“You don’t look the part.” 6 Steps for Discussing Appearance at Work
My husband came home one day and told me that his boss casually asked him during a happy hour, “Would you be offended if I gave you the name of my stylist?” While he shrugged it off, I was mortified. The irony -- I have a blog about fashion at work, but I hadn’t even given the man who lives with me a few tips on his work ensembles! With a ‘we’re not going down like that’ attitude, our first call the next morning was to a custom suit designer.
Just as it’s wise to solicit feedback about your appearance, it’s also important to give feedback to those who report to you. I’ve spoken at many women’s events focused on image and appearance, and the question that is asked every time is, “How do I tell my [direct report or teammate] their appearance isn’t helping them in their career?” I’ve found managers are often hesitant to bring up the subject because they don’t want to say the wrong thing or insinuate the individual doesn’t know how to dress or groom themselves. Managers also struggle to articulate why image is important and how it’s tied to people’s ability to drive results.
The hardest thing about this is there’s no accounting for taste and depending on an individual’s role, the business case for upgrading their look may be different. For example, salespeople in most professional industries understand they will be heavily evaluated by potential clients based on the first impression of their attire, but may not know how to create the right look. However, a specialist in marketing, accounting, or human resources, may be of the mindset that their level of style or appearance is less critical due to their job duties, influence, or aspirations.
If you are a manager with a team member who doesn’t dress appropriately, you are not helping him or her if you avoid the issue and hope it will go away. Research shows that image is an influencing factor in evaluating employees’ ability to make good decisions, their energy for the job, and their capabilities, which in turn influence whether they can earn respect and be seen as effective over time. Leaning in to having constructive dialogue with actionable advice could make a huge impact on those whose careers are your responsibility. Here are six important steps to help you have the most effective conversation about appearance with employees or teammates.
1. Check yourself.
Simply put, make sure your perspective is the truth before approaching the subject, because the other person will ask you about the basis for the discussion. Did a credible client, peer, manager, or direct report make a comment about the person’s appearance? Do you perceive in meetings that this person’s brand is at risk because of their personal grooming or dress?
Whatever the situation, make sure you have a clear reason and business case for starting the dialogue – and solid reasons to back it up.
2. Prepare mentally.
If you're feeling nervous, remember that feedback can be a gift, and it’s a disservice to the individual when you don’t address the issue. There’s an opportunity to build trust with the person as long as you are coming from a place of caring and a desire to help them succeed. Think about all the possible outcomes this conversation could have and what could derail it. Consider what your reactions would be to each scenario and plan how you would respond. Going through this process also helps you consider the situation even more carefully and see the other person’s point of view.
3. Do your research.
Citing research about the value and importance of appearance will provide some proof points that add more weight to the conversation. It also keeps the discussion more professional and objective. There are books upon books of hard data about how appearance influences others’ perceptions of our competence and capability, and how it affects our self-image and attitude. The article, How You Dress Really Does Matter, cites some helpful research on the subject.
4. Build the conversation on positives.
How you construct the conversation is very important in terms of building rapport. Structure the conversation so you build on the person’s strengths, particularly in the areas of communicative style. Some examples of starting points include:
“You are very experienced and influential in meetings, however, there are times when you need to match the business dress of our clients. It’s respectful to them and brings your credibility up even more.”
“I’m very excited you are in this new role; I think you’re doing a great job. I want to talk to you about how your style should evolve to advance you in your role.”
“I really appreciate your commitment and contribution to this initiative, however there are times where what you are wearing detracts from your message and the great work you are doing."
5. Gain understanding, then provide actionable advice.
After you’ve put it out there, sit back and listen. The challenges of looking the part at work can include lack of time, budget, confidence in one’s style, or a range of other issues. Truly listen to the workwear or grooming challenges this person is having and be prepared to offer help in a number of different ways, like a personal stylist. There are many options for personal styling services, both in-person and online, featured in the article, My Top Five Workwear Retailers That Style Your Wardrobe… Easily. These retailers will capitalize on time, take the guesswork out of shopping, and bring you options for any size budget. Other options include following workwear blogs, building Pinterest pages of professional outfits, and emulating someone whose professional style they admire.
6. Express gratitude and keep building the relationship.
Thank the individual for being open to the conversation, whether you’ve agreed or disagreed or identified a course of action. When he or she shows progress on their personal style, take the time to recognize it and provide reassurance they are headed in the right direction.
It's not a comfortable conversation to have. If we could all practice getting feedback from our direct supervisors and peers this could become easier over time. Leaders who are willing to be direct, forthright, and engage in difficult conversations the right way will help their employees reach their full potential.