What do your work clothes say about you?

The recent furore about the woman who was sent home from work for refusing to wear high heels has kicked off discussions about what’s OK to wear to work. (If you’ve missed the story – where have you been? – you can catch up on BBC).

It’s a tricky one.

Some employers have good reasons for laying down a dress code. They may provide a uniform so that everyone looks consistent to customers and service users – think airlines and department stores. They may need to distinguish job roles and help people get an idea of who does what, for example, emergency services (dear NHS: the colour scheme for nurses is waaaay too confusing). They may need to provide protective clothing as part of the get-up, such as on construction sites.

In more corporate environments, the need for dress codes becomes a bit murky. Banks and other financial institutions expect to present a professional appearance; some can be restrictive to put it mildly – see this post from efinancial careers.

UBS was no doubt trying to clarify matters when it dropped its 40-page dress code on employees, which included what not to wear under a white shirt (it was subsequently withdrawn).

What if the dress code at your place of work is less restrictive? In some ways, that can be more of a minefield, especially if the term ‘smart casual’ crops up. Debretts has seen fit to clarify what smart casual actually is – not as casual as you might think. Huffington Post offers their advice, which includes the wise words, “Remember it’s better to be overdressed than underdressed!” and even in Tech City ‘play it safe’ seems to be the watchword, particularly when meeting clients.

OK, so you’re dressing ‘up’ (not down), in keeping with the job you want promotion to. You’re playing by the rules, such as they are – tattoos covered up for pitches, no armpit hair on display, shoes not flip flops – but how can you express your individuality?

I think it can really help to be clear about your personal brand. Apply the same rigour as brand experts bring to bear with well-known products and services, and borrow from Amazon’s Jeff Bezos: “Your brand is what people say about you when you leave the room”. Because what those people say about you will not just be about what you’re like to work with, but also about what you look like at work. Try this:

  1. Think about the skills and knowledge that you have around your work. List as many of these as you can. Look back at past appraisals and ask a few trusted colleagues for their opinions in just a few words.
  2. Now consider your value – qualities you bring to the job that deliver what’s expected and more besides. Note these words too. When someone asks for your input on a project, what are they buying and what do they get?
  3. Back to Mr Bezos: if you were to leave the room after a big meeting, what would you want the other attendees to say about you? Brainstorm as many words as you can, add these to the rest.
  4. Finally, see if you can whittle your word list down to just three or four that most resonate with you.

For example, you may end up with ‘innovative, experimental, fearless’ – that suggests some interesting challenges for your personal dress code if you work in a bank, but with other employers you could follow cultural norms yet still be individual. Or, ‘professional, creative, problem-solver’ – that could lead to some different choices. ‘Authoritative, respected, expert’ would probably rule out the tatty jokey t-shirt but a quirky style could be admired.

Develop your brand awareness: notice how colleagues’ personal brands show up in their work clothes – what words come to your mind about them when they leave the room?

You may also find this blog post useful: ’12 ways to boost your personal brand at work’

Dawn is the author of ‘How to be Zoomly at work’, available on Amazon.

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