Dressing for Success

By Paula Santonocito

Successful woman Dressing for SuccessWhether you’re pounding the pavement as a job seeker or a longtime employee of the same firm, deciding what to wear can be confusing. But make no mistake: Even in today’s casual workplace, the way you dress affects how successful you can be.

So how much does attire matter? When it comes to hiring, the answer is a lot. In fact, how someone is dressed is the third most important attribute in getting a job, according to a recent poll of executive recruiters. Only communication and presentation skills matter more than dress, recruiters say.

Project the Right Image

As you might expect, image carries more weight for external-contact positions, such as those in sales and marketing, human resources, finance and accounting. But most recruiters say it also matters in back-office functions like production/operations, engineering and information technology.

The image a person projects can and does impact career success, says image consultant Carolyn Gustafson, owner of Image Strategy for Men & Women, a firm based in North Carolina and New York. Appearance heavily influences hiring decisions, she says, and even the little things matter.

For example, one of Gustafson’s client had interviewed two women with identical experience and skills for a position in banking. Because the first woman had chipped nail polish, she was immediately disqualified. The lack of attention to detail was a concern, Gustafson says.

This isn’t an isolated instance. Gustafson shares another example: A college’s career planning and placement center surveying 150 employers found the number one reason for rejecting an applicant after the first interview was poor personal appearance. So the moral of the story is: Make sure your clothes reflect a professional image, because you can be sure you’ll be judged on it.

Think Ahead

Think once you’ve got the job it’s okay to let your standards slide? Not if you want that promotion. “The decision on whether or not to promote a senior manager to full partner depends almost entirely on the professionalism of the candidate’s appearance and demeanor,” according to John Trinta, who heads the partner development and selection committee for global consultancy Deloitte & Touche.

Gustafson advises clients to think of image as a strategic tool, a resource they can use to get ahead in their careers.

Err on Side of Formality

pic1So how do you decode today’s dress codes? Professional business attire, business casual and casual are terms that regularly appear in job ads and at employer career sites.

Diana Pemberton-Sikes, owner and creator of Fashion For Real Women, a popular online image resource, offers clarification for the confused job seeker.

“Professional business” attire is formal business attire: a suit, jacket, or clothing with structured lines, like a coat dress. “Business casual” means less formal business attire that still evokes authority, like shirts with collars, knee-length skirts and closed-toe shoes. Casual, according to Pemberton-Sikes, is the same as business casual.

Once hired, it may be acceptable to relax these standards to fit your workplace. “If the office tends to dress less formally, then dress less formally to match your co-workers,” Pemberton-Sikes says. “But don’t abandon all propriety—like wild prints, low-cut necklines, or crazy hairdos—or you’ll undermine your credibility.”

Additional tips from Diana Pemberton-Sikes are available at the Fashion for Real Women website, http://www.fashionforrealwomen.com/. Carolyn Gustafson offers private consultations, seminars, and presentations; for more information, visit Image Strategy’s website http://www.imagestrategy.com/.


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