Like It or Not, Appearances Matter

Casual office attire is becoming more common these days — but, in the words of the emcee at Woodstock, “that doesn’t mean anything goes.” Even if your company’s style is decidedly relaxed, you should be careful about how you dress. If you’re not, you could be hurting yourself without knowing it. We would like to think that the way we dress is superficial — that it has nothing to do with what we are inside. As an employee, you would like to believe that what matters is what you do, not what you wear.

As Old Hem said, “Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so?” This distinction between how things look and how they really are is, I think, a Western thing. We say, “He talks like a common thug but is really a gentleman inside” — and that seems to mean something. Such a statement would be nonsensical to a Chinese thinker. To the Asian mind, form and substance are inextricably bound. (I’m talking about this as if I were an expert. I’m not.

I got this idea — about the difference between Eastern and Western thought on this subject — by reading Chinese poetry and doing business in Japan. I like my concept well enough that I’ve decided it is true. It doesn’t really matter if it is. The point’s the thing.) To the Eastern mind, the form of a person — the way he speaks, the type of clothes he wears, the way he gestures, etc. — tells you about his substance. You can’t act rude but really be considerate inside. It’s a contradiction. Acting rude is in itself an act of inconsideration.

Likewise, you can’t dress sloppily and expect to be thought of as orderly and respectful inside. You dress rudely or crudely because you think it’s OK to do so. Thinking it’s OK to dress that way says something about you. And it’s not just about your wardrobe. It’s about your hair and skin, your posture and your physique, the way you walk and the way you talk.

Jiu Jitsu Master Gracie, whose ideas about manners came from a Japanese martial artist, once corrected me for the way I shoved a chair underneath a desk in his office. He told me it was an indication that I didn’t have the right “idea” about his academy. “If you had the right respect in your mind for my academy,” he said, “you would get the chair under the table this way.” (He picked up the chair and, without making any noise whatsoever, placed it beneath the table.)

At the time, I thought he was being a little nutty. Now, I understand that he was right. Accept for the sake of argument that I am right about this: that your form reflects your substance. What should you do to demonstrate that you are a high-quality person? Keep your hair clean and well cut. Keep your body clean and odor-free. Keep your nails trimmed. Dress in good clothes only (even when they are casual). Speak carefully. (Articulate. Modulate. Pace yourself.) Stand and sit with good posture. Walk proudly. Smile generously. “Studies have proven that people who are considered attractive are more likely to get hired and be promoted, independent of their performance,” writes career coach Barbara Reinhold on

And there are two reasons for that. One is that, despite what we Westerners would like to believe, we do judge one another by appearances. The second reason attractive people do better is that their attractiveness is, in itself, a reflection of people who see themselves as valuable. Like it or not, appearance counts. Probably more than you imagine. When you are in a competitive world — and achieving success anywhere is competitive — why give yourself the handicap of a bad appearance?

Think of it this way: Of everything you need to do to guarantee your future success, improving your appearance may be the easiest. And you don’t need a lot of money to do it. It’s simply a matter of paying attention to a few little things. Being careless about your appearance may save you a minute or two in the morning — but here’s what happens over the long term: You’re viewed, at least by some people, as someone who doesn’t really care. Some see you as a person who is unreliable or rebellious. When it comes time for a special assignment or a promotion, your boss might unconsciously consider your appearance to be a black mark on your record. When you do good work, people will be surprised. Sometimes doubtful. The better you do, the more unreliable you’ll seem. You’ll be talked about as “a very bright person, but . . . ”

All of this will add up to a career of fewer promotions, smaller pay raises, and missed opportunities. Let’s look at a hypothetical (see “Word to the Wise,” below) situation — an extreme example to illustrate the importance of first impressions in business. Let’s say Ed and Bob both start working for the same company for about $25,000 a year. Well-groomed Bob impresses his bosses — both by his work and by his professional appearance. He gets a $5,000 raise after one year.

In the case of the sloppily dressed Ed, however, although he seems to get the job done, his bosses aren’t sure that he’s really “executive” material. He gets no raise — and they explain why. Ed gets the message and changes his slovenly ways. Then, for the next 40 years, Bob and Ed both get 3% raises each year. Bob banks the difference between his salary and Ed’s — and by the time he’s 60, Bob has a nest egg of more than $500,000 — all because he got a $5,000 raise that one time when Ed didn’t. It’s no coincidence that the words “poor” and “slob” are often linked.

[Ed. Note.  Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]