In November this year, Amy Adams chatted at a New York Times event about the effect of image on her career as an actress. Having been cast as a dumb blonde for most of her twenties, she dyed her hair red at 27 – and saw a marked difference in casting responses. “The minute I went red, it was quirky and fun instead of flirtatious and dumb,” said Amy – and her career duly skyrocketed.
Image and career have always been inextricably linked. Career blogs across the internet offer guides on body language, work-wear and personal grooming for the office. But the world is changing; what was true ten years ago is not so now, and vice versa.
Here are four pieces of workplace ‘image’ advice that are quickly proving to be outdated.
What are the primary signs of professionalism? Most people would say competency, respectfulness, self-control, integrity and a strong work ethic. And fair play to them – these attributes are essential for anyone looking to succeed in the workplace.
But what is the image of a professional? A man in a suit? Strange, when 50% of our workforce are female and many workplaces no longer require employees to observe ‘business formal’. An employee at a desk? Bizarre, when 40% of US workers now inhabit contingent job positions as opposed to desk jobs.
The modern workplace is changing, and so must our understanding of what looks ‘professional’. We have outgrown the Mad Men-esque bias of our forefathers, where duping your boss and cleaving to the aesthetic mould was the way to get ahead. Now self-expression and individual appeal is king, as Suzie Elliott of Fortune discovered first-hand.
Your personal brand should be your greatest weapon. The ‘red sneaker effect’ dictates that those who stand out sartorially are those who shine professionally. And, now that diversity is being recognised as a business asset, there is even more reason to be ourselves in the workplace.
Professionalism is no longer a suit you wear; it’s what you do while wearing it.
How much effort should we put into looking good while working? Common sense says little; the work should speak for itself. But in reality only an unrelenting optimist would credit this.
People who look attractive earn more money and are thought to possess more positive qualities. It’s an age-old phenomenon backed up by numerous studies and often termed ‘the halo effect’. But in the case of the workplace, ‘look good’ doesn’t mean attractive – it means observing several unwritten rules and fulfilling a very specific set of criteria.
What rules? Well, it’s no secret that visible tattoos, piercings, beards and long hair in men can have a negative impact on perceived competency. Similarly, a study from back in 2011 showed that heavy use of make-up in women not only correlated closely with perceptions of attractiveness, but actually made people think them more capable. Is that why British women spend an average of 38 minutes a day applying make-up?
Well, maybe they shouldn’t. Not only is it illegal to enforce differing work dress codes upon separate genders, but female workers are questioning the social norms that require them to wear make-up to the office. In a thoughtful November piece, female CEO Natalie Garramone revealed her own reservations about the practice. Beards are no longer regarded as the office anathema they once were. Finally, when even the Daily Mail is anti-heels, employers have to take heed.
There are a lot of studies out there hoping to convince us that perfect make-up, expensive clothes and obsessive self-care are as important to our careers as actual competence. They’re not, and people are starting to realise it.
There’s a popular wisdom going round that, to maximise our professional opportunities, we must optimise our social media. Does this mean every career climber must get blogging immediately?
According to computer scientist and career writer Cal Newport, no. “Any 16-year-old with a smartphone can invent a hashtag or repost a viral article,” he writes in the New York Times. “The idea that if you engage in enough of this low-value activity, it will somehow add up to something of high value in your career is the same dubious alchemy that forms the core of most snake oil and flimflam in business.”
Newport argues that social media addiction not only cuts into time spent on more rewarding tasks, but fosters a short attention span and poor concentration skills – a view backed up by research.
Sure: social media can boost your networks to an extent. But it also has serious implications for your mental health and productivity. Want to foster substance over style? Ditch the Insta and get to work.
Be company loyal.
Millennials. Gen Y. Baby boomlets. They’ve got a whole lot of names for the modern office’s younger denizens. The worst? ‘Job-hoppers’.
Considered to be career suicide by those that came before, switching companies once a year comes naturally to the modern graduate. Conventional wisdom dictates that this harms your employment prospects; surveys suggest that 39% of hiring managers will hold frequent employer turnover against you.
But job-hopping gets a worse rep than it deserves. Candidates with a diverse career background bring more skills to the table, improved access to information and resources and wider, more varied networks. They gain exposure to different industries and business, as well as valuable experience with multiple groups of people. In fact, according to research by the American National Bureau for Economic Research, young people who switch jobs frequently earn higher salaries later in life.
So next time you question the wisdom of sticking in that office job, remind yourself that the world is a big place. Switching things up a few times in your twenties is not, realistically, going to ruin your career prospects long-term.
At the end of the day, the workplace is becoming more and more progressive. Nobody should feel pressure, in this day and age, to conform to an arbitrary societal ideal of the perfect worker. Sure, some stereotypes persist within our working lives – but these assumptions will only change if we challenge them.
Be yourself, be honest with your colleagues, and the satisfaction of true professionalism will be yours.