It was graduate recruitment day at a prestigious London corporation.
One young man (we’ll call him David) got up, got dressed, and prepared to do his best.
But David made a little faux pas.
He wore an anorak.
He wore it during the group activities.
He wore it during lunch.
He would even have worn it to the one-to-one interview if one of the recruiters hadn’t tactfully suggested that David remove it, ‘for his own comfort.’
David was put through his paces, and left feeling reasonably confident.
Flash forward to the discussion around the boardroom table.
Over cups of tea and piles of CVs, the recruiters discussed the candidates one by one.
‘What about David?’
‘Oh yes, him. What was up with that?’
David didn’t get the job.
Of course we can’t be sure that his attire was the deciding factor. But in those critical first-impression moments, David was “the anorak”.
What he failed to recognize was that, to others, he didn’t look part of the tribe, to use Seth Godin’s term.
David hadn’t keyed in on the appropriate attire for his industry and his entry level, especially at an interview.
Maybe, with so many other qualified candidates, his simple faux pas felt risky for the recruiters. If David wasn’t switched on at an interview, would he be switched on with clients?
Maybe appearances don’t matter at work.
Then again, maybe they do.
He’s a Mathematician at a top university.
Tom has spent the better part of his adult life working on a complex mathematical problem.
By corporate standards, Tom’s grooming is sub-standard. His haircut? Total Einstein.
He wears tweed jackets and tired jumpers. Oh, and Tom wears anoraks.
The thing is, this look works for him.
He is an established authority in his field.
What’s more, he operates within the sartorial bandwidth of what’s acceptable in his industry.
Then there’s the accountant we’ll call John.
John is an ace at his job.
His hair is long-ish for the ‘norm’ in his industry, a bit Fabio, some might say. He slicks it back with pomade.
On weekdays he’s suited and booted.
But there is something visibly different about John’s corporate look, compared to that of his peers.
Together with the hair, his statement accessories – a bold ring and a chunky chain bracelet – create a mystique about him. You even catch a glimpse of a tatt from under his impeccable French cuff.
It turns out that John, a very senior accountant, dabbles in leather and chains at the weekend. He hangs out with bikers on his Harley road hog.
Cool, even if getting leathered up isn’t your schtick.
After meeting John, an acquaintance says: ‘Imagine how good he has to be to look like that in a place like this.’
For John, who had ‘arrived’ in his career, looking unique might work to his advantage.
It sets him apart, not only because he’s made it in his job, but also because his looks are aligned with his big personality.
Other industries have their own ways of demonstrating that someone has ‘arrived’ career-wise. Business Insider claims that senior executives at Goldman Sachs wear Salvatore Ferragamo loafers to send this signal.
An unnamed Goldman employee says: “You don’t buy them until you’ve made it. All the partners, the MDs – they wear them. But analysts and associates – no. You’d get cut down if you bought a pair too early.”
Loafers aside, there may be different expectations of how you look as you advance in your career.
But again, it depends.
Your personality, the economic climate, your industry, the occasion, your age and where you are in your career, all influence how you interpret your version of substance vs. packaging.
Then there’s the unknowable variable: the eye of the beholder. We can’t be sure what others notice or prioritize about us.
Some industries and personalities give more attention to appearances (think Lady Gaga or Barack Obama).
Other industries and personalities perhaps don’t sweat it too much (think Mark Zuckerberg, or Tom, our mathematician).
We can’t dismiss appearances completely. Even if you don’t care about how you look, others certainly notice.
So what’s the takeaway?
Clothes and grooming are a form of communication. They give others clues about your habits.
When we are forming a first impression of someone, quickly and based on very little information, our ‘visuals’ matter.
We often form such decisions or judgments without even thinking – a behavior that Malcolm Gladwell calls “unconscious prejudice.”
Your substance alone (at least in a first impression) will not necessarily communicate your story fully or accurately. Your ‘packaging’ provides you with an opportunity to influence that impression.
As an add-on to your substance, consider if your clothing is a door opener, or a door-closer, especially in these troubled times.
- How narrow or wide are the norms for your industry? What work attire is appropriate (while still allowing you to be true to yourself)?
- Where are you are in your career? Veering outside the expected standards can be risky, especially at the start of your career – even if you’re a star.
- Has the current economic climate affected how your industry is perceived? Does this impact how you dress at work? (More on this in my previous post).
What do you think?
Have you changed how you dress as you advanced in your career, or as the economy worsened?
Have you seen people’s wardrobes holding them back?