Being Laid Off Part VI: Dress for Success

I recently got on a mailing list where people are discussing the pros and cons of a corporate dress code. The discussion was prompted by this article. Here is a summary of the discussion:

Pros

  • By dressing up, you show respect for your customers
  • If your appearance is sloppy and careless, people will think your work is, too

Cons

  • You should not judge a book by its cover (or a person by his/her clothing)
  • Being a good employee has almost nothing to do with what you wear
  • In today's economic environment, businesses have bigger problems than how their employees are dressing
  • If you are not dealing with customers, it shouldn't matter how you dress
  • Anecdotes about people who got/kept jobs despite an unusual manner of dress

I must admit I started out my career on the “con” side but am now on the “pro” side. I’ve come to feel more professional if I change into business casual clothing. This is especially true now that I don’t have an office to go to. And I’ve come to believe that a uniform dress code is desirable precisely because it eliminates many of the “con” arguments. It reduces judgments based on appearance, focuses attention on accomplishments, and eliminates any concerns about how employees are dressed, because everybody dresses similarly! Much of my thinking on this topic has been influenced by this book. It certainly has some outdated ideas, but many thought-provoking gems.

The flimsiest argument I have heard against professional dress is that it should only be for “customer-facing” roles.  Every job in a company serves a customer, whether that customer happens to be inside the company or outside. If you don’t know who your customer is, or if you almost never have visual contact with your customer, your job is probably at risk.

As far as dressing for interviews is concerned, I am the first to agree that people have the right to dress as they please, and really should not judge each other by their clothes. However, it is foolish simply to assume that you will not be so judged. I have a pet theory that human beings are genetically predisposed to pass judgments based on first impressions. (If my ancient ancestor had said, “I will really get to know this large, snarling, sharped-toothed creature before jumping to the conclusion that it’s dangerous,” then I would probably not be here today.)

In our modern business lives, snap judgments about the quality of an employee may frequently be wrong, but they still exist. In particular, when you are job-hunting, or even generally networking, you’re trying to make as many great first impressions as you possibly can. It seems only logical that looking your best will improve (and certainly never hurt) your chances of making one. By including professional clothing with professional behavior, you simply make yourself more pleasant to have around. You may protest that you don’t want to work for (or network with) some one who judges you based on your clothes. However, in order to meet your future boss, you may still need such people’s help.

Even if your future boss shares your ideals about snap judgments, he or she may need the help of people who make snap judgments in order to grow the business. Thus, by conforming to a professional dress code, you show consideration of the hiring manager’s needs as well. By insisting on non-conformance, you place the focus on your desire for self-expression and willingness to distract from the work at hand.

In the hiring process, great emphasis is placed on whether the prospective employee is a good “fit” for the job. A manner of dress that stands out like a sore thumb will naturally diminish the perception of “fit”. It is precisely because you want to be recognized for your actions and accomplishments that you should dress in a manner that conforms to the workplace. Uniformity of dress promotes uniform (egalitarian) treatment.

Finally, as a practical matter, wearing a suit and a tie to an interview is a safe bet. If you find the environment more casual, it’s easy enough to take off your coat, remove your tie, and roll up your sleeves. What will you do if you show up in jeans and a t-shirt and find yourself underdressed? It comes down to the old adage, “Hope for the best, but plan for the worst.”

Tags: Business, Philosophy

Updated at: 24 January 2009 2:01 PM

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