In a 2010 national poll conducted by the Center for Professional Excellence at York College of Pennsylvania, “appearance” ranked second only to “communication skills” when respondents named qualities most often associated with professionalism.
A few years back, I was training first and second year teachers during the week before the new school year began. During the break, a veteran of year one came to me with a question. She was a 24-year-old high school teacher and she had trouble, she worried, commanding respect from her students, and maybe her staff. How could she get them to respect her? I asked a few questions to clarify her position, though the answer was so obvious, I couldn’t believe she was asking. This young woman was wearing leggings that sat low on her hips and left her navel exposed. Her shirt was a striped, tight half-top that showed cleavage and bra straps. She was dressed like one of her students – one dressed flirtatiously and inappropriately – one who should have been sent home to change. (I shuddered to think of the absolute mayhem I would have created in the school district if she were teaching my own teenagers – lousy role model for my daughter and titillation for my son. I think her administration had lost their minds to allow her to dress this way on the job.)
Another time, I was facilitating an elementary school “training of trainers.” I was shocked that one of the veteran teachers (and a future trainer) showed up in sweats. (Amazingly, the administrator had the guts and good sense to send him home to change.)
This past summer, I spent a day with a medical resident who was working under a prestigious retina specialist at Michigan State University. After hours of testing with the intern, I remember her only for her “accessories”: stylish, yet torn, scuffed shoes, and chewing gum. This doctor chewed gum, cracked gum, and even blew bubbles during my entire battery of tests! Thankfully, she was supervised by the specialist, because I would never have trusted her judgment.
Just this morning, a friend texted me her dismay as she sat in an auditorium watching fellow educators file in for the opening-day keynote speaker. She saw tank tops, jeans, torn jeans, flip flops, shorts, shoulder-baring shirts, baseball caps, cleavage, athletic clothes, tennis shoes, filthy tennis shoes. She was not only dismayed, but embarrassed. When the superintendent took the stage to welcome educators back, she lost hope for a desperately needed dress code: he wore shorts and a t-shirt.
Come on! Your job is hard enough without shooting yourself in the foot by undermining your own perception of your competence and the public’s perception of your competence, by dressing like a slob or a tart. You can be comfortable and stylish, and you can go inexpensive with a crisp, clean, unfettered and disciplined look that speaks of your professionalism. You can dress in a way that your attire is the only message people remember (with chagrin) or you can dress in a way that takes nothing away from the message of professional value you need to communicate. Dressing up a notch can send others a message about you being successful, competent and confident in what you’re doing, and it sends yourself the same signal. You will garner respect from your clients, patients, or students and they will be more likely to buy what you are selling (product, services, health, education.)
When my kids were toddlers, I chose their clothes for them. When they were preschoolers, I had veto power over what they wore. When they entered school, they had “play clothes” and “school clothes.” They could choose their own clothes, but play clothes didn’t go to school and school clothes didn’t go out to play. (It never even occurred to me to tell them that pajamas didn’t belong in the public forum, but based on what I see today it might be important to add that one to the child-rearing curriculum.) As they grew, there were rules about dressing appropriately for an occasion. They learned as they grew. Since it appears that many parents were sleeping at the switch when they should have been teaching these lessons, I offer up a little specific instruction that everyone should have grasped before entering the workplace. However, better late than never.
Clothing you wear at the beach, to do yard work, to dance clubs, exercise sessions, sports contests, or bed is not appropriate for a professional appearance at work. (Camouflage, by the way, is for hunting.) Clothing that reveals cleavage – any cleavage – (The cleavage test is not a frontal view in the mirror; the cleavage test is bending over in front of the mirror.) your back, your nipples, your feet, your stomach or your underwear is not appropriate for any place of business. Nothing undermines a positive professional perception as leaving nothing to the imagination. Get noticed for your great work and your professionalism, not your boobs. Show a little modesty at work, for crying out loud.
Torn, dirty, or frayed clothing is unacceptable. Comfort doesn’t have to be nasty and this includes shoes. If you have gained a little weight, get some clothes that fit. If somebody notices your tramp stamp, buy a longer shirt.
Clothing that has words, terms, or pictures that may be offensive or controversial like liquor, politics, religion, or sexuality is unacceptable, since your students or your clients are a diverse group and you are there to serve them all. Cover up your cannabis tattoo, for Pete’s sake.
The clothes you wear to work should be pressed. Wrinkle-free on clothing tags, means it is easy to iron, not that it doesn’t need ironing. Please have the good sense not to freaking BRAG that you don’t own an iron. You are a grownup now, and a professional, and you ought to be embarrassed if you don’t own an iron and use it.
Clothes, accessories and even the footwear an employee chooses to wear to work help to reinforce or diminish skills and competence in the eyes of employers, co-workers, clients, students, and students’ parents. If you look like you don’t bother to get haircuts, shave or clean up your shoes, you look like you don’t bother about anything. Period. And the less you bother, the more you will defend not bothering and the more you will undermine your professionalism. You can argue for your limitations, defend them, and create a hundred “reasons” (excuses) for them, but all you get for it is limited.
If you do not consider yourself a “professional,” but are in the workplace, this still applies. Dress for the next job you want. Dress up a notch and you will get noticed and command attention. If you wear a uniform, you can still be well-groomed and pressed. And nobody wants to see your crack or your cleavage, either.
Once you are so renowned in your field that Hollywood makes a movie about you, or you are listed in the Top Ten something, you can afford to be eccentric and dress any way you wish. Until then, get your shit together. You are not Mark Zuckerberg!