Do you find yourself shaking your head disapprovingly at a colleague’s sloppy attire? Or perhaps admiring a sharply-dressed fellow leader?
Most people make certain (sometimes subconscious) judgments about others based on the way they dress. Author Darlene Price puts it well: “In the big picture of ultimate reality, what you wear neither defines who you are as a person nor determines your value as a human being. However, in the temporal realm of mere mortals, fair or not, people judge us by the way we look and that includes the way we dress.” And Matthew Randall, the executive Director of the Center for Professional Excellence at York College of Pennsylvania asserts, “How an individual dresses for work can be a powerful extension of his personal brand. Clothes, accessories and even the footwear an employee chooses to wear help to reinforce or diminish his skills and qualities in the eyes of his employer, co-workers and clients.”
So, my message this week focuses on becoming more aware of what our attire and appearance says about us, and how we can provide helpful feedback to our team members on this issue — without crossing the line.
On the one hand, we want to steer clear of strict dress codes and encourage everyone to be their own unique selves; on the other hand, we don’t want anyone’s clothing choices to hinder their professional image and success.
What visual impression do you make on colleagues and external stakeholders?
Here are common perceptions (some may say misperceptions) around workplace appearance. While some of these may be quite unfounded, they still shape people’s views about each other.
- Not a good fit.Ill-fitting garments send all the wrong signals. Clothing which is too tight suggests a tendency to be unrealistic, while oversized choices suggest under-confidence and a desire to remain unseen. On the other hand, if you wear well-fitting clothes, you come across as confident, flexible, and pragmatic.
- Much too casual.One may believe in comfort over appearance—but it’s wise not to take that motto too far. Overly casual outfits make people think you are in cruise mode, lacking ambition and seriousness. Dressing with a minimum level of formalness, meanwhile, signals a strong commitment to work and a desire to grow.
- The “who cares?” look.Be it a stained shirt, muddy shoes or uncombed hair, being a slob communicates that you don’t care about your appearance—or your work! Yes, this is a big assumption to make: after all, a person might want their achievements to speak for themselves, regardless of what they wear. But sloppiness invariably creates the impression that you don’t make enough of an effort in office, while being well-groomed implies that you care about representing your workplace in the best possible way.
- Repeat mode.Are all your work shirts the exact same shade of light blue? All your socks black and your ties/scarves grey? You may be following Mark Zuckerberg’s rule of eliminating nonessential decisions, but getting stuck in a clothing rut can make people think you’re also stuck in a work rut. This is especially relevant for those in creative positions. Change things up occasionally with a new colour or a stylish accessory, and give your colleagues a visual confirmation of your ability to innovate and embrace change.
All in all, careful grooming tells your colleagues, clients and customers that they are worth making an effort for. But dressing in a certain way isn’t just about impacting other people’s perceptions—it also shapes your own behaviour. When you are thoughtful of how you dress, your confidence and self-assurance levels receive an instant boost. Wearing formal clothes can make you a stronger negotiator and enhance your abstract thinking skills. Risking a quirky accessory can actually make you feel more creative, while dressing according to the norm may make you more adept in social situations.
Now, if a member of your team has an “attire issue”, how should you go about giving them feedback? Let’s begin by acknowledging that this is a tricky area: what people choose to wear is a personal decision, so we need to be careful when it comes to offering our opinions. Plus, appearance generally falls in a weird unspoken zone at the workplace—it’s not something that’s often and openly discussed.
Our philosophy at Godrej is about celebrating diversity and authenticity—and that applies to appearance as well. It’s the reason why we don’t have a stated dress code. But if you see that a team member’s appearance is actively working against them, should you do something about it? You probably should. Here are some suggestions to help you along:
1. Question your motivation
Before you set out to deliver advice, as well-meaning as it may be, examine your own assumptions. Is your team member actually facing obstacles at work because of their clothing, or do you simply have a personal dislike for the way they dress? Maybe you believe that button-down shirts go best with a tie—but is the lack of a tie hindering the person’s ability to be taken seriously?
In her Harvard Business Review article, How to Give an Employee Feedback About Their Appearance, Amy Gallo recommends looking for tangible evidence about the impact of the person’s appearance:
Does it violate any explicit company dress code? Has it ever distracted people from focusing on the content the employee is delivering? Have you gotten negative feedback from important stakeholders, such as clients or senior management?
Feedback is warranted only if you find concrete instances such as the above. Without these, your unsolicited advice may be viewed as interference in a personal domain.
2. Get comfortable with discomfort
Yes, the conversation might be awkward—and managers need to be okay with that. Remember, this isn’t about you, it’s about the well-being of your team member. With such a sensitive topic, they may feel self-conscious, hurt or defensive when you bring up the matter, so be sure to focus on their feelings rather than your own. Surprisingly, though, many people actually welcome constructive feedback about their appearance because it is so rarely given or because they have never really thought about this issue. Which means you need to be equipped for both scenarios—pushback, as well as a desire for more advice.
3. Look before you leap
Feedback about appearance is one of those “difficult conversations” in the corporate context. This is a not a situation where playing it by ear works well; rather, you should prepare what you want to say and how you want to say it. Steer clear of moral judgements and focus on the professional implications, i.e., how the person’s clothing choices are affecting their image and relationship with colleagues and/ or external stakeholders. Joseph Grenny, co-author of Crucial Conversations, suggests:
Focus on your intention and communicate that you want them to be as successful as possible. Don’t make this about right and wrong, good and bad, decent and indecent.
You could also try running through the conversation with an empathetic colleague to make sure you don’t come across as discriminatory or interfering.
4. Be specific
Don’t beat around the bush and make the issue bigger than it is—instead, come straight to the point and tell your team member that you want their appearance to be aligned with their great work. Avoid vague statements such as “your shoes aren’t appropriate” and offer concrete advice without getting personal; for instance, you might say, “closed shoes are generally better than flip-flops, because they are seen as more professional”. Try and make it as tangible as possible.
5. Listen to the other side
Make sure to have an open two-way conversation as there may be reasons behind a recent slide in workplace dressing. Perhaps your team member is facing problems at home, or struggling with a health concern. Work together to come up with solutions.
Be helpful and sensitive when you broach the tricky topic of workplace attire. The idea is not to pull up the other person or shame them into dressing differently; rather, it is to communicate clearly how their clothing choices are affecting their work, offer a few specific suggestions, and leave the rest up to them. Remember that strict conformity is definitely not the goal. In fact, within the broader framework of being presentable, we really should get comfortable with different types of outfits and try to dispense with arbitrary assumptions.
As always, I look forward to your thoughts.