It’s easy (and important!) to look professional

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything here. Now that I’m getting back in the saddle, I’m starting with something simple…

When I was at UNC, I remember volunteering as a jury member in a mock trial for the law school. I sat and watched six law students argue a case and I helped render the verdict. I remember nothing about the case, but I do remember RHE.

RHE was a law student on the losing team of attorneys. I know his initials because he had them sewn into the cuffs of his shirt. I remember the cuffs of his shirt because they were hanging out of his suit jacket the whole time. They were hanging out because his shirt sleeves were about four inches longer than his jacket sleeves. All I could look at was RHE, the entire case. Those three miserable, overly exposed letters. I voted for the other team for probably no other reason than RHE’s unnecessarily long sleeves.

Now that may sound shallow, but the truth is that there is such a thing as an attractiveness bias in humans. Part of it is conditioned; part is innate. Mothers pay more attention to more attractive babies and babies are more likely to look at pictures of attractive people. In the 1960 presidential debate between Nixon and Kennedy, people who listened to the debate on the radio thought Nixon won, while people who watched on television thought Kennedy won (look at video from the debate if you need help understanding why).

When you take this into consideration, you can understand the need to look professional, especially in fields that require you to be in front of people. Credibility is important and, quite frankly, looking dumb can hurt your credibility (right, RHE?). Now listen, I’m not saying you need to go out right now and buy Brooks Brothers suits or anything. What I mean to say is that there are some simple rules you can follow to look professional — not better for the club or the gym or whatever — that can prevent you from losing credibility before you even open your mouth.

Sorry, ladies. This is for the guys.

First, for heaven’s sake, wear clothes that are the right length. Your pants should touch the back of your shoes and there should be no more than one break in the front of the pantleg. If you’re wearing a blazer, your shirt sleeves should just barely peek out at your wrist when you’re standing with your back straight. If you’re wearing a jacket, I shouldn’t be able to see if you have your initials on your shirt cuffs…

Never button the bottom button of your blazer. I don’t care if it’s 60 degrees below zero; that button isn’t going to help. No blazer in the world, except for double-breasted blazers and military uniforms, should have the bottom button buttoned under any circumstances. Period.

Use an iron. Use collar stays. Nothing makes you look more apathetic than wrinkly clothes or a curled-up collar.

Clean your shoes. Having dirty shoes makes you look lazy. Buy some saddle soap and a rag and you’ll be doing better than the average guy.

When all else fails, wear solids. Some patterns can work together, like wearing a dotted tie with a striped shirt, but don’t be edgy on this. There’s a difference between being a trendsetter and looking like a fool. Try to avoid both in a professional setting.

Wearing brown shoes? Wear a brown belt. Black shoes? Black belt. That simple.

OK, those are easy ones. Remember that in a professional setting, you not only represent yourself, you also represent your organization. Remember the stinky kid in your elementary school class? He didn’t just represent himself; he also represented his parents. Don’t be the stinky kid.

Have more simple advice? I’d love to hear it. This is most certainly a subject I’ll return to on my blog regularly…

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Pattie Buel

If you don’t have a good eye for color or good fashion sense, find someone who does – an honest friend, the well dressed sales clerk. People do judge on appearances. For example, when I was leaving the private sector we had a contract with both a network lead and a SW development lead. CEO called them in to tell them I was leaving and to decide who should become the new project manager. Both equally qualified but the guy who was wearing the dress slacks instead of the khakis got the manager slot.

Ori Hoffer

Another good rule – dress for the job you want to have, not the one you do have. So even if it’s appropriate to wear khakis and a polo shirt, you might want to take it up one level than the rest of your co-workers.

Richard Louis del Hierro

I agree with all of you that people need to take ahold of their outlook and start to truly dress for success. Where I work you would think that it would be a professional environment but I have never seen dressing to another level and for me it is sad. Not that wearing shorts, flipflops, and t-shirts is not a bad dress but in an office environment I think you have to care about yourself too, not just your government agency. I also believe that we should represent the agency or department that we work for and show people outside our working environments that we are professional.

When I leave my office and people ask me, “why are you allowed to wear there, that is not professional”, or something worse. I think wearing even casual is OK, but to dress like some of the folks I have seen, that for me is way out of bounds and is not professional at all.

I wear a tie except on Friday, but I am completely to the extreme of what is worn in my office. But after retiring from the military I swore I would be professional no matter what. And certainly not playing that gender game but the women dress MUCH better than the men. Women it shows that they have a pride in themselves as well as showing others that the agency is professional too. Good on Women to continue that pride! More men should follow thier lead, because that is what leaders do, they are head of the pack at all times. Lead by example.

Stephen Dixon

Sad but true. A high percentage of people do judge a book by the cover, but fortunately not everyone. I usually find the most genuine and intelligent people pay less attention to their appearance and more attention to the issues. Einstein wes not a spiffy dresser 🙂 But again, sadly your thesis is mostly correct.

Andrew Krzmarzick

When I first started working in DC, I had a friend who insisted on all of these recommendations. So I started doing it. I still to a large degree try to adhere to them in DC…but I’d rather see a culture shift where this stuff isn’t as important and we can be more business casual.