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Personal Style vs. Professional Appearance

February 1, 1996
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Related Topics: Performance Appraisals, Policies and Procedures, Featured Article
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The Dilemma:
Does image matter? Carla, an ac-counting supervisor, is looking for a promotion to middle management. She's a 10-year employee and is competent as both a supervisor and as a number cruncher. There's one potential problem. Although her skills warrant her promotion, her personal style perhaps doesn't. She wears cutesy barretts to hold back her waist-length hair, wears heavy makeup and generally wears youthful clothing (she's 40). Would you recommend her for management without reservation? If you do have reservations, what course of action would you take?

Readers Respond:
Personal style, including interpersonal skills, appearance and demeanor, should be part of an employee's overall performance appraisal. Each organization/type of business has its own set of standards, including customer service, profitability, quality and quantity of work produced, and professionalism. Profes-sionalism takes on its own definition from industry to industry, and this is the area in which company culture (including professional image) is defined.

This employee should have been receiving feedback throughout her career with this firm, which should have included appearance. During career-goals conversations with her manager, goals should have been mutually established between the employee and her manager. The manager should have been counseling the employee with regard to the importance of a polished, professional image in the organization and that she has good potential for promotion if she achieves the standards which are set.
Donna Bernardi Paul
VP, Human Resources
Trammell Crow Company
Washington, D.C.

Carla should be promoted without reservation as soon as an appropriate position arises. However, she should also be counseled on personal presentation skills. While it is an unfortunate fact, it is a fact nevertheless, that image does matter. To be taken seriously by senior management, it's usually necessary to present oneself in a polished, professional manner. I think that subordinates would also take more seriously a boss who's professional in all areas, including self-presentation.

Carla should attend seminars on the subject and, as her human resources representative, I would also counsel her personally. However, the counseling must be done with great care, so that it's in no way sexist. We can't tell a woman to wear makeup or dresses-rather we can dis-cuss with her what professional attire includes. And this has nothing to do with whether Carla is attractive, but rather whether she's presenting what she does have in the best light.

While it indeed would be unfair to expect everyone to be gorgeous, it isn't unfair to expect everyone who aspires to higher levels in an organization to be presentable and professional, at least in the context of the organization's culture.
Liz Bligan
Manager, Employment, No. America
The West Company Inc.
Lionville, Pennsylvania

I would not have a problem recommending Carla for the promotion. In fact, given that she's in the accounting field typically dominated by males, I would be relieved that she doesn't dress in the stereotypical masculine business-type suits. I also feel she has enough confidence in herself, and in her skills and abilities to dress to please herself.

Welcome to the '90s. I see many more women in management today dressing in more modern styles and colors, but still in good taste. However, "good taste" to me may not mean the same as to someone else. Although the proverbial glass ceiling still exists, women today are comfortable dressing in a more feminine style rather than the blue suits and white blouses of yesteryear.
Jeanie Gaines
Human Resources Manager
Brockway Standard Inc.
Dallas, Texas

In the first place, this situation doesn't occur at all if dress code guidelines are specified in the employee handbook. But yes, image does matter, COMPANY image, that is. Always has, always will, and I wouldn't recommend her for management without reservations. My course of action would be to inform Carla of my intention to recommend her for promotion to middle management based on her experience, performance and value to the company. But with additional responsibility comes additional obligation to the organization, and the obligation in this instance is to look like a member of the management team. Is this image discrimination? I hope so. The fact of the matter is simple: Dress for success, not Halloween.
Paul Carroza
Human Resources Administrator
Peak Electronics Inc.
West Haven, Connecticut

Carla is viewed as both a competent supervisor and accountant. So, I believe her personal appearance has not adversely affected her performance. Therefore, she should be recommended for the job.

If there have been situations in the past when Carla's appearance has affected her ability to do the job, she might not be recommended. For example, suppose Carla's co-workers haven't taken her seriously and the supervisor has heard the co-workers cite her ap-pearance as the reason. When these situations occurred, Carla's supervisor should have talked with her about what has happened. The supervisor might say, "Carla, during the meeting today I noticed that you had a hard time gaining control of the group. What do you think might have caused that?"

Together, they should look for ways to improve her performance, which may include addressing her personal style. If successful, this would make Carla a better candidate for future promotion.
Katy Klenk-Theroux
Regional Human Resources Manager
PageNet
E. Brunswick, NJ

If Carla is looking for a promotion, then she must have had a mentor. A good mentor would have guided her in the right direction before now. The image she is projecting is no different from someone who is a throw back from the sixties or an employee with bad personal hygiene, who may possess the same skills.

To be fair to Carla, I would take the time to make sure she understood what the company is looking for when promoting employees into management. If Carla is management material she will accept any feedback in a positive way. If she's defiant and reacts in a negative way, do her and the company a favor and leave her where she is.
Bill Ervin
Director Labor Relations
Liggett Group Inc.
Durham, North Carolina

There's no question in my mind as to the proper way of handling this situation. I would recommend Carla for promotion without reservation.

Carla has been a successful supervisor and is a skilled, capable worker who obviously has proven herself over the 10 years she has been with the company. We must judge her on her ability to perform in the new role and can't let personal dress and style bias our recommendation. If image is important in this company and she must regularly relate to clients, the issue of dress and style should be addressed as part of her orientation training in the new position.

If the company had a strong management development program, this situation (if it was a problem) would not have gotten to this point without being handled. The larger problem is what upper management will think of me for recommending her, and do I let that bias my recommendation?
Wayne Fullerton
VP & Managing Principle
Right Associates
Charlotte, NC

As an employer representative at the Marriott Foundation's Bridges... From School to Work program in San Fran-cisco, I have been successful at finding part-time employment for high school seniors with disabilities. My goal is to help break the initial stereotype employers have of people with disabilities, as well as to assist primarily inner-city youth with employment. I have had many challenges assisting youth whose dress styles differ from mainstream corporate culture's dress code. I have learn-ed that an individual's drive to succeed is the most important factor in successful hiring and promotion.

If Carla were one of my employment placements and I learned that she had the opportunity to be promoted but that her personal appearance stood in the way of her promotion, I would have a meeting with Carla. I would communicate the opportunity of promotion with its prerequisite requirements of a change of dress code clearly and directly to Carla.

I would say: Carla, you have an opportunity presented to you at the moment. Your supervisor has seen your outstanding performance and is willing to recommend your promotion to middle management, however, she feels that you do not put forth a professional appearance that matches such a promotion. The professional appearance that she's looking for involves wearing business suits and getting your hair styled in a professional manner. If you're willing to adopt a professional appearance, much like that of the other middle managers, you can probably get the promotion. On the other hand, if you decide not to change your personal appearance, your supervisor is more than happy with your performance and your current position is certainly stable. You have a choice. It's important for you to consider this and to come to your own conclusion as to what is more important to you, a promotion or the preservation of your individual style.

Robert Mollard
Employer Representative
Bridges... From School to Work
San Francisco, CA

As director of human resources, I would meet with Carla's manager and talk with him or her about a development plan for Carla that emphasizes areas needing improvement, including a section on image. I would encourage her manager to be sensitive in this area and talk about perception and the professional image needed for the promotion. If possible, we would offer seminars in professional dress and image-as there are probably many em-ployees who could benefit-and approach this sensitive area as an educational and development opportunity.

Her manager would need to follow up with her and be very positive about im-provements. Many times, with sensitive issues, managers avoid situations such as these because they're fearful of offending the employee, when, in actuality, many employees just don't realize how they're being perceived. Managers should view this opportunity as a way not to possibly offend employees, but as a perfect opportunity to further develop and help their employees.
Donna Eagle
Director of Human Resources
Judd's Inc.
Strasburg, Virginia

Yes, I would recommend Carla for management. Yes, I have reservations regarding her professional image. And, yes, I have a recommended course of action. As the person making the decision to promote her, I would:

  1. Discuss the role and responsibilities of the new promotion, highlighting that middle managers interface with a wider range of people.
  2. Identify and discuss the strengths that Carla brings to the new role.
  3. Identify and discuss areas of professional development to ensure Carla's continued success. While Carla may have identified areas that she plans to develop, I would discuss the area of professional image. To address this potentially delicate subject, I would provide Carla with the following facts:
    • 93% of communication consists of nonverbal expressions that include professional image, facial expressions, body movement, voice inflection, body position and eye contact
    • 7% of communication is verbal expression inclu-sive of the spoken and written word
    • For mid managers, the management skills mix for technical skills, communication skills and conceptual skills is 27%, 42% and 31%.

The new role provides Carla with the responsibility to communicate and interact with others. I would recommend a professional communication coach to advise Carla on ways to achieve the standard of performance. Advice for professional development is typically better received and used from an outside expert than from a manager or peer. Carla and I would meet with the outside coach to define our objectives for Car-la's development.

In addition, I would lend Carla my copy of Victoria Seitz's book, "Your Executive Image: The Art of Self-packaging for Men and Women." I would remember to explain to Carla that self packaging is a form of communication intended to remove barriers. I would tell Carla that she must be congratulated for her proven track record and tangible skills. Coupled with a highly polished professional style, she has the opportunity to continue her professional development and advancement.

I would invite Carla to continue to discuss this topic and other areas of de-velopment on an ongoing basis. On a semi-regular basis, I would acknowledge, reinforce and encourage the de-sired professional image. As the promoting manager, one needs to remember to capitalize on Carla's strong points and track record while building awareness of concrete ways to enhance professional image and success.
Sharon A. Wulf
President
Enterprise Systems
Framingham, Massachusetts

How Would You Respond to This Dilemma?
You are the director of HR for a high-end department store headquartered in Los Angeles. Your current focus is to hire a new assistant buyer. This person will be in frequent communication with the offices of designers in Europe and New York and will assist the sportswear buyer in determining trends and choosing merchandise. Marie is your top candidate by far, but you have reservations. In her favor, she has a degree in fashion design, speaks French and Italian and has worked for two of Bev- erly Hills' trendiest boutiques. But on the flip side, she grew up in a tough neighborhood and although impeccably dressed, you've noticed a few small tattoos on one hand-possibly a sign of gang membership.

You're aware that your inhouse re-cruiters have given her the thumbs-up after the standard background check. Should you accept Marie's embarrassed explanation that the markings are from a time long ago when belonging to the neighborhood gang seemed like her only alternative? Or should you give in to your fears and continue searching for someone else?

Personnel Journal, February 1996, Vol. 75, No. 1, pp. 95-97.

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