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A person’s appearance can be a sensitive topic, as many people identify closely with their clothing and sense of personal style. When networking, preparing for interviews, or dressing for your time at work, it is highly advisable to seek to fit with the prevalent office culture. For more information on why Fit is important, go through our series on Opportunity and Careers. Dress is an easy way to demonstrate a level of commonality and cultural fit with your peers.
None of this material attempts to underplay the value of being your own person. Self-identity and understanding are important and empowering attributes. Research has shown, however, that we tend to gravitate to individuals who demonstrate commonalities with us – such as beliefs, interests, and values. In the professional environment, it remains true that we still need the recognition and support of others to progress and reach our goals. To this end, assimilating on some level to the culture, norms, and characteristics of others in the workplace can have a significant impact on how you are received.
Being well received by your peers and superiors is the ultimate goal of conforming your appearance to the norms and expectations of the office. As such, it is always helpful to ask the opinion of individuals who hold positions in a professional field for their opinion and guidance on these appearance elements. This is particularly true for women, who are presented with far more options and variability in what is considered professional.
• Note: I want to begin by giving stating the obvious. Many of the culturally acceptable practices for dress and appearance for men and women are highly sexist. Unfortunately (or fortunately – depending upon your views), this can become a societal norm. If your objective is to establish fit and assimilate into a dominant culture, many of these aspects of appearance are very important.
Considerations for Professional Appearance
Below are the major elements of appearance you should consider:
Business Clothing – While you will ultimately dress according to the office dress code, business attire is always required for an interview. This is true even if business attire is more formal than the daily office attire. Avoid being overly fashionable in your suit, shoes, and choice of accessories. Always be more formal and slightly more conservative in your dress than is the office norm. There are many resources on the internet and YouTube that do a great job in demonstrating what is professional dress for a man or woman. Below is a list of general considerations that hold true in nearly any setting.
- Suits – In most scenarios, professional attire means a dark-colored (black, grey, navy) suit with a traditional cut or design. For example, a two-button, single-breasted suit for men is the standard. Women have the option of skirt or pant suits; but, the recommendation for color pattern and cut apply as well.
- Shirts – Your shirt or blouse should also be a traditional style (such as Oxford for men) and generally be a neutral color. Women, once again, have far more options in terms of color and design for a shirt or blouse. Just remember, it should never be low cut or show cleavage. Professionalism does not equate to sexuality or attractiveness in this regard.
- Tie (Men) – Men should choose a tie with a neutral tone, such as a solid, striped, or small dots. Avoid anything louder.
- Shoes – The shoes should similarly be formal. Men’s shoes should always be leather (or some imitation thereof) and have a solid heal. Women should wear neutral flats or heels that are no higher than 2-3 inches. You should follow the rules of fashion that pertain to what types of clothing match together. For example, you do not wear brown shoes with a black suit.
Tip: You do not need to have expensive clothing to look professional. You can put together a very nice, professional outfit for very little money if you visit thrift stores, like Goodwill or the Salvation Army, and purchasing pre-owned clothing through websites like eBay. I purchased my first suit for $10 at a Goodwill (and it looked great). Likewise, I purchased very nice dress shoes on eBay for a small fraction of the price of a new pair.
Hair – First, you must wear a hairstyle that is formal and professional. For men, this generally means well-groomed, combed hair. The professional environment is not overly accepting of very long hair for men. For women, this means wearing your hair in a neat and organized manner. Once again, there are many resources out that that demonstrate professional-looking hairstyles for all genders, races, and hairstyles. You can also look at the hairstyles of successful individuals in your intended career field or organization for inspiration. Remember, the ultimate goal is to establish a level of fit or commonality.
Makeup – Men, don’t wear any – especially eyeliner. Women, try to avoid overdoing it. Excessive makeup is often negatively perceived in a professional environment. Even if not excessive, poorly done makeup can have a negative perception. There are many variables and considerations when applying makeup for the professional environment. Luckily, there are lots of YouTube videos and web resources that demonstrate the appearance and application of makeup for the professional work environment. Watch these and mimic their practices.
Facial Hair – Research shows that individuals with beards are less inviting than those who are clean-shaven. This logic has carried over into the work environment. As such, you should consider whether wearing facial hair will be negatively perceived in the intended career field. For example, some consulting and financial services firms do not allow their male employees to wear beards. One way to gauge acceptance is to look at the profiles of professionals in the industry or organization you are targeting. In any event, facial hair should always be well kept. Avoid overly-stylish methods of wearing facial hair. It is generally associated with being juvenile and lacking professionalism. Facial hair on women should be waxed or otherwise removed.
Eyebrows – This is a unique topic for men and women. Generally, eyebrows should be well-kept. This is particularly true for men who have excessively bushy eyebrows. Most salons or barbershops will address eyebrows during a haircut. Women have a number of different challenges or norms to meet in this regard. Generally, you should avoid trying to be overly stylish. No razor-thin or super-thick painted eyebrows. Some women completely pluck their eyebrows and then paint them on with makeup. This can be okay, but it can also go very poorly. I highly recommend that you consult with a beautician on how to wear your eyebrows in a professional manner. Notably, men or women, if you are unfortunate enough to have a unibrow (hairs connecting your eyebrows), make certain they are plucked cleanly to have two. Some people will be highly distracted (even turned off) by the unibrow.
Finger Nails – Men should have their fingernails closely clipped and clean. Women should not wear extremely long nails – more than 1/3 inch off your finger is too long. If fingernails are painted, it should be a medium-tone that matches your outfit. There should never be multiple colors or anything sparkly.
Leg/Arm/Hand Hair – Women are expected to shave their legs and armpits. For men, this is not an issue, as shorts and sleeveless shirts are rarely if ever acceptable in a professional work environment. While there may be all sorts of sexist tendencies and ideals implicated by this cultural practice – it is still expected within the workplace. Another topic that is rarely discussed is hair on the arms and hands. During an interview, the only part of your arms that should be visible is your hands. If you are a man and have extremely hairy hands, then use a trimmer to shear away the hair. Extremely hairy hands and fingers are very noticeable (especially when shaking hands) and can be a point of aversion. Even slightly hairy hands on a woman should be shaved cleanly.
- Tip: If you later get the position, you may find yourself wearing short sleeves to work. Hairy forearms are generally acceptable for men – though it is not a very becoming look. Women who have hairy forearms (or very dark hair that is highly noticeable), you should take care to shave, wax, or otherwise remove the hair.
Eyelashes – Do not wear fake lashes. If you do – which I advise against – they should appear natural. Fake eyelashes that are unnaturally long or thick can be negatively perceived.
Jewelry – Men should wear minimal jewelry in the interview. The only visual jewelry should be professional-looking watch and wedding band (if applicable). Particularly, if you have any form of piercing – take it out. Women should wear minimal jewelry that has a professional appearance. This includes earrings that do not dangle (just one – not multiple earrings), a small necklace, and no more on the hands than a wedding band and/or engagement ring (if applicable). Nose rings and earrings other than in the lobe (soft portion) should be removed.
Fragrances – Men should make certain to wear deodorant. Smelling natural (having body odor) is absolutely unacceptable in the workplace. That is all. Do not use colognes or additional fragrances. Some people can find these smells offensive. Women can wear a very small amount of perfume. Be extremely careful that it is subtle and not overpowering. In any event, make certain the perfume is not on your hands. You do not want it to come off on someone else when shaking hands.
Glasses – Prescription glasses are fine (and can even make you look smart). They should not, however, have any level of tint (whether fixed or self-adjusting). You should also avoid wearing sunshades in the building. Those who do are perceived as juvenile or arrogant. There is a stark difference between a perception of confidence and one of arrogance.
Tattoos – Tattoos are considered to be unprofessional in appearance. Do your best to cover any tattoos during the interview process.
- Note: If you secure the position, and you you have tattoos that will be visible when wearing your daily attire, there is not a lot you can do about it. Unfortunately, it will likely disadvantage you in terms of future promotion. For this reason, you should compensate for the negative perception by focusing on cultural fit (and likability), commonalities with your superiors, and competent work performance.
Earbuds/Headphones – Do not show up to an interview (or later the office) wearing earbuds, headphones, or a hands-free telephone. These can be useful tools (such as when talking on the phone and driving or if making sales calls and you need free hands), but they should not be worn during social interaction in the workplace. Notably, wearing around a hands-free, phone on your ear or earbuds is considered to be juvenile and has an unprofessional, cultural association.