Dress for the Job You Want?

Hectored by the blogosphere, mocked by the press, UBS has recanted its 43-page employee primer on how to appear polished, proficient, and professional. As a result, a lot of up-and-comers badly in need of grooming guidance simply won't get it.

The brouhaha over the Swiss bank's dress code manual, which dictates protocol on everything from heel height to hair coloring, erupted late last year, when The Wall Street Journal reprinted some of the manual's more pointed advice ("Light makeup consisting of foundation, mascara and discreet lipstick...will enhance your personality," and "Avoid garlic and onion-based dishes"). Before one's tasteful nail polish could dry, The Huffington Post and MSNBC were sniggering about UBS's micromanagement. London's Daily Mail likewise derided the banking giant for "tak[ing] the sexiness out of the City." The Vancouver Sun published a translation of the French booklet, the better to caption its own online gallery of snarky photos.

Perhaps the Swiss were a bit over the top in the particulars they imparted. But new research from the Center for Work-Life Policy suggests that the dress code's target audience — those on the front lines of the bank's retail operations, many of them temporary staffers new to the banking environment — absolutely needed the advice, and may have even been grateful for HR's over-rotation on red lingerie, gray roots, and two-day stubble. These turn out to be exactly the issues CWLP survey respondents (1,000+ male and female college graduates working in the U.S. within large corporations) identified when asked what contributed to, or detracted from, "executive presence" (EP) at their firm.

Women, in particular, believed that dressing the part was a vital factor in attaining success: 53% of them felt aspiring female execs needed to toe a very conservative line, avoiding flashy make-up, plunging necklines, too-short or too-tight skirts, and long fingernails — exactly the sort of sartorial no-nos UBS spelled out. Indeed, half the women surveyed and 37% of the men considered appearance and EP to be intrinsically linked; they understood that if you don't look the part of a leader, you're not likely to be given the role. Far from imagining that appearance is a personal matter, they perceived that looking well-turned-out engenders self confidence, a trait they considered the bedrock of authentic leaders.

The research also revealed, however, that it is one thing to grasp the importance of looking professional, and quite another to interpret the ever-shifting notions that define a professional appearance. Women, certainly, struggle more than men to achieve the look of leadership, a factor that contributes to their overall stall in middle- and upper-middle management. On the one hand, they're told to conform; on the other, they're advised to stand out. They're told to downplay their sexuality, but warned against coming off as too mannish and threatening. They know they will be judged on their appearance, perhaps unreasonably so.

Yet they cannot get the guidance they so desperately need, because their superiors are afraid to give it. Men who wouldn't think twice about telling a male colleague to take a breath mint clam up around women. Some fear being slapped with a harassment suit; most simply don't wish to hurt feelings. "Women are so hypersensitive about their appearance already," one male executive shared in a CWLP focus group. "I told one of my directors I thought her skirt was on the short side — that's all I said — and she never wore a skirt again!"

Hence the wisdom of the ever-precise Swiss in detailing the dos and don'ts of personal grooming and banker wear. The "beauty bias," as Stanford scholar Deborah Rhode calls it, continues to favor the attractive at every step along the path to power; when it comes to overcoming it, everyone, from the new hire to the seasoned manager, could use some pointed advice. Since leaders shrink from suggesting that subordinates don flesh-colored underwear, a 43-page handbook on dress, decorum, and grooming is precisely what thousands of would-be professionals need to negotiate treacherous fashion fads.

One can only hope that the new "pared-down" manual of "general guidelines" that UBS now plans to distribute might be augmented with workshops on executive presence , as Morgan Stanley and ADP provide for their female managers, or dedicated sponsorship, such as American Express, Citi, Deloitte, and Ernst & Young have spearheaded among their ranks. Until more up-and-comers — predominantly women — get the constructive feedback they need to succeed, the executive suite will remain the domain of those whose social privilege makes "obvious" what patently isn't to the majority of the workforce.

Not that clothes make the man, of course. But they might make the woman.

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