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Could a makeover save your career?

By Katie Hope
Business reporter, BBC News

image copyrightThinkstock
image captionCompanies often refer people on the cusp of promotion to image consultants

"It feels like since I saw her that things have changed for the better," a 42-year-old female senior sales executive tells me.

The "her" in question is not a doctor or psychiatrist, but an image consultant. The sales executive, who works for a well-known blue chip firm, didn't choose to go - her male boss told her to.

His advice was that she would sell more if she looked less like an accountant or a lawyer and more like an accomplished salesperson.

The company footed the bill for a session with a consultant who advised her on all aspects of her appearance - including her clothing, make-up and hair. "Deep inside I knew something needed to happen, but I didn't know what," she says.

It's too soon after the session to report whether the subtle changes she's made - a new hairstyle, more colourful and better fitting clothing and wearing accessories - have helped her close more sales, but she's pleased with the results.

She is not willing, however, to be named in this article, and anxiously assures me that she wasn't unattractive before.

Her reticence isn't surprising. Despite living in a visually obsessed world where the appearance of people in the public eye is routinely discussed and criticised, in the workplace there's a sense that it shouldn't matter - that the work that you do and how well you do it is all that counts.

'Mocked memo'

image copyrightKeystone
image captionLaw firm Clifford Chance told its US staff: "Think Lauren Bacall..."
image copyrightL. J. Willinger
image caption"...not Marilyn Monroe"

When Swiss bank UBS's 44-page dress code, advising client-facing staff on everything from appropriate underwear to the importance of regular haircuts, was leaked in 2010 it was widely mocked.

Similarly, when law firm Clifford Chance issued a memo to its US staff titled "Speaking effectively", with an entire section devoted to fashion, many dubbed it patronising and sexist.

It included tips such as "think Lauren Bacall, not Marilyn Monroe" and "no-one heard Hillary [Clinton] the day she showed cleavage".

image captionWearing a Superman t-shirt affects how physically strong people think they are

While neither firm got the tone quite right, they are not alone in advising staff on their appearance.

Accountancy firm PwC emphasises the importance of appearance to graduates when they join the firm. It tells them that people make up their mind about them in just 30 seconds, and asks them what they want to be remembered for.

It also has an official dress code for staff, which it defines as "modern professional". It says this enables staff to dress less formally but emphasises that they still need to present a business-like image.

Nonetheless, Sarah Churchman, director of diversity at PwC, says it is a controversial topic.

"When we touch on appearance in the context of personal branding it divides the room. People don't want to think it matters but deep down they know it does. We all make assumptions about people which can be based on superficial appearance," she adds.

'It's not really about clothes'

Karen Pine, a psychology professor at the University of Hertfordshire, says her research clearly shows that what a person wears has a big impact on others' impressions of them and on their subsequent career opportunities.

She says women whose work-wear is "slightly provocative" are judged to be less competent and therefore less likely to get promoted.

image copyrightThinkstock
image captionPeople make up their mind about someone in just 30 seconds

Likewise, a man in an off-the-shelf suit is judged as less successful and less flexible than his counterpart who wears a tailor-made suit, she says.

There is also growing evidence to suggest that appearance does not just affect how a person is perceived, but even influences how they perform.

Prof Pine points to a German study that asked people to describe their character traits when they wore either formal or casual clothing.

She says they were more likely to describe themselves as neat and strategic when in smart attire, and as easygoing or clumsy when dressed casually.

Similarly, she says an airline that experimented with casual dress went back to uniforms because the employees felt more confident when they dressed formally.

"People unconsciously take on some of the characteristics and attributes associated with the clothing. Just this year my research found that wearing a Superman t-shirt affected how physically strong people thought they were and how superior they felt to others," she says.

Authoritative enough?

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionA man in an off-the-shelf suit is viewed as less successful

Juliet Hughes-Hallett, chair of Smart Works, a charity that provides high-quality clothes and styling advice to out-of-work women on low incomes, says it focuses on appearance for this reason.

"Of course it's about clothes but it's not really about clothes. It is often really emotional. They literally can't believe what they look like. They are viewing a possibility where there wasn't one before. The people who are dressing them are feeding their self-esteem," she says.

Image consultant Jennifer Aston says typically her corporate clients are people on the cusp of a big promotion. She recently worked with a man in line for a chief executive role, helping him to look "authoritative enough" to represent the firm both on TV and to clients.

Changes she helped him make included better-fitting suits, a new haircut and glasses.

"People say it's superficial but the way that you present yourself at work can make a huge difference to the outcome of your success."

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