Why it pays not to be scruffy

We all have unconscious expectations of what a person in a certain role should dress like and if that expectation isn’t met, it can make us question if that person is competent in their role. And that impacts on the whole business. By Jackie O’Fee. 

Several years ago, I was asked to speak to the team at a professional services firm here in Auckland. The business owner had called on me after receiving a phone call from a long-standing and much valued client.

A recent visit from a new hire at the firm had caused him to pick up the phone and tell the business owner that although the new consultant was “lovely”, could she be asked to perhaps “wear something less revealing next time she visits” as he felt he didn’t know where to look.

As I type this more than 10 years on and with a “Me Too” filter it occurs to me that perhaps the issue was with him, rather than the employee – but was it?

When I met with the principal of this particular organisation she lamented that although she hired the best and brightest graduates, and was delighted that her organisation was known as a desirable place to work, the way her predominantly female new employees would choose to dress for work wasn’t befitting of the standard of professionalism she wanted the organisation to be known for in the market. 

She stated that each of her employees would arrive for their job interviews looking immaculate but fairly quickly, after starting, would begin to dress in a more relaxed way.

Her problem wasn’t that they were necessarily looking too casual, it was more that it was too high fashion for the particular industry they were in.

I’ve mentioned before that the way you choose to dress at work isn’t about your own comfort, but rather the comfort of those people you deal with. We all have expectations as to how people in certain roles will dress.

 As an example, we expect a corporate lawyer to be very well dressed, most likely in a suit and tie, while we expect a plumber to be far more casual. 

The expectations of your customers need to be considered when choosing your working wardrobe. 

The other thing that speaks to me about this particular experience is just how lucky that business owner was to have a client who would pick up the phone and tell her how the employee made him feel.

I think in this age of extreme competitiveness in the business arena, if you make a client uncomfortable, they would often just choose to do business with someone else and you would be left with no idea as to why. 

In fact, they may not even know why themselves. To them it might simply present as “something wasn’t right”, even if the something was an unconscious expectation.

In my own experience I recently had to undergo a minor medical procedure at a clinic where all the team were in uniform. 

The nurse who was performing my particular procedure was wearing a rather scruffy version of it, her hair was dishevelled and slightly dirty and while she was wearing some make-up, it had long since faded. 

In short, she looked a bit of a wreck. Yes, she may have been having a spectacularly busy or bad day but as a patient it gave me a sense of disquiet. 

I felt that if she didn’t care how she looked, perhaps her attention to detail with what she was tasked to do wasn’t quite what it ought to be.

I began to quiz her as to how long she had been nursing, how often she had done what she was about to do, etc. Her response was such that I knew she was very experienced.

I felt some relief at that, but I should not have had to ask and to be honest if she had been better presented, wouldn’t have. 

I had an unconscious expectation of what a medical professional in a role like hers would look like and she didn’t meet it.  

It’s a little like eating at a restaurant and finding your plate is dirty or that the waitperson is wearing a filthy apron. It calls into question the hygiene of the entire establishment and you wonder if you will later get sick from eating there. 

It’s worth thinking about what your clients are thinking when they deal with your organisation. Are they questioning how well you can do your job? Does the way you present yourself play a role in that? 

While it may seem a small thing, your personal presentation or that of your team can have a big impact.  


Jackie O’Fee is the owner of personal style consultancy Signature Style. She works with both individuals and organisations. See signaturestyle.co.nz     

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