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How work attire influences your next promotion


By Neil Amato

Whether trying to join a new organisation or move up in your current one, what you wear matters.

That’s underscored in a recent survey by administrative staffing firm OfficeTeam, even as workplace attire rules have softened over the years.

Eighty per cent of executives said clothing choices affect an employee’s chances of earning a promotion, even though the importance of proper attire has waned slightly over the years, the survey said. In 2007, 33% said clothing significantly affected a candidate’s chances, compared with 8% who feel that way now.

Still, says Richard Wolf, CPA, CGMA, the president of Wolf Advisory Services LLC in Baltimore, Maryland, dress code is important. “It projects a professional image,” he said. “You look at CPAs and the level of work that we perform, and what we do on a daily basis, dealing with clients. You don’t want your CPA walking around in shorts and a tank top.”

Especially in warmer climates, dress-code flexibility is desired by employees, within limits. Miniskirts and strapless tops for women were seen as workplace no-nos, according to a US survey in 2011, although fewer men found such attire inappropriate. Another survey, by salary.com, said that employees judge co-workers based on their attire and quoted one respondent as saying that those who dress more casually are seen as having less respect for the workplace.

Wolf has seen candidates not get jobs because of the way they dressed for interviews.

“I’ve seen everything from people wearing white athletic socks with suits to wearing a skirt that’s way too short,” he said. “That’s not the professional attire you’re looking for. You wouldn’t send them to a client.”

Before forming his own company, Wolf worked for accounting firm Arthur Andersen in the mid-1990s, when the casual Friday movement was becoming more widespread, a welcome relief in Atlanta, Georgia, which is known for its sweltering summers.

“It was drilled into us that you would grab your suit jacket when you went to lunch,” Wolf said. “If you were representing the firm, you wore a suit.”

Wolf said he has seen a shift away from casual dress in some office settings because employees carried the casual movement too far and because companies struggled to define what constituted proper but casual attire.

“I think ‘business casual’ lends itself to more issues and complications,” he said. “People wonder, ‘What am I allowed to wear?’ It can be a slippery slope.”

Rules regarding dress code are meant to be bent depending on the work setting. Wolf gave one example of an audit client requesting that the accountants skip the suits. The client was a company that operated a landfill.

“They were very casual, obviously,” Wolf said. “The owner asked, ‘When you come back, do you mind dressing yourselves down? The employees think you’re IRS agents, attorneys, and there are all these rumours that the company’s being sold, being investigated, because of the suits and ties.’ ”

Here are three tips for doing the right thing when it comes to workplace appearance:

  1. Do some research: Wolf said it’s a good idea to scope out a company’s dress code by seeing how the employees dress. Before an interview, visit at lunch and see what the people coming in and out are wearing.
  2. When in doubt, overdress: If you’re at an interview or meeting a new client, you can always take off your jacket or remove your tie, Wolf said. But you can’t put a tie on that knit golf shirt.
  3. Don’t be careless about the rest of your appearance: Guys, just because you get to wear jeans and a button-down on Fridays doesn’t mean you show up to work with a starter beard and shoes normally reserved for yard work.

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Neil Amato (namato@aicpa.org) is a CGMA Magazine senior editor.

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