Last semester while interning in Manhattan I heard a story from a friend; it goes like this— he had been assigned to one of the more straight-edged bosses who was anything but shy. On the first day of the internship, he went into work to meet his new boss. Much to his surprise, the first thing his boss said to him was, “Ever heard of a shoe shine? Those shoes are filthy! Come with me.” Timidly, my friend said “Ok. Where are we going?” To which his boss replied, “To get a freaking shoe shine.”
The point of this story is not to scare you into getting your shoes shined, quite the contrary in fact, as it was the start of a very good relationship between my friends and their boss.
I tell you this story to illustrate the importance of dressing yourself into a job. Recruiters and career services professionals will tell you that differentiating yourself is important in the workplace. There are many ways to do this, not the least of which (also not the most important) is by the way you dress.
I can only speak for men and so to avoid any misguided advice I will stick to providing the male perspective.
1. Wear a suit! You don’t need a $5,000 Armani suit to impress. A decent suit that is worn well and with confidence will go plenty far. My mom used to tell me it’s always better to be overdressed than underdressed and in almost 23 years of life, I’ve yet to find a situation that contradicts her. You can always take your jacket and tie off if you’ve misjudged the formality of an event, but unless you’re a magician, you can’t pull a jacket and tie out of your hat. This brings us to…
2. Don’t wear a hat! I should hope this point is obvious but if it isn’t….now you know.
A simple, crisp suit conveys professionalism.
For most occasions, however, a suit is going to be overkill. But this doesn’t mean you can’t still dress yourself into a job. Just follow these guidelines:
3. Wear clean dress shoes. The hefty decision between choosing brown or black shoes is worthy of its own blog post, so for now, simply make sure you don’t have dirt on your dress shoes from that time you dragged yourself to class through 7’ of snow. No matter how comfortable, boat shoes or “dressy” sneakers won’t cut it.
4. A nice pair of slacks can go a long way in helping you look good, but it’s important that they are cleaned and pressed before you put them on. It’s ok to have some wrinkles from sitting on the subway on the way to work, but a properly placed crease from a dry cleaner will help you to look extra sharp.
5. The most important thing to know when it comes to shirts and ties is that you HAVE to wear a shirt and tie. Eventually you can dress down to business casual, but a tie is an essential article. Tie it with whatever knot you want and make sure it falls near your waist line—too low and you’ll look like a monkey, too high and you’ll look like a clown.
Ties that are too short or too long can make the entire ensemble look awkward.
6. You don’t have to wear your jacket all day, but make sure you have it with you for when you walk into your first meeting with your boss, his boss and his boss’s boss. If it’s a new jacket, make sure you’ve cut the thread holding the back flaps together as well as the thread that has hermetically sealed your pockets.
7. Lastly, wear a belt and socks to match your outfit. Similarly to the dress shoes, exactly which colors to choose is a whole separate issue, so for now just make sure you wear dress socks and a dress belt and if you’ve forgotten either of these (as we all do on occasion), don’t fret. I can tell you from experience that the Kmart on 9th street and 4th avenue opens at 8:00am.
You don’t have to follow these rules every day because it takes a lot of effort. But remember that dressing yourself into a job is about more than being respectful and fitting in—it’s a way to exude confidence and show that you take pride in yourself and how others perceive you (which is really important come promotion time). In this age of tight fitting shirts and skinny jeans, it’s important you understand the difference between the advice you get from a sales associate at Express versus the old-school Albanian tailor in the basement (think Barney Stinson from How I Met Your Mother). When it comes to dressing for yourself into a job, ask your dad or even better, you’re grandpa and that’ll be the advice to follow.
Dressing well is like project management— It’s not about the nitty gritty and whether you’ve tied your tie with a Windsor or a four-in-hand knot or whether your using this risk matrix or that one; it’s about whether you’re wearing a tie and even doing risk management at all.
Sam Disston is in his second year of the M.S. Information Management program at the iSchool at Syracuse University. He works part-time for J.P. Morgan Chase as a business analyst and is a graduate assistant for the Global Enterprise Technology program at the iSchool. He holds a B.A. in Psychology and a B.A. in Spanish from Syracuse University.