A Touchy Subject… But What is Seen is Perceived


Young woman trying to choose a dress to wear holding up a red and yellow garment on a hanger with a look of indecision as she battles to make up her mind


It steps on toes and offends feelings and wrenches righteously held principles, but I’m saying it:  Dress matters.

Last week, I walked into a professional office to see impeccably tasteful furnishings and artwork attesting to the care, cash and thought that went into the surroundings. The colorful, comfortable décor extended from the reception area to the conference rooms and workspaces.  Large brass lettering and a brass company logo were affixed, gleaming, to the entry wall.  Someone had been paid to vacuum, dust, straighten and polish every surface and corner.  I recalled that the company’s website was equally well designed, curated and maintained.  As with so many workplaces, the pride taken in the visual environment was impressive and unmistakable.

And . . . there sat the receptionist up front, in a sweatshirt and cargo pants. End of harmonious impression. And here comes another employee in a worn baseball cap and faded T-shirt.  As I walked through, I had to wonder why so many people looked readier to clean out their garages than reflect well on their organization.  Sure, the principal I was there to see wore a neat collared shirt and slacks; his young associate wore a skirt and coordinated casual blazer.  But before getting to them, I had plenty of time to form a first impression that was surely not the one hoped for when the office was designed.

Dressing is not just about “image”; nor about looking important or better than others. It’s not about how much one has, or chooses, to spend on attire.  Personal presentation choices are messages. They express how we see ourselves, the occasion and the organization. And to an observer, even if subconsciously, they convey the level of our respect for all three.

Once, in facilitating a workshop on Customer Service Excellence for a group of mostly-under-30 employees, the team leader asked me to include the topic of dress and grooming. I found the participants receptive and perceptive on the matter.  Their jobs involved physical work, though typically not dirty work.   They understood that they could feel comfortable and still communicate, physically and through manner and speech, the brand values of the organization. These values included excellence in personal attention, high standards of quality, and passion for the well-being promoted by its products and services.  Most young workers need to see the personal benefit of a behavior change, and they did see how pride in appearance could up their game in other areas of life, as well. So, as I said, they were willing.

However!   One of the top managers came to work almost every day with his middle-aged feet strapped into old leather sandals, wearing baggy fisherman shorts, a faded t-shirt and sweatshirt, and – always – a frayed baseball cap, indoors and out (to hide his baldness, I suspect.  I’d say, hey, just shave the head and love the shine, man.)  The other top person wore nothing but baggy sweats (but with very cool athletic shoes, I must say.)  Even after the success of the workshop, I had to warn the team leader, “You can’t really expect the employees to dress better than the leaders do.”

Personal appearance matters as much as any other part of a visual message:  your logo, your website, your marketing materials, your company vehicles, your physical environment.

I don’t know if a “dress code” is right for every business.  Whether it matters in a workplace that is never seen by clients is a different topic.  What matters is that visual messages are vivid conveyors of the organization’s message, culture and values.  If you wouldn’t dream of having your logo skewed on a sign, hanging depressing pictures, misspelling your company name, or putting a faded, shredding carpet on your floor . . . well then?