AML in Print

The Gilroy Dispatch
March, 2009

There's an art to rooming together

Marie, a 48-year-old attorney known for her penchance toward a fashion palette including black, black and more black, has been turned in to the fashion police by her husband.

Nervously, she steps into a box filled with mirrors as her every flaw is picked over in front of TV cameras, and her wardrobe of outdated, graying suits is trashed by the fashion gurus in residence for millions to see on The Learning Channel's hit show, "What Not to Wear." Her eyes never quite seem to leave the ground as she shrinks inward with every critical blow.

Americans have an obsession with appearance. Flip through TV stations, and it's proven over and over again: "Extreme Makeover," "What Not To Wear," "A Makeover Story," and others vie for attention, all the while peddling new looks that are somehow connected with newer, smarter, better participants.

But does what you wear on the job really matter? According to one survey, those who want to rise in the work force had better start by spiffing up their wardrobe.

According to a survey by OfficeTeam, a staffing service specializing in administrative professionals, 81 percent of employees felt the way a person dressed affected his or her work image, meaning sloppy styles like stained, tight, baggy or overly revealing clothing could be hurting more than employees realize.

Some 46 percent of the nearly 1,000 adult workers surveyed said that dress could significantly affect professional image, reflecting the world of unwritten rules in office politics and the increasingly conservative standards brought on by previous downturns in the U.S. economy - the economy being a strong indicator of office fashion - according to experts like Diane Domeyer, executive director of OfficeTeam.

"People tend to form immediate impressions of each other," said Domeyer, in a statement issued in conjunction with survey results. "Dressing professionally provides instant credibility and signals to clients, customers and colleagues that they're working with someone who takes the position seriously."

But the message of conservatism and conformity does not seem to resonate with young workers entering professional fields, according to Lynda Kerr, the director of community education and a teacher for the Coordinated Work Experience program at Gavilan College.

"Most of them don't understand that that's part of the job," said Kerr. "At my other job, we were hiring for a receptionist's position, and I interviewed a young girl - very bright - who I thought would be perfect. The next time she came in to interview with my boss, she had on a wool hat, jeans and a T-shirt. I said, 'I think you should go home and change,' and she responded that this was who she was, and he'd have to deal with it."

The attitude is a common one amongst Kerr's students, many of whom are unwilling to conform to corporate social boundaries despite their desire to work in such environments, she said.

"If someone was to come in to me with their nose pierced, or a lot of facial jewelry, they probably wouldn't get a job," said Kerr. "I know that sounds very prejudiced, but it's almost like religion or your culture. You can do that at home in your private life, but it doesn't belong in the office. If you go in with long fingernails and black polish on, it's just going to distract from who you are and what you can do."

The unclear message of "business casual" also leads older workers astray, said Lisa Mirza Grotts, founder and director of the etiquette training service

In a state that is home to Banana Republic, Levi Strauss and the Gap, plenty of workers wind up confused by what they should be wearing to fit in.

The problem, said Grotts, really started with casual Fridays. While workers in suits were given a general, uniform-like standard to achieve prior to the advent of casual work days, vague dress guidelines for informal business attire led to mass confusion, especially for women.

With men showing up in the jeans and polo shirts they wore on weekends, short skirts, belly-baring tops and way-too-low low-rise jeans made their way into cubicles around the state.

"When we get dressed up for a day we feel better about what we're doing," said Grotts. "It's societal. Do we all want to go around looking like we do around the house? When you walk in the financial district in San Francisco you don't see that, so I think it does have an impact."

When it comes to the everyday, clean and tidy appearances are key, said Grotts. A pants suit with a polo shirt underneath is sufficient for business casual dress on a woman, while a man should steer toward wearing slacks with a sport coat and polo shirt for such days. When it comes to the ever-important job interview, less is more.

She advises wearing a nice suit with coat and tie or, for the ladies, a dress to the knee.

The rules don't apply to every profession, said Dan Lefeber, president of Lefeber & Associates Executive Search in San Jose.

"We're in Silicon Valley, so it's mostly engineering," said Lefeber. "(Dress) doesn't hurt their mobility. I routinely interview people who don't shower, but I think it goes within a certain discipline. If you're in sales or marketing - something that requires you to deal with the public - proper hygiene and dress are important."

But Lefeber cautioned that the clothes, regardless of their fit and cut, don't make or break an interview. More often, opinion is based on first impression, and that is gathered mostly from eye contact, said Lefeber.

In New York, Marie strides out of the dressing room a new woman. In a fitted white skirt and sweater set, she looks up, confidently meeting the eyes of the crew members she passes on the sound stage en route to meet her critics, Stacy London and Clinton Kelly of "What Not to Wear." In the next 10 minutes she looks down only to note the pieces of her outfit that London points out, beaming all the while.

Perhaps clothes don't make the moment, but for Marie they make the moment something she's that much more confident and comfortable in, and having that peace of mind could just seal the deal.

Dress like a pro for your next interview

When it comes to the art of dressing for a job interview, less is more. Experts advise showing yourself off without adding too many distractions. That may mean going easy on jewelry, makeup and perfume or cologne, but it doesn't mean dropping a bundle on an expensive suit, said Lynda Kerr, the director of community education and a teacher for the Coordinated Work Experience program at Gavilan College.

Investing in a few key pieces - like a pair of well-fitting slacks, a white dress shirt and two blazers in classic styles - can carry workers far in a job interview. The pieces don't even need to be expensive as long as they fit well - draping, rather than hugging, the body. A suit's seams should fit at the shoulders and the waist should be large enough to allow the wearer to button it without pulling at the waist.