Even in laid-back Seattle, your wardrobe could be hurting your chances for a promotion.
Can what you wear to work affect your chances for a promotion?
The notion of what belongs in a modern professional’s wardrobe is wide open to interpretation in the 21st century, especially in comfort-driven Seattle. But before you define your personal style, take note: Even in the Emerald City, what you wear to work can make a difference to your career trajectory.
Being passed over because of appearance is more common than you think, says Anna Liotta, founder of Seattle-based The Generational Institute and author of “Unlocking Generational Codes.” What’s less common is transparency about the reason.
“The person is typically told there is something missing in their leadership potential, the customers aren’t relating to them in the way they need to, or their peers don’t respect them. The person thinks it’s their skill set that didn’t earn the promotion versus their clothing,” she says.
Arden Clise, a Seattle etiquette expert and author of “Spinach in Your Boss’s Teeth,” gives reasons why managers might avoid the subject. “A male manager may be concerned discussing attire with a female employee will come across as sexist, overly personal or intimate,” Clise says. “Some bosses struggle with confrontation, especially when it comes to something they think is of a more personal nature.”
Regional culture factors in here, too. Josh Warborg, president of the Pacific Northwest District at human resource firm Robert Half, says though the goal is to create a thoughtful conversation around what appearance conveys about career intentions, “often in the Northwest we’re hesitant to do that because we think it might offend somebody.”
In reality, having that conversation is a great opportunity to build a relationship. “We should be able to frame it as a positive, as ‘I care about you and I want you to do well in the organization,’” says Warborg.
To ease discomfort, Liotta suggests an approach for managers called “costuming.” It starts with asking the employee, “What kind of person do you think our company would promote?” and “What kind of person do you think will be successful in this job?” The manager then adds on, “Pretend you’re in a movie and you want the audience to immediately know your character’s role. How would you costume the actor who portrays you? How would they look?”
On the flip side, employees are wise to proactively inquire about their company’s policies, whether it seems obvious or not. “Even within casual attire, there’s a code,” says Warborg. He notes that at a lot of Northwest companies, especially in the technology sector, dressing up signals that somebody might be too ambitious. “You almost look more confident and more competent by the fact that you’re dressing down,” he says.
Warborg’s advice is to look at what owners, founders or senior managers are wearing. The wardrobe that’s in alignment with career advancement in a company where someone like Steve Jobs is at the helm might be different than another tech company.
“You just can’t make a generalization anymore. It’s much more about the culture of the specific organization,” he says.
As for companies who are crafting or revising their dress-code policy, they need to get into the nitty-gritty details. “It’s important to give specific examples of what is and isn’t appropriate. For example, if shorts are acceptable, but they can’t be short shorts, be clear about the length,” Clise says.
The easiest way to think about dress code might be to consider how you would want to look in order for your manager, customer or team to consider you a trusted advisor, according to Warborg. And if neither your conclusion nor the clothes make you feel comfortable?
“It might be the wrong environment for you,” he says.