First impressions still matter: Workplace attire affects promotions, say 80% of managers

Group of female businesswomen working together on a laptop.
Crisp and ready for the day is still seen as the best approach for work apparel. (bernardbodo/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images)

You are what you wear. At least at work.

While the last couple of decades have seen a decided loosening up of work attire, a survey by OfficeTeam says what you wear in the office still matters:

  • Some 86% of workers and 80% of managers see apparel choices affecting chances of getting promotions.
  • Employees spend 11 minutes on average everyday choosing their office attire; men typically take longer than women.
  • There has been some loosening up. Jeans, sneakers and leggings are more acceptable to wear to work now than five years ago.
  • Tank tops, "cold shoulder tops" and shorts are less acceptable compared with five years ago.

Dress professionally

"Dressing professionally establishes credibility and helps others envision you in a role with greater responsibility," said Brandi Britton, a district president for OfficeTeam, in a statement. "Employees shouldn't assume casual attire or the latest fashion trends are OK for the office. It's always a good idea to observe what colleagues in more senior positions typically wear."

There are consequences when employees don't measure up. Forty-four percent of senior managers have talked to an employee about their inappropriate attire, and nearly one-third (32%) have sent employees home based on what they were wearing, the survey said. Thirty-five percent felt awkward stepping in, and another 15% didn't want to have the conversation.

Tattoo You

There is a reason for hesitancy. It’s hard to keep employees. Even tattoos, once taboo in the workplace, are now commonplace in many offices, as employers found that to keep or attract talent, they needed to overlook this method of self expression.

“For years, companies required stringent dress codes for both men and women due to cultural expectations,” said Andrew Challenger, VP of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, in a statement. “A well-dressed workforce was considered key to running a respectable business. But with the startup culture and the work-from-home trend, some companies have started to relax the rules.”

Challenger offers the following tips for workplace attire:

  • Dress like you are meeting with your CEO every day. Workplace culture may say another thing, but you should always be in well-fitting, clean clothing, appropriate for your position and duties.
  • See how other employees are dressed: Every workplace is different, but dressing as casually or formally as your colleagues is generally a good practice.
  • Tattoos are commonplace in most offices, and they rarely cost a job seeker a position. But they should be covered if they are large, distracting, or potentially offensive.
  • Come up with a “work uniform.” Once spoken about by Steve Jobs and other tech leaders, a new trend for the workplace is wearing the same thing every day, reportedly to free up brain power toward other topics.

CEOs feel the best offense is looking one’s best as a way of showing commitment to a job and being best positioned for clients.

Dress for 'battle'

“I always want to be properly dressed for so-called battle, and I want my team to be as well,” said Vishal Agarwal, CEO of investment manager Full Circle Africa, in an email. “I once sent a team member home after he showed up at the office unshaven. This may be a bit anachronistic today, but I believe in the structured discipline and intensity of doing business, and I feel it’s important to dress the part. I believe it impacts outcomes.”

“While today’s business culture has increasingly allowed casual wear, in part to bolster its image as a desirable place to work, staffers should still be mindful of dressing to impress,” said Merilee Kern, CEO of Kern Communications Management, via email. “Perceptions of a staffer’s image, and what that image says about the employee’s persona at large, is an intangible yet powerful facet that can make the difference in the pace of one’s career trajectory. One who goes through the effort, time and expense to dress up more than is required can reflect many favorable attributes like professionalism, pride, ambition, eagerness, and reverence for the current opportunity.”

John Crossman, CEO of Crossman & Company, said in an email he dresses “for my clients and I encourage my staff to do the same.”

If clients are more casual, so is he; and if they wear a more formal attire he follows suit.

“It is my job to serve them and part of that is respecting their culture,” Crossman said. “If they value wearing suits and ties, then I will match them.  It is a sign of respect.”