What’s the #1 Career Killer?

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

6 minute read

Throughout my twenty-year corporate career, and in the twelve years that I’ve been working with executives, I’ve had the pleasure of working with a number of Gen X and Gen Y professionals—clients that are essentially my children’s age. And in many of their corporate and business environments, the dress code has grown very causal in recent years. In lots of startups particularly, jeans and t-shirts are the norm, and I fully recognize that my values shouldn’t get in the way of how I perceive clients’ appearance or chances of success on their career paths.

I recognize that it’s not for me to tell them how to dress, but rather to point out the risks associated with certain manners of dress and to ensure they understand the risks they’re assuming. Yes, wearing khakis with a button-down and a sport coat may be workplace compliant and simultaneously incongruent with self-expression. If self-expression is more important for a client, I understand and respect that.

Be that as it may, there are some important points every professional would do well to remember.

Keep It Clean

Image by Vasilijus Bortnikas from Pixabay

Chief among those points to remember is that nothing takes the place of good hygiene and grooming. Standard grooming exercises like washing your hair, brushing your teeth, tending to your breath—these are things that are often assumed, but a failure to tend to any one of these just once can be career limiting. I’ve had instances when I had to talk to subordinates about their breath or body odor, and although research tells us it takes five positive incidents to overcome a single negative incident, I personally will never forget that I had to have that conversation with those people.

One modern example of grooming issues I’ve noticed recently is that facial hair has made a “comeback” in men’s fashion. This is an area that professionals should definitely pay attention to. If a client has a long, scruffy beard, and his workplace culture supports and appreciates a long, scruffy beard, that’s fine. However, it is more than a good idea to trim it up a little every now and then, to clean up the shape and keep the neck shaved and clean, if for no other reason than to be hygienic.

Dental hygiene is another extremely important area to be mindful of. Because I didn’t take care of my teeth well during my younger, wilder days, I wound up being diagnosed with gum disease, which can cause severe bad breath when not properly treated. Early in my sobriety I realized I had to learn to take care of my dental hygiene differently—I needed to scrape my tongue and brush all surfaces in my mouth, including the roof of my mouth and the inside of my cheeks, to make sure that my grooming was properly completed.

But there were times when my dental hygiene wasn’t practiced perfectly and my significant other would tell me I had bad breath, which was extremely disturbing to hear. We made a standing agreement that she would let me know immediately if it happened again, so it could be corrected and I could learn exactly what to do to stop it from happening again. I never wanted to worry that an incidentally breathy hhhhhhello from me could make a limiting impression on others!

Clothes Make the Professional

Image by Mira Cosic from Pixabay

Finally, let’s talk about clothes. Unless self-expression and comfort are more important to you than being successful in your career, moving ahead, and ultimately gaining some sort of financial and job security that affords you more choices and options down the road, clothing should be a primary concern.

My advice on dress in the workplace is simple.

  • Know your audience and dress accordingly.
  • When all else fails, look to the people you aspire to be like, and follow their lead as best you can in your current financial situation.
  • Some level of stylishness is good, but it should not be the final arbiter of your outfit choices.
  • And finally, consider your choices as if from the outside looking in, and how they might impact your upward mobility and financial security.

The easiest way to rock your work attire is to wear the nicest, cleanest versions of company standard clothing you can afford. If the dress code is jeans, a t-shirt, and flip flops, great! Wear really nice, well-fitting jeans that are clean. Wear a clean, nice looking t-shirt with nothing offensive on the shirt (unless the dress code of the company—including what’s worn by the boss—is offensive t-shirts). And as you likely guessed, make sure those flip flops are in good condition and are clean, and that those toes are properly groomed, guys!

I never will forget when one of my old bosses was confronted with the issue of a poorly dressed subordinate’s subordinate. This particular subordinate was the father of young children, and his ties were regularly covered in baby food and spit-up. My boss told one of my peers to tell the subordinate that he needed to take a couple hundred dollars and buy about a half a dozen new ties.

Ouch. Don’t let this happen to you!

Difficult Conversations

Another common issue we run into with appearance is the super uncomfortable situation that occurs when a male boss has to comment on a female subordinate’s clothing. The old adage, dress for the job you want, not the one you have, really is apt here. My default message in these instances is to point to how women in the upper echelons of the business are dressing. If I have the good fortune of knowing someone higher up in the company who dresses professionally and tends to her image, I’ll name her specifically as a role model.

In all of these conversations I always conclude by reiterating that it’s not for me to determine how they express themselves via dress or grooming or image. My only point is, if there is any risk whatsoever with the tactics a person chooses to employ because of a strong sense of individualism or self-expression, that my client is fully aware of and understands the risk they are taking.

Corporate Culture

It’s also worthwhile to point out that corporate culture can be situational and different from department to department. I’m thinking of a longtime corporate client of mine for which I’ve done a lot of work in two different departments: one is a technology-related department, and the other is finance-related. As one might guess, the cultures of dress and grooming are different in each department.

But even within the tech department, there seemed to be one standard for the developers, who rarely interact with other areas of the company, and one for the project managers, who are in meetings with executive management on a regular basis.

It so happened that one of the developer supervisors we were working with inside that company got promoted to manager and really needed to ramp up their game. They were still in a jeans-and-t-shirt mentality, when they were now getting regularly called into meetings with the CIO of the company. So, we had to have that conversation with them. We started by asking if their career progression was important to them, and they replied “Absolutely.”

Our response was, well then here’s something to think about: Which is more important? Self-expression? Personal comfort? Or security in your job?

Image by Igor Link from Pixabay

The bottom line is this: the challenge with climbing the corporate ladder anywhere, in any decade, is there are so many things over which we have little, if any, control that can negatively impact our careers.

But how we dress and groom ourselves is one of the few things we have total control over, and thus should never be compromised.

If you appreciate Dan’s forthright, transparent style of advice and insight, we invite you to experience it for yourself! Get individualized feedback based on his decades of Fortune 500 and executive experience, all in a one-on-one coaching partnership. Having helped hundreds of professionals meet and exceed their goals, Dan would be thrilled to help you do the same. Send him an email to get started today!