It’s a Sunday afternoon and you are strolling through the grocery store focused on remembering which cereal your 8 year old wants (this week) when all of sudden you turn a corner and spot your boss. You immediately look for a place to hide. It’s not that you don’t want to talk about work (which you don’t) but rather that you don’t want to run into the person who pays you to be a professional, while wearing a ratty t-shirt and sweatpants. It’s a Sunday, and you aren’t at work, but you still don’t want to leave that image in their mind.
As awkward as this situation is, especially when you are recognized despite your avid attempts to hide behind the first product available (great. now your boss also thinks you are incredibly interested in the children’s game on the back of the Fruit Loops box), at least you recognize something very important- It matters what you wear outside work.
It’s not fair, but it is true: you are constantly being observed, and judged.
You don’t want your boss to see you because they (hopefully) have a professional image of you that you’d rather not have shattered. They know it’s the weekend, but that doesn’t keep them from thinking, ‘wow, Leslie sure looked rough the other day.’ Most of us want to look somewhat respectable in front of our employers, and we realize that not doing so could potentially hurt our careers. This especially true if you work in a professional services based field. (Think about it- would you want a lawyer from your firm walking around Walmart in an offensive t-shirt? Probably not.)
What we don’t often realize, though, is that sartorially slacking off could hurt our careers- even if the boss is no where in sight.
Nobody understands better than someone working in a client driven field that customers are everywhere. Whether you are a realtor, sales representative, or entrepreneur, future clients are everywhere that we are. I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve been able to tell about my consulting services while hanging out at the dog park, in line at the grocery store, or even in the gym locker room. It is, after all, the logical thing to talk about after that first oh so typical ‘so, what do you do?’ question. As an image consultant I have to be very particular about how I look most of the time (it’s very difficult to make someone believe you are an image consulting professional while you are wearing gross paint covered workout clothes while taking the dog on a walk. Trust me, I’ve tried.) And, I would argue that if you are in a field that offers professional services, that you should too. All it takes is one pulled together outfit for the conversation to move from “oh, that’s an interesting job” to “oh, how fascinating. I could really use your services with my business”. Your appearance can produce strong psychological effects like that. Embrace it.
Side Note- This also works the other way around: if you’re the boss. Employees who see their supervisor looking rough or inappropriate (think mini dress at a bar) are likely to let those observations affect their opinions of you.
If you aren’t in a professional service job, don’t think I’m going to let you off the hook scotch free. Your appearance matters too. Instead of running into potential clients, everyday you are running into potential employees and employers. No job is safe (sorry) and there’s no guarantee that you will be gainfully employed in six months or searching for something bigger and better. Every time your appearance makes others think something of you that is not in line with your personal brand- you run the risk or hurting your career. The last thing you want is to realize that the person you were chatting it up with at the dog park is actually the perfect person to help you get your dream job a few months down the road (when all they can remember was ‘she didn’t strike me as being very pulled together’).
So, am I encouraging you to wear a suit every time you go to CVS? Of course not. That’s just stupid. What I am saying, however, is to figure out how you want to be perceived (ie: your personal brand) and then follow the 90/10 rule. 90% of the time, look the way you want to be perceived. 10% of the time, life happens. I would lie if I said I’ve never been in the grocery store at 2am in pajamas buying all the Pepto-Bismol I can get my hands on (while googling if it’s safe for the animals too).
Say you want to be perceived as a professional who is organized and good at time management. You can still dress casual while portraying these characteristics. Simply make sure your clothes are ironed before going into (and thus coming out) of your closet and that your garments are clean and fit well.
Here’s a good example of someone (who wants to be seen as a professional) dressing casually:
And here’s a bad example:
Okay, that’s probably a little extreme for a bad example, but you get the point. Avoid sloppy and aim for clothes that actually fit. My secret is to have a go-to outfit ready any time I need to leave the house in a hurry. This is generally a nice pair of jeans (I like J.Crew) and a pressed oxford button down paired with cute flats. If I don’t have an ironed shirt, I have several semi-fitted lightweight sweaters that also work well.
Looking like you care, no matter where you are headed will make a difference. I promise! The more consistent you keep your personal brand (including what you’re wearing!!) the stronger your brand (and as a result, your networks, your career, your sphere of influence) will become.