PracticeConsultingManagement focus – Image as a power tool.

Management focus - Image as a power tool.

Whether you dress up or dress down, the way you look must work for

The history of dress-down days can be traced back to the hi-tech companies in the Silicon Valley of California some 30 years ago.

Many staff were drawn from ‘blue-collar’ backgrounds and because these employees were more comfortable in the casual clothing they had worn all their lives, employers relaxed the dress codes.

The idea for casual Fridays came from the idea of raising funds for charity by allowing employees to buy the privilege of wearing casual clothes to work on a given day. Indeed this idea rapidly cascaded into schools where ‘mufti day’ has become a regular feature of the yearly calendar.

Over the past 10 years, the trend towards dress-down Fridays (and a dress-down policy throughout the week) has spread throughout the entire corporate world including the accountancy profession.

Like fashion itself, dress-down days were all the rage. During the 90s, the Americans triumphed again by introducing into the UK yet another flavour-of-the-month cultural idea. And while most of our continental European brethren have always been less formal in their business attire, the dress-down craze went even further … some would even say too far.

Has dress-down worked?

Has it worked? As far as many companies who adopted the concept on an experimental basis are concerned, the answer is a resounding yes. Unfortunately the reason is that, because it was experimental, it was easy to cancel.

In researching information for this article I was delighted, but not truly surprised, to hear the consistency of opinion amongst those who have participated in this activity.

The top three reasons given for the experimental flop are basically seen in the following answers:

It is inconceivable that people should be asked to dress down, when many of them do not know how to dress up. This concept puts an almost irreverent pressure on the professionals who have always worn a collar and tie and who choose to continue to represent themselves and their business in this fashion. Mandating this change is divisive at best. Allowing it as an option brings its own problems.

The socio-economic pressures many people face (particularly the younger set) to compete in one fashion arena can be daunting enough. So to add a second category of business dress requires additional resources which many find difficult to accommodate.

Naturally there are some companies who feel the experiment has worked.

My observation and experience shows that it is those companies who have successfully avoided the shortcomings of the previously listed pitfalls.

Additionally, careful use and interpretation of terminology makes a big difference. For example, smart casual … that’s such a misnomer.

Forget concentrating on smart. Smart should be inherent in everything we do. Ah, but casual, now that’s a different story. Casual has numerous applications – weekend casual, sports casual, club casual, business casual, dress casual. Any wonder the confusion?

The reality today is that organisations are transforming. The new strategies to help companies change and move with the times are all about leadership and role models. They are focussed on how the professionals within these companies perform, behave, present, speak and motivate.

It is essential that, whether male or female, they all consider the power behind the image. If they fall short of exuding a visual presence loaded with authority and credibility, they must work even harder to earn respect and trust. All those in business have to walk the new talk, behave and look the part of the new culture.

Perception is after all reality, image is the living window of how an organisation works and how that business communicates with the outside world. The more enlightened companies have drafted in the image consultants, the coaches, the behavioural consultants, the communications experts, the brand managers – it is these experts who move organisations and their people forward. Outside judgements made about the people impacts on the judgements made about the business.

Looking and sounding successful is perceived as being successful. A stylish appearance and manner is the trademark of success – it is contemporary, professional and competitive. First impressions have become instant impressions, not just clothes, but how we deal with people.

Are we efficient? Friendly? Do we talk the same language as each other?

Are we on each other’s wavelength? Is there some connection between us?

Do we project enough? Too much? These impressions are lasting and very important.

Behind these questions lies the basic issue of communication. How you are perceived is crucial to success. And if that is also applied to your less formal days, the level of communication becomes more critical. Judgements will be made about you subconsciously; judgements about your credibility, ability, status and power, as well as your poise, dress sense and general demeanour.

The same rules of appropriateness apply every day of your working week, whether you’ve dressed up or dressed down.

What holds people back in their careers is confidence – or rather lack of it. Clothes and accessories are an amazingly powerful tool. They give us confidence and inspire others to have confidence in us.

A keen eye for what is right, with prudent judgement, will ensure an upright bearing and a confident attitude. Many professionals take to this like second nature, while others may need some discreet expert guidance.

Sadly it’s still a common assumption that British business people feel they shouldn’t take clothes seriously. They think they’ll be accused of being frivolous when they should be concentrating on their job.

It’s a shame we don’t take a leaf out of the Americans’ book where they use everyone around them to develop their potential. We all know that image can break through that glass ceiling which we have built for ourselves.

Many professionals feel safe in their suits, like a uniform in the office.

But casual clothing, especially in this era, can be a much more challenging concept, but one which can be overcome. Business casual gear for the office can often be traumatic. How do you come over as professional and yet laid back?

Formal used to mean smart, now it just means stuffy. Appearance gives a strong non-verbal message and the relaxing of dress codes in all aspects of life can be very confusing and many will need help. If you dress casually at work, does that mean you’re not serious? How do you change your behaviour to address this situation?

Clothing is a part of body language. ‘Clothes,’ according to Desmond Morris, ‘transmit signals to us in every social encounter.’ Making a good impression is what it’s all about; if you don’t, the customer or client might go elsewhere. And of course it isn’t just clothes that instantly project the person – it’s the whole person: your behaviour, your voice, your manner, what you say and how you say it.


Corporations also certainly transmit signals: BA – reliable, safe, efficient, organised, helpful. BT – helpful, efficient, totally customer focused. Nike – action orientated, strong, vital, young, hip. Virgin – fun, young, helpful, casual. M&S – good value, high quality, good service, leading standards.

If you work for a corporate body such as these you must embody that culture without losing your individuality. You must hold the company’s set of values as your own. The client will find you out if you don’t.

And, whether you are accountants on the Tyne or actuaries on the Thames, serving clients is the front line of social encounters. In this age, when we are looking for instantaneous and slick answers, this remains a rather cloudy issue.

Consult the experts. It’s not as though help doesn’t exist but we have to be willing to go looking for it.

– Barney Tremblay is a Fellow of The Federation of Image Consultants and specialises in Personal Impact Communication in the business world.

Lin Morris is a lecturer at the University of Westminster

The Federation of Image Consultants

Tel: 07010 701018

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