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Professional presence at work: appropriate clothes, first impressions and more

Executive Coach Liz Bentley gives career advice on what to wear in the office. Learn how to look professional whether in a business or casual job environment.
Sergey Nivens / Shutterstock

I was recently working on a project with a group of top real estate brokers in the country. In one of our discussions, a very successful broker who’s selling over $150 million in residential real estate a year commented on how he gives the guys on this team a clothing allowance and gently directs their clothing taste. He has a team of 3 junior sales brokers who range in age from their late 20’s to their early 40’s. He believes that the way they look represents his brand and is part of the reason they have such success. Additionally, he said, looking good feels good and reflects positive energy.

While I found this interesting, I certainly did not find it surprising. As the competition in the workplace rises, standing out and looking like you know what you’re doing is more critical than ever. Often it starts with a first impression when you walk in the door. Your appearance, grooming and even etiquette are game-changers. It’s not that it’s necessarily going to win you the business or get you the promotion, but it definitely can make you lose both.

In my coaching work, I have noticed that more of my clients are commenting about how their employees, team members and other leaders dress at work. It comes up in people’s 360 feedback reports and also in dialogue with leaders. Often the feeling is that people don’t know how to put themselves together appropriately for the work they are doing. Here are some common complaints I’ve heard about women (and for the record, we hear as many complaints about men):

  • Cheap shoes that look cheap
  • Hair in ponytails that look unkempt and unattractive
  • Beaded, cheap looking necklaces and other misused accessories
  • Dangly earrings being worn in a traditional dress environment
  • Off-the-shoulder shirts, tight jeans and heels (looking like it’s a Friday night)

The people who were dressed in this manner are incredibly talented at their jobs but their look is holding them back. Let’s face it: we all work too hard to have our style derail our career. And let’s be clear: it’s not about your opinion of how you’re doing, it’s how your audience feels. How to look professional breaks down into a few simple categories that relate to your job, industry and title. Here is how I see them:

Fashion Forward or Luxury Market Industries – While you don’t have to be runway perfect, you do have to stay within the lines. You need to know the trends, within reason, and figure out a stylish look that works for you. Anything short of that will be noticed. And the excuse, “I’m not into fashion,” doesn’t work here. I’m not suggesting you break the bank on your wardrobe but you do need to figure out a balance that works.

Managers – When you are a leader, people are looking at you. And the more senior you are, the more it counts. They want to follow your lead and look up to you, so showing up with long earrings that you bought at an art festival, in most work environments, doesn’t work. Save them for the weekend. As a leader, it’s best to look clean and crisp and like someone people want to follow. While poor style choices won’t get you fired, they won’t get you respect either.

Aspiring Employees – People are looking to you to see if you can rise to the next level. By dressing well, you look ready for more responsibility.

Casual Work Environments – Casual doesn’t mean you can wear whatever you want to work. You still have to put same amount of thought into it as you would in a formal work environment and think through every part of your outfit. Casual only means that you don’t have to wear heels every day. You still need to have a good, professional look and it may take some work to get this right.

Formal Work Environments – If you work in a bank, law firm or more traditional environment, look the part. I am not suggesting you be forced into pant suits every day. In fact, switch it up a lot. Have a closet of interesting dresses, blazers, pants and tops. Make it serious but beautiful. Look your best so you can kill it in the board room.

How you dress is not going to make you, but it certainly can break you. You need to take this seriously and the fact is, for many of us, developing good taste takes some practice. To get on the right track, follow this basic guide:

  • Pick a look that works for you. You can make your look work with your personality. This is not about losing creativity or turning you into someone you are not. Find your look and enjoy it. This will also help you get some go-to outfits that work ins various settings.
  • Enlist help – If you are in a senior position, consider working with a stylist to guide you. This can range from a person who comes and works through your closet to a person at department store who knows you and will pull clothes for you.
  • Make it easy – Take pictures of outfits that go together, plan your outfit the night before and organize your closet so you can find what you need.
  • Take it seriously – This is an investment. Put in the time; once you do, it all gets easier. At the beginning of every season, get your wardrobe and look together. And always shower, do your hair and makeup (not an over-do but clean and professional.) Rolling out of bed doesn’t work anywhere, no matter how casual the work environment.

Lastly, I want to reiterate that dressing appropriately is not solely a woman thing. I’ve seen many examples of men’s careers being derailed over the way they dress. While women have long been - and still are - objectified for their looks and appearance, that is a serious but different topic. This is not about looking good for men or trying to attract them. It’s about looking good so that you show that you can handle your position, are ready for the next job, are presentable to clients or the podium and take your career seriously. Looking professional and stylish is a standard that can have serious impacts when people fall short. Competition is tougher than ever and everything counts. Align your dress with the value you bring, and you’ll be all set to rise higher.