In business, image matters. In politics it matters too. It wasn’t by pure coincidence that Gordon Brown spruced up his act before delivering his latest Budget with a new haircut and a well-fitted and pressed suit.
Non-verbal communications such as body language are now well ingrained into many of us and, indeed, form part of any basic communications and sales training. But the way you dress in your private and your professional life speaks volumes too.
Think about the last time you met someone for the first time. Do you remember what they were saying, or do you remember the tone of their voice and what they wore? Research shows that 55% of our behaviour and appearance is remembered in the first 30 seconds. This compares with 38% of the sound of our voice is, and only 7% of what we say will have made any impact. So like it or not, 93% of how you come across has nothing whatsoever to do with what you are saying.
Social stereotypes aside, accountants, just like people working in other industries and professions, are real people and come in all sort of shapes and sizes. The clothes they select and wear each day tell a story about who they are and how they feel.
The key thing to remember in dressing the part is to think of the industry you work in. You need to be appropriate for the industry you are associated to. An accountant in an architectural practice might want to wear a sport jacket (for men) while a pair of trousers and a smart top (for women) will be perfectly fine; an accountant in a legal practice however, may want to wear a dark suit to reflect the ethos of the firm.
It’s also worth thinking about how you want to appear to your boss and your colleagues. A dishevelled or unkempt outfit will translate into incompetence and sloppy work. In contrast, a groomed and well-fitted look will demonstrate that you are in control, and likely to do a good job. The chances are you will be better suited to attend a meeting or even get a promotion. Without seeing you in action, your competence (or incompetence) has already been assumed. That’s why, by wearing the right clothes, the battle’s already half won.
But wearing the right clothes for the right industry and environment does not always come naturally. Some people are not interested in what they wear as long as it keeps them covered and warm. Hiding behind the Monday-to-Friday suit will send out a message that you are boring and/or you are bored with the job. Is that what you want others to hear?
What makes (most) of the senior teams stand out from the junior staff? Their confidence, is invariably high on the list. Knowing that you are wearing the right clothes for the right occasion (and going to work is an occasion) will give you that added self-assurance.
Confidence will come from having chosen the right cut, colour and style of clothes. But you don’t need a degree in fashion design to understand what shape jacket suits you best or whether you can have turn-ups or not on your trousers, or to choose styles that are well cut in good quality materials.
When it comes to colour do you tend to go for the safe white shirt or blouse? It is difficult to stand out if you do. Bring colour into your wardrobe but make sure you understand which colours suit you and the impact they have on others. Adding colours into your business wardrobe does not mean you will look like a clown, but wearing the wrong colour can add years to you; it can also become a barrier when you are in a client facing role. Dark colours will always look more authoritative, while wearing lighter shades will show that you are more approachable.
Your personality also comes into place when choosing clothes. Are you a classic style of person (and accountants often are) when you come to wear your clothes, or is there a creative at heart dying to come out?
Looking the part for the business is not a question of money or quantity. It’s about selecting the most flattering clothes and the way you look after them. Never wear the same clothes/shoes two days in a row, and hang them out properly (no wire hangers, please) every night. Looking after your clothes will ensure that they will last longer and will do you justice the next time you wear them – even if you only have two suits and wear them every other day.
Most women who have made it big into the business world will have worked doubly hard, but they will also have used their femininity – and that is not by wearing unsuitable and inappropriate dress, but by using colours and styling which make them stand aside from the others.
Looking after yourself – or grooming – is also part of the message you give out. Research shows that a quarter of employers admitted that they were more likely to take on a woman who wore make-up than one who didn’t. Wearing the right amount of make-up is part of a woman’s overall image and some subtle differences can affect her prospects.
Do we need to talk about overdue haircuts or chipped nail varnish? This won’t do, even on a Friday. When dress-down Fridays were announced, thousands of men and women went out to work just as if they were about to tend to their gardens. It is, therefore, not surprising to hear that so many companies have dropped the idea.
The dress-down etiquette is to look professional and groomed and therefore efficient; unfortunately so many people took it for being laid back and sloppy, which translated into sloppiness and less efficient work ethics by the time Friday came around.
Some jobs will call for you to travel – another reason to consider what you are wearing and ensure that it is doing you justice in front of your international colleagues. ‘ How is it that every nationality has a uniform so easily recognisable at an airport. The French and Italians will be the suave ones in the lounge, the Germans will wear white socks and tight-fitting Hugo Boss suits, whilst the British will wear his pinstripe suits.
But how the suit fits and how it is accessorised (shoes, jewellery, briefcase) will make a whole difference as to your perceived job status. The motto really should be ‘dress for the job you want, not the job you have’.
Sometimes it is difficult for a colleague to comment on another member of staff’s clothing or mannerisms; this is when an outsider’s unemotional advice can be beneficial. Our image consultants help companies establish their dress codes, and work with staff at all levels. The advice is personalised to the industry, the individuals and their position within that company.
Sometimes the advice is better received as part of an informal bonding session. And it isn’t only clothes that may need to be reviewed. Everything to do with image – from table manners to presentation skills – will send out a message.
This is part of the image you portray, and therefore the message you so unconsciously give. Make sure it is the right one.
Veronique Henderson is a director of Image Matters, the corporate division of Color Me Beautiful
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