Employee POV: I work in a department with 15 other people. I started around the same time with seven of them. Three of them recently got promoted. When my boss announced their promotions, I noticed he stressed how much they “look the part” for their new roles. He commented on their attire and how “client-facing” and “business-minded” it was. Several of us chatted afterwards and agreed they got the promotions because they dress like him. He’s a buttoned-up type of guy. Even though the office policy says we can dress casual, he doesn’t dress like that. I’ve never seen him in a pair of sneakers. I think it’s ridiculous that to get ahead in his department, you need to dress up. Promotions should be based on the quality of your work, not what you wear. Besides, I’m not going to be a kiss-up like those other employees and dress just to please him. Plus, I’m not got to invest in a whole new wardrobe just for this job.

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Manager POV: I recently gave promotions to several employees who have really been standing out in their work. They clearly are career-minded and are looking to go places. What stood out to me was how they were dressing for the job they wanted, instead of the one they had. I have confidence that these three could handle themselves in front of customers and management confidently because they understand how power dressing plays a role in success. I tried to tactfully explain that to the rest of the team when I announced the promotions. Let’s hope some of them got the message. I swear they all look like they just rolled out of bed and came to work. They take no pride in their appearance.

Who’s at fault?

The idea of dressing up to show you want a promotion has been around for years. And, while it may be old-school thinking, there’s evidence that shows dressing up can be tied to higher levels of productivity. That said, I think both sides are making some mistakes here….

First, the boss shouldn’t be holding important career development information hostage. If you want your staff to dress more professionally, have a conversation about it. Just be prepared to give some solid business reasons why. I say this because you may find your preference towards snazzy dressing is outdated. A large part of the working world has gone to casual attire in the office. If you want to buck the trend, you need to back it up with facts. And expect that some employees won’t stick around because they don’t like being told how to dress.

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At the same time, the employee should remember this very powerful phrase by the great actress Doris Day. She said, “People hear what they see.” How you choose to dress at the office is being interpreted as a lack of respect or commitment to your work. While you may not see it that way, your boss clearly does.

What can both sides learn from this?
In this situation, I would advise each side as follows:

Employee Takeaway: If you like this job and want to get promoted at this company, consider what simple changes you can make to your office attire that will show the boss you heard what he said. I’d even suggest asking to meet one-on-one with your boss to let him know you are keen on getting a promotion like your peers and are going to try to dress up a bit more. Also, tell him you hope he will let you know if you are doing a better job. Just announcing your intentions to him will make him happy to know you want to step up and earn promotion.

Manager Takeaway: Contemplate whether your unwritten dress code is really necessary. Are you hanging on to an outdated stereotype? If not, then have a conversation with your entire staff and tell them the career benefits to dressing up more in the office. Don’t make them guess how to impress you. The more open and honest you are, the easier it is for them to prove to you they understand what you need.

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