressed khakis, slacks and corduroys; collared or button-down dress shirts; golf shirts; turtlenecks; non-revealing blouses; sweaters and cardigans; jackets, blazers, and sport coats; dresses and skirts with hems no higher than one inch above the knee; dress shoes that cover all or most of the foot.  Exercise good personal hygiene; maintain a neat professional hairstyle; avoid strong perfumes and colognes; and keep accessories simple and conservative.


What is inappropriate? Denim (unless jeans are management approved); leggings; shorts; overalls; cargo pants; exercise clothes; sweatshirts and sweatpants; spandex or other form-fitting material; dressy nightclub attire; crop tops, tank tops, halters, strapless tops and spaghetti straps; visible cleavage; visible tattoos or body piercing; transparent garments; tops or pants that show undergarments; t-shirts with writing or emblems; bare stomachs, backs, or shoulders; sleeveless garments worn without a jacket; clothing that is ripped, torn, cut-off, patched, faded or excessively worn; athletic shoes; hiking boots; casual or Birkenstock-style sandals; flip-flops; toe or nose rings; hats, caps, or head-wraps (unless approved for religious or medical purposes).

In summary, over 2000 years ago, Publilius Syrus wrote, "A fair exterior is a silent recommendation." Though he arrived in Rome as a poor Syrian slave, Publilius Syrus managed to win the respect and praise of the mighty Julius Caesar and become one of the great Latin communicators of antiquity. He used his talent and his 'exterior' to optimize how others' perceived him.

The same strategy is necessary 21 centuries later. Make sure your exterior earns you a "silent recommendation." Avoid an unprofessional image that may mask your mastery or enslave your career to others' misperceptions. Instead, choose clothing that accurately reflects your credibility and ensures you "sell for what you're worth." 

If you would like to learn more about professional dress and appearance plus how to present yourself and your message more effectively, please read my book, Well Said! Presentations and Conversations That Get Results (available in hard cover and Kindle). 


Or contact me directly to schedule a training session for you and your team. I would be honored to support your communication success!

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