How to Dress Appropriately for Work

by Vault Careers | October 17, 2011

We’ve all heard the saying, “Don’t ever judge a book by its cover,” but in the job search and in the professional world, that adage doesn’t apply.  First impressions matter and the way people dress says a lot about them, from how much they respect their job to how much they respect themselves and even how far they are going to succeed.  The saying people should pay more attention to is, “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.”  What does it mean?  Your appearance should speak volumes about where you want to go in life and not how content you are in your current position.

I know this personally.  Back when I was a journalist for a community paper, I showed up for my interview in a suit and a tie, trying to impress the interviewer in hopes of landing my first real job outside of college.  I got the job and showed up to work during my first week, all business right down to the tie.  When I showed up at my old job to pick up my last paycheck, my former co-workers laughed at me for how buttoned-up I had become.  But when you spend your high school and college career working in a retail shop or fast-food style eatery, you never realize how soon your wardrobe will change once you enter the real world.  I took the ribbing in stride, but over time, I sat in my office noticing that no one around me dressed as I did.  They wore regular clothes – jeans and a t-shirt or a sweater/sweatshirt, depending on the season.  Some were totally unkempt in their appearance, sticking true to the stereotypical journalist right down to the backward baseball cap.  I remember the Bronx Borough President at the time came to a meeting with a dress shirt and no tie, because he wanted to fit in with the journalists.  But then I noticed something – I rarely worked out of the office and dressing stuffy while writing 10 articles a week was counter-intuitive.  I needed to be comfortable and slowly, I devolved, dressing less professional with each passing day, until during one summer heat wave, I went to lunch with my photographer and left my dress shirt in the office.  And then the call came in.  The reporter who was supposed to cover a bank opening had car trouble and couldn’t get there in time – we had to go.  There I was at a major bank dressed in a shirt with cut-off sleeves that might have been impressive at the gym, but made me stand out in a sea of suits.  My photographer was not dressed much better, but I couldn’t read his mind.  I just knew I was embarrassed.  And I realized that acting professionally was not enough if I didn’t look the part. 

I found that I felt much more professional in a suit.  I stood just a little taller, I felt a little more important, and I acted even more professionally than I thought I did in my gym attire.  Dressing for success is not just a cliché – it actually has meaning.  Dressing professionally in itself is a message to your superiors.  It tells them that you take your job seriously.  It says that you understand that every day you go out and represent your company, you are truly representing them in the best way possible.  In the real world, people do judge a book by its cover and no matter how smart you might come off in a meeting or an interview, if you dress unprofessionally, that is what clients, colleagues and hiring managers will remember most.  So, what are some things to take into consideration? 

Obey the dress-code.  This one is easy.  If your company has a specific dress code, even if you see others ignoring it, it just makes sense to follow the rules.  If you can’t follow a simple set of guidelines when it comes to work attire, then you are already showing your supervisors that you don’t respect the rules of the office.  You are painting yourself in a negative light.  Those that can’t obey the rules, don’t get considered for a raise or a promotion. 

Look around you.  How are others dressing in the office?  Where are they in their careers?  Your colleague Bob wears outdated Timberland boots, jeans and a Metallica t-shirt he can barely fit into.  He’s not going anywhere.  In fact, he’s being pushed out of his job.  Maybe you shouldn’t use Bob as an example.  But Michael and Tina are dressed very professionally.  Michael might be overdoing it a little with that vest, but he’s got a good, consistent look about him, and he is treated with respect, because he has demonstrated that he cares about his appearance and his job.  Tina does not dress flashy.  She keeps things simple – a button down shirt, a jacket and a pencil skirt.  She isn’t flashing her assets to the world and she walks around the office, carrying herself in the professional manner that would be expected of her.  These are the people who are advancing in their careers and therefore should serve as an example for how to dress. 

Perception is reality.   If you want to be perceived as a worker on the rise, looking to advance in his career, then dress the part.  Dress to impress is another clichéd term that is actually true.  People take notice when they see a well-dressed man or woman.  If you want to stand out for all the right reasons, step up your game and show them you mean business with some style.  This is where the environment really matters, because if you are the only one in the office dressed in a suit, the perception of you might be very negative. 

Fashions change.  It’s now acceptable to wear dark jeans with a button-down.  Even a funky tie, if paired properly with a nice shirt and a sweater can be pulled off.  In the end, the shirt should be crisp, the shoes should be shined and the clothes should never be wrinkled.  Look neat, because it doesn’t matter how well you dress if your hair is unruly, your beard is all over the place and you didn’t shower for a week.  In the end, you just need to experiment with what feels right and pay attention to the reactions you receive. 

--Jon Minners, Vault.com

Filed Under: Interviewing | Job Search | Workplace Issues


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