Thursday, July 14, 2011

Dress to impress gone too far?

We've all been told the advice of dressing for the job you want instead of the job you have.  But is it possible to take this advice too far?  Many career websites will suggest dressing like your boss or two steps above your position and mimicking the dress code of the office as a whole, but what happens when you exceed that dress code?

Let me lay out a situation.  At one or two of the offices I've worked in I've found, very unscientifically, that the assistants and secretaries dress much nicer than their bosses do.  These people are mostly young and women and come into work dressed professionally, but much more fashionably and a little more formal than their bosses.  Outfits might be a matching suit with heels, jewlery and make up or a skirt and heels outfit that looks like it might be out of a fashion magazine.  Their bosses wear dress shirts and slacks mostly and the clothes are older, more conservative, less stylish, and less likely to perfectly match.  The managers are also less likely to wear make up and jewelery. There are female and male managers and the trend seems to hold true for both.

I have a few ideas on why this might be that are complete conjecture:
  1. The assistants have heard the advice to dress your best at work 
  2. The assistants have more recently entered the workforce and as such have purchased more modern and new clothes
  3. The assistants have more time to shop than the managers do
  4. Managers feel more secure in their positions so they don't spend as much time on appearances
  5. Managers might have more substantive assessments around performance rather than no assessments or subjective ones for assistants
  6. Assistants are a group of people with different goals/values than managers or the professionals they manage; they are more interested in shopping and less interested in career progression (the difference in dress holds true between non-managerial professionals and assistants, though it is less stark)
 Some of those ideas are pretty weak.  Do you think any of them hold water?

I'm curious as to the impact dressing very well has on these assistants' careers.  Many of them are similar in age to me and dress better much better, but have significantly fewer and less important responsibilities.  I know we don't take people who dress very poorly seriously in the workplace, but maybe the same could be said if someone dresses significantly better than the norm?  I feel like it would be very dependent on context. The funny part is that the assistants are the ones in our office that can least afford to buy clothes yet the seem to have the most and the newest.

What has been your experience with people who dress better than their bosses?  Does this phenomenon exist in your workplace?  How does it affect career progression?

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  1. Money BeagleJul 14, 2011 05:56 AM
    I really haven't noticed this where I work but we don't really have too much of an 'assistant' level position. It's pretty much managers and worker bees. Until very recently, we were required to wear shirts and ties (the guys) and women had to dress in pantsuits or the like. They've relaxed the dress code just over the last few days so it'll be interesting to see how things change, if at all.
  2. janaJul 14, 2011 05:59 AM
    i work for a government agency and we have a very relaxed dress code. what i have noticed is that the upper level management people still come to work mostly in casual/professional attire whereas the rest of us tend to wear jeans every day. the only reason i can think of is that we are required to "dress up" if we have meetings and the upper level management has a lot of meetings.
  3. No Debt MBAJul 14, 2011 06:03 AM
    Money Beagle - Not having to wear a tie every day sounds like a nice improvement

    jana - That's more what I would expect a workplace to look like. Upper management normally dresses more formally than the rest in my experience which is why I find the reverse happening to be interesting. PS - I hate meetings, especially when I have to dress up
  4. JTJul 14, 2011 10:30 AM
    Someone I know in private equity jokes about the female interns that come work for them occasionally. He said, "you'd think they make more than the managers." They don't. ;)
  5. SquirrelersJul 14, 2011 03:09 PM
    I think that dressing better than the boss happens, no doubt. The bigger issue is fitting into the culture of the workplace at which one is employed. If someone outdresses most people there, it might stand out in a good way or a bad way if it rubs people the wrong way. Best to fit in yet dress on the higher end of the normal range, rather than be an outlier anyway.

    Really, performance and people skills are better differentiators. A great performer who his managers like, but dresses average, will advance more than his/her colleague who's an average performer with average people skills but is sharply dressed.
  6. Miss T @ Prairie Eco-ThrifterJul 14, 2011 06:06 PM
    Our dress code is business casual. People play that out differently. We do have casual Fridays once a month where people can wear jeans. I must admit I prefer to dress up so I am ready for whatever comes my way in a day. I would hate to look scrubby for an important meeting.
  7. Everyday TipsJul 14, 2011 06:13 PM
    I think it depends on the day. For instance, my husband wears a suit to work if he has a client meeting. If he is hanging out in the office, he will dress more casual. I think in many companies, assistants are usual the 'first line' that people come across, and they want to make a good impression (or maybe have been told they have to make a good impression).

    I work part time from home right now, but if I go into the office, it is jeans everywhere. The world has really changed because this used to be a skirt/suit company with heels.
  8. No Debt MBAJul 15, 2011 05:13 AM
    JT - That sounds like what I'm seeing. My question is if supervisors think less or more of these interns?

    Squirrelers - Think you're absolutely right. I'm glad performance counts for more than dress because if it were the reverse I don't know if I'd make it with my distaste for shopping...

    Miss T - Can you handle all of my meetings? ;) That's a great attitude.

    Everyday Tips - Great point on the "first line". Hadn't thought of it, but it makes perfect sense.
  9. 101 CentavosJul 16, 2011 04:03 AM
    NDM - I've often wondered the same. I tend to notice and remember what people wear, and see that even in a business casual environment, some people who can least afford to seem to have a great many clothes to wear. I spend very little on clothes, through a combination of good expensive and long-lasting pieces, and casual inexpensive polo shirts and slacks. But as Everyday Tips said, some assistants or receptions *have to* look nice and presentable as they represent the company on a first-line impression.
  10. No Debt MBAJul 18, 2011 06:29 AM
    101 Centavos - My wardrobe is in desperate need of a refresh due to attrition. I hate shopping so I think investing in quality might be worth it here. I hope you don't work at my office since my current rotation of work clothes is a little slim ;)
  11. Frugal StudentJul 18, 2011 08:40 AM
    I try to dress similarly to my boss and I also dress up at the beginning of class and the end of class. In psychology we learned people remember the first and last impression the best so I use that to my advantage. It seems to me that dressing similarly to my boss makes then more "pleased" with me, perhaps because they are subconsciously associating me with themselves. I do think you should not dress to much better than your boss because it is obvious and then the boss may not like you as much, being subtle is much better.
  12. Invest It WiselyJul 18, 2011 07:17 PM
    I work in a technology company, so you don't see too many suits even amongst the managers. It would look funny if someone did show up to work in a suit. That said, the secretaries are usually better dressed than their peers; I have definitely noticed that!
  13. No Debt MBAJul 20, 2011 05:23 AM
    Frugal Student - Great points. Subtle, but similar is definitely a smart approach for the work place. I'll also have to make sure to dress well my first could weeks of classes as I meet everyone, good advice!

    Invest it Wisely - The engineering roles I've been in were the best, jeans everyday? Yes, please! Suits were worn by senior management most days, but overall the companywas very casual.
  14. Super FrugaletteJul 20, 2011 11:38 PM
    Are the assistants single? Perhaps it has far more to do with attracting a mate than the state of their career. Since you noticed what they wear, I think there strategy is paying off!
  15. No Debt MBAJul 21, 2011 04:55 AM
    Super Frugalette - Good point! I think many of them are single. I'm off the market and our office isn't the best place to be on the hunt, but I wish them the best of luck and hopefully their nice attire helps them at a happy hour!