Should You Dress Up or Dress Down for Success at Work?

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It’s funny how ideas about dress code in the workplace ebb and flow. While “dress down Fridays” have become commonplace in workplaces across the UK, a recent survey by a large UK Department Store appears to show that dressing “up” and taking your lead from the business attire of your boss is more likely to help you get ahead. More than half of the 2000 people surveyed admitted that they were influenced by what their managers and colleagues wear to work, with 61% claiming that dressing similarly to those around them made for a more productive working environment.

But does what you wear really influence your success at work?

Dress Down Fridays

I first came across the concept of “dressing down” in the workplace back in the 1980s when I worked for a multicultural US firm based in London. There, what was fascinating about Fridays was how different an understanding of “smart casual” dress the males of different nationalities demonstrated. The British clung to their collars and ties, but substituted a blazer and trousers (non-matching) for their usual business suits; once their jackets were off, it was hard to tell the difference between Fridays and any other day of the week. The Europeans tended to favour smart chinos and striped shirts designed to be worn without ties, and generally speaking looked pretty stylish. The Americans looked as though they were headed for the gym rather than the office, in their tracksuits and trainers. As for the women, they just wore skirts or trousers with blouses or jumpers, regardless of nationality or day of the week. Did it make for a friendlier, more collaborative working environment? I’m not convinced…

More recently, with the demise of the tie among all but the most traditional male employees or those working in sales or finance, the distinction between dressing down and dressing normally has become harder to spot.

First impressions count

It is almost a truism that we never get a second chance to make a first impression, and that people have formed a view of us within the first few seconds, most of that being down to our physical appearance. In the absence of any particularly distinguishing features (extremes of height, weight, disfigurements etc.) our dress and grooming accounts for a significant proportion of our visual impact.

Human beings tend to feel most comfortable with people who are basically similar to themselves or who conform to expectations. Thus, if we are looking for a member of the Board, we will probably expect the person – male or female – to turn up in a smart business suit. If we are looking for a member of a rock band, then jeans and tee shirts, tattoos and body piercings probably won’t raise an eyebrow. But if a candidate turns up looking vastly different from our stereotype, we are likely to draw negative inferences.

What’s appropriate?

A client of mine was looking for a new Chief Executive recently, and after conducting screening interviews I presented a shortlist to the Directors. Having presented himself traditionally at the first round stage, one of the candidates decided that, as this was a “creative” organisation, he had better dress more casually for the final interview. However, having no idea what was appropriate, he turned up in grubby jeans, sporting a chunky gold bracelet and a gold medallion round his neck (you couldn’t make it up!) Unsurprisingly, he didn’t get the job.

Dress for success

It has been said that you should dress not for the job you’re in but for the job to which you aspire. So if you want to be promoted, it’s generally better to be dressed too smartly than too casually. I remember many years ago joining a large HR department and taking a while to work out who was in what role. There was one young woman who was always very smartly turned out in a blue skirt suit and blouse, and for several weeks I thought she was the Recruitment Manager. Some time later I realised she had a junior administrative role – but she looked like a manager, and I had probably subconsciously treated her as though she were a manager.

And the survey cited above suggests that managers too are influenced by what their team members wear, with 68% admitting that those who dressed similarly to them were more “on their radar”.

Getting into “work mode”

Some people also firmly believe that what they wear influences the way they work. If they are smartly dressed, they feel more focused and business-like. I remember a friend telling me of a time when he was made redundant and started his own mini-cab business from an office in the back bedroom. He would put on a suit and tie every morning before walking across the landing, to “get him in the mood for work”. It would not have felt appropriate, he said, to go to his office in casual attire, even if nobody else could see him.

So here I am, the owner and director of a small business, working from my home office. What am I wearing today? My favourite black trousers (as usual) and a blue jumper – oh, and a pair of slippers! Well, I’m not seeing anybody today…

Write by george t shirts

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