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The Eye of the Beholder

by Reid Abell

Several years ago, the Director of Human Resources for a large, diverse workforce asked me to speak at their Employee Day. My task: to address the issue of inappropriate clothing in the workplace and the employees who were sporting provocative outfits.

She asked for my help because Headway is in the employment business and our career counselors know what it takes to succeed in your career. We recruit and screen applicants for jobs with our business clients, and we've see a lot of applicants. Some fit into a professional business culture, some are be better suited to a more casual work environment. It may seem simplistic, or maybe a bit unfair, but employers can often accurately judge whether a candidate will fit at their company just by looking at them. Image and personal presentation are determining factors in where you get to go in life.

A first impression is the most important impression you'll ever make - and you only get one chance to make it. In this world of creative self expression in clothing, hair color and style, face ornaments and body art, your choices may limit your opportunities. How another sees you is who you are to that observer.

The impression you make in the first six seconds you meet a person is what they carry away. If it's a negative one, it can take as many as seven positive meetings to change that impression. Sometimes, that person may carry a negative first impression forever. Six seconds doesn't give you much time to dazzle somebody with your wit and charm. Start with your best foot forward by matching your appearance to the role you're applying for.

In the first 15 seconds a person you meet will make eight spontaneous decisions about you, subconsciously, if nothing else. They will decide what they think of your friendliness, health, education, job or career, level of sophistication, dependability, trustworthiness and moral character. Scary, isn't it?

After recruiting and working with candidates for years, I believe you can control how you communicate these first-impression messages. Typically, those initial snap judgment are comprised like this:

  • 55% is based solely on appearance, clothing, grooming
  • 40% is attitude and actions, non verbal messages like making eye contact, your handshake, posture, your body language
  • 5% is what you have to say

If 55% of your first impression is communicated by appearance then an employee dress code is important. The dress code influences business, business relationships, and performance. There is a current movement away from "business casual." Perhaps the change is occurring because business casual is difficult to define and enforce. Or, if our work and play clothes are the same might we sometimes confuse our roles? Dress any which way you want to at home, but at work, you have a specific role and should dress to match it.

Forty percent of the first-impression is based on the way you behave. We behave the way we dress. If that's the case then the provocative attire issue my HR manager friend was experiencing with her work force was really a problem. So how did I handle this sensitive issue in my presentation? "On the job, never, ever wear clothing that exposes or emphasizes those body parts commonly referred to as private." After all, the hiring manager you're interviewing with is naturally making decisions about your personal behavior based on your appearance, so don't give the wrong impression.

Only after this first impression comes the opportunity to dazzle them in speech. Don't shut the door on yourself before you get the chance to open your mouth; if you've got something important to offer, look like it. The career you've been looking for could depend on how the interviewer looks at you.

Reid Abell is a staffing consultant with Headway Corporate Resources.