Appearance Counts: Making Lasting Good Impressions at Work
One of COVID's workplace legacies is working from home in yoga pants and flip-flops. Another is stories of coworkers who appeared on Zoom meetings dressed for work only from the waist up.
But now that many people have resumed in-person work, the issue of proper business attire is back. One thing the pandemic has not changed is that people will still judge workers and their workplaces based on appearance.
In Fundamentally Different, author and CEO David J. Friedman contrasts two fictional CPAs: one who dresses professionally and whose office is neat, the other who appears disheveled and whose office is cluttered with files and paperwork. Friedman asks, which service provider would make you feel more comfortable doing your income taxes? The one whose attention to the details of their appearance and office, as that person gives a sense that they will pay attention to the details of your tax filing.
Personal appearance conveys a sense of pride in one's work. A tidy, bright, and clean workplace gives customers a sense that the company is proud of who they are and what they do.
Looking the Part
Twenty years ago, when Gallup surveyed employees about how they dressed for work, 12 percent reported wearing formal business clothing. A September 2023 poll found just 3 percent typically dress in business professional clothes. The drop-off shifted in favor of business casual attire. The proportion of workers who wear casual street clothes or uniforms did not change over that period (32 and 23 percent, respectively).
But regardless of what workers are wearing, the key is how they wear it. Is the shirt tucked in? Are the shoes clean? There's no difference between wearing a business suit or a uniform if both are neat and clean.
Customers respond when dealing with someone who "looks the part" rather than someone who doesn't seem to care how they look. When an employee does not present well, they start a customer encounter with one strike against them.
Of course, "looking the part" depends on your organization and industry. Whether someone's role is client-facing is also a factor. But as noted in a Forbes post,
"Putting thought and time into how you are showing up to work shows your fellow employees, boss, and clients that you are serious, capable and care about what you do."
It's about much more than just presenting a good impression to customers.
Appearance and Pride
Presenting oneself neatly at work indicates pride and confidence in yourself, your work product, and your employer. Workplace engagement expert Isa Watson says,
"Pride means that employees wake up and are happy to be associated with their employer. They think: a) I like the people I work with, b) I respect the brand, and c) I feel good about the impact we're having on the world. Without any one of those components, they're not going to have as much pride."
Friedman noted that the military understands the linkage between pride in appearance and pride in one's work. U. S. Army regulations describe this relationship as,
"The Army is a profession. A Soldier's appearance measures part of his or her professionalism. Proper wear of the Army uniform is a matter of personal pride for all Soldiers. It is indicative of esprit de corps and morale within a unit.
Soldiers have an individual responsibility for ensuring their appearance reflects the highest level of professionalism. Leaders, at all levels, have a responsibility for implementing and applying the standards contained in this regulation to ensure the best interests of the Army, including our shared traditions and customs."
Taking pride in your appearance at work should also extend to the workspaces. There's a relationship between an orderly work area and performance. We all know someone whose desk is piled with paperwork and files. Yet they seem to know where everything is. They would be even more efficient if their desk was better organized.
Care for the organization's facilities links to care for the employer itself. A 2021 survey by WorkProud found that employees were evenly split between those with a high level of pride in their company, a low level, and something in between. The WorkProud study authors noted that,
"The lack of pride can be an early indication of other issues and problems that can create a crisis for corporate executives. But high company pride can be a competitive advantage, helping to power employees and companies to new successes. It can encourage workers to brag about their workplace and nominate employers for awards and other honors."
In Fundamentally Different, Friedman describes how inviting customers and prospects to your office gives them a sense of who your organization is and how you work. This can be particularly helpful in industries that demand high trust in a service provider. It requires a team effort to ensure that not only one's workspace is orderly but that common areas such as lobbies, conference rooms, and loading docks are also clean and organized.
Knowing that a client or prospect could pop into your office makes it imperative that all employees feel a sense of ownership in ensuring that the facilities make a good impression. People like to do business with those who hold their companies in high regard. If appearance conveys a lack of employee respect for the company, customers may consider taking their business elsewhere.
Encouraging employees to be more conscious of appearance can be tricky. Staff members may lack self-confidence, which may reflect in their clothing choices. People may believe the cleaning crew is solely responsible for the facilities' cleanliness. Present an example of what you expect of your employees. Show the team that they don't have to wear a business suit to look professional. Clean up spilled coffee in the break area when you grab a cup.
The root cause of a failure to care about one's appearance at work is often a lack of engagement. If people aren't happy to come to work and don't feel connected, it's difficult to expect them to care about their or the organization's appearance.
Feeling connected to their employer's mission and purpose is one way in which Gallup measures employee engagement. Dr. Jim Harter, Gallup's Chief Scientist for Workplace Management & Wellbeing, noted in a recent podcast,
"Managers are particularly in a position to help people see how their work connects to the customer and the end goals that they're trying to reach as an organization. It's a really important item that we've seen drop recently, where people are feeling less connected to their employer. But it's one that's very actionable, with great managers helping people see how their work matters."
A good manager is a coach who conveys objectives, sets priorities, and engages team members in frequent conversation. A blog from Great Place to Work provides some examples of ways leaders can better engage their staff and encourage pride:
- Check in periodically. Get to know employees' names, interests, and abilities. Stop by their work areas and just check in to see how things are going. Let them know that you care about them. People feel good about their work when they feel they are noticed and valued.
- Communicate the organization's goals. Employees can't be engaged if they don't know what's expected of them or what the company is trying to achieve. They need to see how their work ties into the bigger picture. They must know that their work matters.
Increasingly, employees want to be aligned with an organization that shares their values. They are scrutinizing whether their employer is sincere about its organizational identity – what it conveys to the outside world, its strategy, and how the leadership behaves.
- Promote the right people. Some people are promoted because they are simply good at what they do. But today's managers are coaches who can encourage, empower, and engage staff. They need to be visible and know their people. A good leader makes all the difference in determining whether employees are engaged and feel proud of their team and work environment.
- Provide meaningful appreciation. Part of knowing your team is acknowledging what they do well rather than just pointing out what went wrong. People feel good when their performance is called out for contributing to the company's success.
- Encourage team interaction. One of Gallup's engagement keys is "having a best friend at work." Allow opportunities for teams to get to know one another. Encourage collaboration. Doing so will help employees feel pride in their teams, which is part of overall company pride.
A Culture of Pride
Employees' pride in their appearance, work product, and workspace reflects the organization's culture. When employees feel good about their assignments, the company's identity, and their teammates, they naturally project professionalism and order. And that translates to happier customers and better business results.