I first entered the field of career coaching while I was in the process of completing my graduate degree in counseling psychology. At the same time that I was learning about the potential detriments of cultural assimilation in class, I was figuring out how to navigate conversations about professional dress with the clients I was working with on job search preparation. There was some obvious incongruence between what I was learning in the classroom versus what I was learning in my professional realm. This always caused internal tension for me.
One of my most memorable experiences was working work a bright, kind, highly competent international student from India. This particular student was a career coach’s dream: she always showed up to appointments with the utmost preparedness and followed all suggestions surrounding networking, following up, and tailoring her resume to each job she applied to. The candidate had substantial past work experience, including running her own business, and an incredible transferable skill set. However, she continued to struggle with finding a job.
Before an approaching career fair, the student asked to meet to show me what she planned on wearing to the event. She arrived at my office in a beautiful, exquisite saree and I didn’t know what to say. The conversation ultimately resulted in encouraging the student’s freedom to choose for herself while acknowledging that recruiters at the event would be expecting candidates to wear western-style business suits. I went through all of the components of the outfit with her and helped identify local shops where she could find something affordable. Days later she showed up to my office in the most typical, grey two-piece suit and my heart broke. I told her she looked great and wished her the best at the fair. Sure enough, she got a job offer almost immediately after the event and is one of the handful of international students I have worked with who were successful in remaining in the United States after graduation. I can’t help but ask: Was this candidate’s job search success solely based on the fact that she put on that gray suit?
This experience, and my experience working with a variety of other students from different walks of life, really made me think about the concept of “professional dress.” Where do
these ideals come from? Who are we helping by maintaining these ideals? Who are we hurting?
The student’s goal was to find employment in the United States and by those means, she was successful. I just wonder if her heart broke as much as mine did when she had to hang up the saree.
I began discussing the topic of professional dress as it relates to diversity and inclusion. I wanted something to change in the way that we approach these conversations so I started by removing the gender binary that is so often associated with this concept, which I wrote about in my last blog post.
I presented on how to better include the gender spectrum within professional dress materials at the 2016 FloridaACE Annual Conference and was blown away by my audience’s response. After the formal presentation, everyone in the room came together to discuss other ways in which diversity and inclusion are affected by professional dress standards and there was a call for a 2.0 version of the presentation. I had the opportunity to present again during the FloridaACE Drive-in Conference in the fall of 2016 and included a variety of other recommendations based on the requests I received from my industry peers over the summer.
Some of these additional diversity-related considerations are as follows:
● Within your professional dress educational materials, do you have variety in racial representation? It is important to feature models that represent a wide spectrum of diversity, not just one particular type of student/employee. Also, do you make reference to “natural” hairstyles? This concept means different things to different people (for example, between a Caucasian person and a person of color) so I would recommend avoiding this language. If the point is to have neat hair that is out of one’s face, then just focus on that. Hair can be up, down, or out and still be considered professional.
● Age may be less relevant for more traditional campuses, but there are plenty of blended campuses in which age diversity would be important to think about. Ensuring your veterans, for example, are feeling included as well as your more traditional graduate is something to keep in mind. Also, on the flip side—you can’t just have pictures of “adults” at work because younger students will not identify with that. Similarly, most workplaces now have a wide range of age representation among their employees, so this point remains relevant.
● In regards to socioeconomic class, are you offering tips on finding affordable professional dress options within your community? Some schools offer consignment clothing that students can borrow for an interview as well. Employers—can you think of any “perks” you could offer employees to help offset the cost of professional clothing if that is the cultural expectation in your workplace?
● Are you representing people with physical differences? Do candidates in wheelchairs have an example to look to? In regards to body type, do all of your images resemble GQ models? If so… you may want to rethink that.
● Have you ever thought of including professional dress images with someone wearing a hijab? How about a yarmulke? If not, it may be worth reflecting on why this decision was made.
● How do you talk about tattoos and piercings? If you automatically have a “zero tolerance” stance you may be ostracizing the student you are working with/candidate you are interviewing: approximately 50 percent of adults ages 18 to 24 have at least one tattoo and this age range is the largest makeup of the current work force. It is understandable that many industries will still have the expectation that there are not visible piercings or tattoos in the workplace, but you can talk about this from an educational standpoint and ask folks to cover these up in a kind way. For example, I have worked with one employer who offered a job to a candidate before asking him to hide his tattoo. They wanted him to know that he was their top choice for the role and that the tattoo coverage was just an expectation of the job, rather than a reason why he wouldn’t receive an offer.
The reality is that there are industry expectations and western style business suits are not going out of style anytime soon, but there are ways in which we can handle the concept of professional dress with some more flexibility. I don’t have all the answers and I know that it would be a difficult task to ensure that everyone feels included, but I also know that we can all be better at making sure more people feel included. Regardless of our own personal belief systems, political affiliation, or culture of origin, we work in industries that serve people and each day we show up to work we act as role models.
So, what messages are you sending about professional dress?