Look sharp

However you dress it up, first impressions count. That mid-calf skirt and navy blazer tell us more about you and your attitude than you might realise. But why is it so vital that you put a little thought into what you wear for work?

Two managers are walking together to a meeting. One is wearing a well-cut, dark suit and crisp shirt, highly polished shoes and carries an Italian leather briefcase. The other, slouching slightly, wears a polyester blazer that has seen better days, non-matching trousers (with gravy stain) and a crocheted tie. Which is the more senior?

Regardless of how much we consider ourselves objective, fair-minded and above the shallow practice of judging people by how they appear, we all do it. Psychologists term it the primacy effect – first impressions count.

The way we present ourselves as a package – not just clothes, but deportment, grooming, speech – speaks volumes about who we are and what we’re capable of. Whether we, or even our bosses, are conscious of it or not, these factors have a bearing on how far and how fast we progress up the corporate ladder.

The consensus among the experts is that, ironically, HR professionals are often the last to realise the importance of image in the workplace. The result is not just that individual career prospects suffer – the perception of the HR function within an organisation and the level of influence it wields can also be diminished.

Once we’ve accepted that our personal image at work is important, the good news is that a little awareness goes a long way. There are numerous image consultants offering insight and advice to the sartorially baffled. It’s not about spending £400 a time on Armani ties or spending an extra hour in the morning blow-drying hair and applying make-up. It’s about adopting an analytical approach – what does our image express about us, and how can we use that to our advantage?

Honest self-critique

Although consultants vary their emphasis and approach, there are recurring rules. It’s not as simple as wearing a suit and cutting your fingernails. The beginning, experts concur, is an honest self-critique and commitment to some basic principles. But is the news all bad – is personnel really populated with ill-fitting suits and unfortunate haircuts?

“Clothes aren’t as important to HR people because they’re not going for the top job,” says Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at the University of Manchester’s Institute of Science and Technology.

“How many CEOs come through the HR function? Very few. HR people tend to be the industrial social workers and are less motivated to get to the top of the organisation than to the top of the HR tree. Marketing, finance and accounting produces managers who are far more likely to want to look the part and play the part.”

Lesley Everett, of London-based LE Consultants, says the mistake HR people make most often is not dressing to reflect the company’s brand. “There needs to be consistency. It’s as important for HR to represent the culture of the company as it is for client-facing staff in sales or marketing. If HR isn’t seen to be embodying that culture it doesn’t just create an inconsistency in terms of the way the company’s viewed externally – it can lessen the influence they have in the company.”

Everett provides consultancy across a variety of sectors including IT, finance, travel and pharmaceuticals. She’s noticed a tendency for personnel to err on the side of the conservative – to dress in a more staid, old-fashioned way than peers of other disciplines.

“Unfortunately, everybody’s in the image business, whether we like it or not. Research proves time and again that people judge us on the image we present. If that is outdated and stuffy, they assume our thought processes are too.”

Laurel Herman, of image consultants Positive Presence, agrees that HR is behind the eight ball on presentation. “I often find that when I’m talking to someone in HR, they haven’t an understanding of the type of quality image I’m talking about. Management development people relate to this, but HR people don’t seem to. They stress the importance of presentation in interviews, but don’t seem to realise its relevance and importance in all other facets of working life.”

Mary Spillane is something of a transatlantic image guru, on the verge of publishing her eighth book on the subject, Branding Yourself. From a senior management background herself, she runs the London-based consultancy Image Works. “They really do not do themselves justice,” she says of personnel professionals. “The HR function is too often undervalued within organisations, which has a lot to do with the way the team presents itself. They aren’t as smart, slick or professional as other divisions. To have more power at board level as well as within the organisation generally, they have to think about image and make more of an effort.”

What can be done?

The experts clearly agree that HR is getting it wrong – but what exactly are these pitfalls, and what can be done to present a more potent image?

Common mistakes and good practice vary for men and women, but both genders need to sharpen up their acts. The issue is probably more critical for women in a professional environment, not only because there is more choice available, but because they have traditionally had to battle to be taken seriously at management level.

Image experts note a strong tendency for British women to eschew elements of grooming – like make-up and accessories – because they don’t want to risk being seen as frivolous and not taken seriously. Actually, the reverse applies: a lack of attention to detail undermines the entire look and can make them appear schoolmarm-ish and dowdy. Surveys show that professional women who wear make-up earn on average, 20 per cent more than those who don’t.

Spillane says, “Many women in Britain think that putting an M&S brass-buttoned blazer with a floral skirt and white blouse is professional. It isn’t.” Blazers make all women matronly and flowers do not belong in a business environment, she says. She also laments a lack of make-up. “It’s a fallacy that it takes a long time in the morning. If hair and make-up take more than 10 minutes, you’re doing something wrong.”

Safe or inappropriate

Male mistakes tend to be either plumping for the safe and traditional (dark suit, white shirt, forgettable tie) or going too far the other way and dressing in a younger, trendier way than is appropriate.

Accessories for both sexes should be sensible and functional. Women need a bag that looks like a briefcase “not a catch-all with a change of shoes in it”, and men should watch that they don’t overdo the “boy toys” such as personal organisers and mobile phones. Interestingly, Spillane says women need more electronic props – they’re being left behind on technological accessories by the men.

The look should always be modern, well organised and smart. Spillane advocates spending a little more to buy good quality – a Karen Millen suit rather than Top Shop, or Gieves & Hawkes over cut-price bargain shirts. All elements of the wardrobe should be updated together to avoid odd-looking inconsistencies.

“You have to know and understand the corporate brand values, and make sure you project those – not just act it but look it and sound it.

“Then there are additional, personal brand values. We might want people to see us as intelligent or sociable or progressive. And these judgements are made in only a few minutes.”

Spillane’s mantra is that people should dress not for their current job, but the one they want next.

Herman’s workshops address what she calls the “casual confusion” – the difficulty of dealing with the current trend towards a “smart-casual” code without compromising a professional image.

The concept is an enigma to the British in particular and only works really well in US workplaces where a de facto uniform of smart shirts and chinos is the norm, she says. She defines smart-casual as not in a suit, “but still with authority and credibility because the grooming, accessories and co-ordination are perfect”.

Presenting a successful image is a top-to-toe business, according to Herman. Clothes must be high-quality, well pressed and cleaned, hair and nails well cared for, shoes polished. For people wary of the expense of good quality clothes, Herman’s response is that it shows the outside world that you believe you’re worth investing in. And a few classic pieces are more economical than a wardrobe full of the latest look that will date, she says.

“A gimmicky, high fashion look should be avoided. It doesn’t belong in the serious workplace, and says you’re very easily influenced by passing fads and whims.” Women should never wear skimpy clothes and “frumpy” factors – like a mid-calf length skirt – should be avoided.


Herman also tutors in a more international image awareness – factors like good tailoring, fit and accessorising are second nature in Europe, but woefully lacking in the British, who traditionally view an interest in such things as vanity. With increasing cross-ownership and diversification into Europe and vice versa, UK employees need urgently to catch up, she says.

Everett’s code involves reading the situation and adapting personal presentation accordingly. Her approach entails considering first the environment, then the audience, then the objectives. The appropriate look and manner when leading a team of recruits through training exercises will not be the same as that required when presenting budgets to the board.

High-level power can always be assisted with a dark suit she says (pastels are not the right look to make an impact) but it can be overdone also. Too many men opt for the black suit and white shirt because it’s a safe option – but they’re doing themselves a disservice by looking boring. Varying the look with a coloured shirt or unusual tie shows a willingness to innovate and think outside the square.

Everett emphasises the appropriateness of the environment – what works in a creative new media agency is not the look for an investment bank in the City. Reading the rules means not only dressing in the right way, but cuts across all levels of workplace behaviour – language, posture, etiquette.

The advocates of image haven’t entirely convinced Prof Cooper. Although he agrees image can affect the way people are perceived professionally, he describes it as a negative factor – that is, it is noticed when someone is out of place or dressed in a way that contravenes the rules of the industry or the company. “I don’t think it’s that important – though there are very strong codes of dress, for example in the City, and breaking those codes signifies that someone either doesn’t realise, or is a maverick and won’t necessarily kowtow to authority,” he says.

Everett agrees that breaking rules sends strong signals – if deliberate and handled with aplomb, this can be beneficial. It indicates someone strong of will and mind, not afraid to invent and innovate. “Paying attention to image – not just clothes, but the entire presentation – can really change the way someone functions and reacts in their working environment. It boosts esteem and confidence massively. In many cases, achievements that seem a million miles away become very reachable goals.”

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