Dear New Shrink,

For many years I have worked in an office where a specific dress code has not been enforced. I have enjoyed this environment and have taken advantage of the flexibility by dressing casually. However, I recently had dinner with a friend of mine who mentioned that I might not be reaching my full potential with my firm because of the way I dress. How much does dress impact your career success?


Casual Dresser

Dear Casual,

The way you dress can certainly impact the way that others perceive you. Think about meeting someone for the first time. Notice the details you pay attention to and the opinion you make based on what you see. My guess is that dress is one of the key details you pick up on. Dress definitely communicates a message to those around us.

Some managers believe that the way you dress can show your level of commitment or engagement. A 2008 survey found that over 40 percent of employers indicated that those who dressed professionally were more likely to be promoted. While dress can be industry or company specific, taking time to consider your look can be important for your own professional development.

Beyond showing commitment and engagement, dressing professionally can be a symbol of respect to others. Even if your workplace is casual, it is important to dress up for client or management meetings to show respect and build trust and confidence. If your workplace does not enforce a strict dress code, you may find it helpful to keep a jacket in the office in case of a last-minute meeting. Dressing the part does not need to involve a major shopping spree. Consider easy ways that you can dress up your typical work wear.

While the components of your wardrobe itself may make a difference, it might also be the way one feels when dressed professionally. When you feel good about yourself, and the way you look, you tend to have a more positive and confident approach to your work. It may be these key characteristics that managers are picking up on when making salary or promotion decisions. Studies also show that employees tend to dress up during a down economy. It’s likely that when times are tough you can’t afford to look too laid back. Dressing the part may be a key component of maintaining or advancing your career.

However, business formal dress isn’t everything. For some industries relaxed dress codes have become industry standards. It is not always about wearing a suit to work, but rather wearing clothing that fits you well. An employee can look unprofessional in an ill-fitting suit and another employee can look well dressed in tailored jeans and a sport coat. Rather than looking for standard answers on what to wear, compare your dress to others in your office. Focus specifically on colleagues who have been promoted and note how they dress. If you dress more casually than most employees then you may want to rethink your wardrobe. Beyond clothing, it can also be your grooming techniques. If you frequently show up to work unshaven, with wet hair, or otherwise unkempt, you are sending a message.

Finally, remember that some companies are successful because they allow employees to dress however they like. Your dress is an extension of your personality. Working for a firm that appreciates your individuality may increase your devotion to the company mission.

Katrina Davy is a professional career counselor who holds degrees from Cornell and Columbia universities. Got something on your mind? Send your questions to All questions will be kept anonymous; let us help you with your life matters!

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