'First name: Mess. Second name: Hot', was the message emblazoned across the T-shirt front of a young executive attending a Saturday office brunch meeting. The dress code was indeed 'casual', but wasn't this a little too casual? A senior executive acquaintance of mine, who attended the lunch, certainly thought so. He had been toying with the idea of offering the executive a project to work on, but now felt unsure whether the person was mature enough to handle the responsibility.
If the young executive represents one end of the spectrum, at the other are the likes of Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer, who routinely wears designer labels to work and is always immaculately turned out. Which of these is preferable? Should the clothes people wear to work matter at all? Most agree that clothes do matter and there is a crying need for better grooming and dress etiquette at the workplace in India.
To some extent, choice of work clothes varies according to the industry a person is in. Some work environments are more casual than others. But still, people often get it wrong, says Shital Kakkar Mehra, author of 'Business Etiquette: A Guide for the Indian Professional'. The book has been selling very well, going into reprints. Consulting firms, pharma majors and some multinationals have been consulting her to articulate a dress guide for their employees.
Mehra says she often gets calls from top CEOs. "One CEO wanted me to counsel a very competent chief financial officer who was indifferent towards dressing appropriately," she says. This was becoming an embarrassment for the company as the CFO was required to be part of negotiating table while striking deals and even had to travel overseas.
Plain hygiene matters too. Often people are heard complaining about habitual offenders in this respect among them, making comments such as: "Can't someone buy that guy a fresh pair of socks?"
Sloppily dressed people often lose out on professional advancement without even realising why they did so. "It's important to look the part," says a top headhunter, focused on CEO-level mentoring and recruitment. A company head recalls that he was actually asked to change the way he dressed if he wanted to take on a larger role.
Indeed, there is research on the subject. Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Founder and President, Center for Talent Innovation, a New York-based think tank, points to the results of a survey of more than 1,000 people in her Harvard Business Review (HBR) blog. The poll has both men and women agreeing that poor grooming detracts from "executive presence".
"Half the women surveyed and 37 per cent of the men considered appearance and 'executive presence' 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," writes Hewlett.
Generally, women tend to take more pains over dressing appropriately than men. "However, both genders flounder when it comes to casual dressing," says Mehra. The big tip here is that casual dressing is no excuse for poor hygiene, lack of grooming or sloppy attire.
Many, however, continue to believe that clothes do not/should not matter. They call those who try to correct them 'snooty' or 'dress-obsessed'. Even in the creative industries where casual dressing is the norm, the yardsticks change when, say, presentations have to be made.
Overall, it is always better to err on the side of formal dressing rather than informal. No one will accuse you of being obsessed with taking showers or wearing crisply ironed shirts.