Following a Dress Code at Work Can Get You Promoted — It Worked For Me

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Melissa Hereford
When the Hogwarts Express pulls out of the station, the witches and wizards on board change into school uniform — their student robes. It's their school dress code, and every student is expected to wear the same kind. Otherwise, they'll get in trouble. (And if there's one thing that we can learn from "Harry Potter," it's that getting in trouble for a school dress code violation isn't the best thing to get in trouble for!)

Though you may not be in school (and you may not be a wizard), police officers, firefighters, doctors, nurses, chefs and workers across the world put on uniforms every day.
Wearing a uniform is not about whether you prefer a polo shirt to wearing black tie attire or whether you hate t-shirts and love dress slacks. It's about using your clothing to show the world what you represent. Employees use their uniforms to command respect, to show their authority, and to make themselves easily recognizable.
You can (and should) use this same tactic to advance your career.
Photo via Instagram/@rawlybold
Photo via Instagram/@rawlybold
Regardless of whether you spend your workday in a button-down shirt or strictly in business casual attire, the clothing you wear has a serious impact on your career path. By elevating what you wear to be more than just the official company dress code, you can also command respect, show your authority and easily establish yourself as the recognizable leader you want to be.
Like it or not, you’re judged by the clothes that you wear. And no matter how many times you complain that people should look at your work, your results, and your accomplishments when it’s time to promote you, they will also look at your pants, your shirts, and the other items you wear. It's not because they're factoring your sense of fashion into your work performance. When your supervisor looks at your clothes, they're actually asking themselves, “Can I put this person in front of my boss? Can I send this person out to visit a customer and feel confident that she will represent the company in a way that we want to be seen?”
Eighty percent of executives surveyed said that what you wear is a factor in promoting you. If clothes have such a major impact, we need to dress like it! To start, wear clothes that mimic the style of the people who have the job you want. Imitating the style, uniform, and dress code of that level of management in your company will make you more promotable.

Why does this work?

I teach women to negotiate — a skill you use every day, all day — to get your peers, coworkers, direct employees, customers and vendors to agree. The most successful of these day-to-day agreements help us move forward without damaging our relationships, as well as make our relationships much better.
Imagine you’re in a meeting with your peers. You’re all wearing jeans and hoodies — the standard dress code for your office. In walks a manager from a different group. She looks around the room and sees you, wearing jeans and a nice blazer. She’s also wearing jeans and a nice blazer, because that’s the dress code for her level of management in your company. She needs help with something. Who is she likely to be most drawn to? The person who looks like her. It’s human nature.
Photo via Instagram/@sistersinmedia
Photo via Instagram/@sistersinmedia
We trust people who look like us, who are wearing the same uniform.
Choosing between wearing skirts and dress pants suddenly seems a lot more important, right? When we match our clothing with other individuals, we are subconsciously establishing a rapport. In general, building rapport is a powerful negotiation skill and a big part of coming to an agreement everyone feels good about. Making a connection can be as simple as finding things in common that we can talk about, shared films we love, or the school we graduated from.
And yes, we do subconsciously bond over how we look. At work, this subconscious behavior is called "mirroring." It’s mostly used to describe when we subtly imitate speech patterns and body language, but can also be applied to your personal dress code.
That doesn't mean you should ditch your closet of casual outfits in exchange for the cocktail dress that your boss wore to the holiday party, or the business attire that she's regularly seen in. I’m not suggesting you cross the line and dress exactly like your boss, i.e. becoming her “mini-me.” Definitely avoid wearing the exact same thing, but dress similarly. Mirroring, at the most visible level of consciousness, shows that you are the same, and therefore more trustworthy.

Don't believe it? Here's how I used mirroring to get promoted.

We women have a complicated relationship with our clothing, especially compared to men. There were days in my past where I stood in front of a jam-packed closet full of navy blue button-down shirts and outfits tied to the company's formal dress code and wailed, “I have nothing to wear!” But all of that changed when I adopted a work uniform.
While school uniforms can feel restricting, work uniforms are the opposite. By focusing on already-worn pieces and a smart, casual look, I chose to fit in and to create a uniform that mirrored the culture of the company. This also made everyone comfortable with me, whether I was the highest- or lowest-level person in the room. No one ever worried about what I’d be wearing when I showed up for a meeting. That’s the beauty of mirroring. No one thought about the way I looked because I looked like them.
Photo via Instagram/@colleenfinnegan
Photo via Instagram/@colleenfinnegan
At the end of the day, what you wear to work is just a small part of getting ahead. But if wearing jeans can help you score a point with your boss, the small advantage that clothing provides will definitely help you get ahead.
Ideally, you’ll find a place to work that perfectly fits the way you like to dress and act. Though it takes a lot of work to find and get a job at that place, you have a better chance of moving to that perfect job once you hit the next level in the company you're already at. You can adjust a few things in the way you show up at work for now, with the understanding that it’s not forever.
Use mirroring as one of the tools in your professional toolbox to build rapport and help you get ahead.
What do you do when the unexpected happens? That moment when the other person interrupts you or says something you weren't prepared for? Melissa Hereford will teach you how to Negotiate With Confidence — check out her website!