Helping leadership candidates look the part

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Tactful advice on workwear can make all the difference to a candidate when it comes to promotion to leadership positions

What can HR teams do if they have a candidate for a senior role who ticks every box apart from their appearance? No company wants to risk their reputation or undermine their credibility by appointing a scruffy or inappropriately-dressed exec to the top table, however high their approval ratings may be. Your leadership team needs to look the part – confident, impressive and professional.

So rather than passing a star employee over for promotion because they always wear the same ill-fitting suit or generally look unkempt, you need to give them some tactful guidance. Tackling this issue is tricky, but tackle it you must.

In all fairness it’s no wonder employees struggle to get their work wardrobe right. Business wear has become more casual than ever, so it’s increasingly difficult to navigate what is or isn’t appropriate. When there was one corporate look it may have been deathly dull, but it was easy.

Observe City workers today and frankly many look a mess; some appear to have barely woken up, others like they are off on holiday, and most like they haven’t even glanced in the mirror. Whether the employees are male or female, inappropriate and ill-fitting clothes reflect badly on the company.

The clothes your employees wear have a huge impact on how they are perceived by others, particularly when meeting people for the first time. The impression a candidate makes in those first few seconds is hard to alter. Before they even utter a word their image infers a multitude of things about them as an individual; their perceived level of intelligence, competence, affability, self-esteem, confidence, power, and success.

When considering a candidate ask yourself: could an interview panel picture this employee impressing clients, making high-profile presentations, or representing the company at industry events? Can they raise their game to look the part and make the right impact when it counts?

If an employee is a strong candidate in every way apart from their image they need guidance to improve their work wardrobe, and it needs to be handled tactfully so they aren’t left feeling aggrieved. A frank and supportive conversation is essential, perhaps with a mentor, line manager, HR manager or headhunter. Ideally someone with whom the employee has a very good relationship, who they respect to tell them what it will take to get to the next level on the career ladder.

But more importantly it needs to be someone who can offer solutions and support to them. The thing to impress on the employee is ‘what’s in it for me’; so it’s not like they are being told off.

They may welcome the support. While many businesswomen take great pride in their appearance, studies have found that others struggle with looking the part. According to Workwear Matters, a 2017 joint study between workwear brand The Fold and MBA students at London Business School, one in 10 women describe dressing for work as a ‘constant struggle’.

I’m not advocating a return to company dress codes that many find both patronising and politically insensitive. New official guidance to be published imminently by the Government Equalities Office will call on organisations to scrap discriminatory dress codes and ensure staff are asked to adhere to “flexible and understanding” rules, meaning dress codes must have similar standards for men and women. This is welcome news.

However, the role of personal appearance cannot be ignored when you’re climbing the career ladder. To be the boss you have to project gravitas and look the part. Wearing a power suit or structured dress can do wonders for your confidence. If dressing inappropriately is the one thing standing in the way of a highly-qualified employee being promoted to the top table some tactful guidance and advice is a must.

Lizzie Edwards is an executive personal stylist, image consultant and author of Look Like The Leader You Are: A 7 Step Style Strategy For Ambitious Women

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