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are people judging me for looking scruffy at work? — Ask a Manager

mycolora
August 26, 2020


A reader writes:

I have two bachelor degrees, am in my mid-50s, and work in the public sector. The money isn’t great but I enjoy what I do.

I recently heard someone mention that their boss dressed “poorly” and had grey hair, while they themselves “dressed like a professional woman who made X amount should.” I am wondering about professionalism in this respect.

While I consider myself professional, I am one of these people who is always a bit “scruffy.” I dress in clean clothing and have clean hair, but I am one of those people who can make designer clothes look rumpled. I’m sure you know the type — the people who just aren’t fashionistas, are a little odd and quirky, the misfit who sticks out somehow. The dress pants that should look elegant look just odd on them, the shirts off slightly. Maybe a bit of pet hair or lint, they get ink stains on their hands, never wear heels, etc.

My work is precise and concise, and I am dedicated and a great team player. Yet I have to wonder how many people judge me because I don’t wear designer clothes (I am working poor), I have grey hair, wear no makeup, and wear business casual as per my dress code. What do people like me do who simply aren’t clothing people, aren’t elegant, who simply can’t afford expensive clothing and don’t like fussing with their appearance as long as they are clean and decently attired? I have sticky tape rolls for the lint and stray hair, make sure my shoes are clean, etc. Why does my hair color or lack of fashion sense matter when it comes to professionalism? Shouldn’t it be behavior and work that matters instead of being coiffed?

As long as you’re dressed reasonably professionally and have done some basic grooming, in most fields you’ll be fine.

Let’s break that down. “Reasonably professionally” means in compliance with your office dress code (if yours is business casual, then business casual is fine), with clothes that don’t have obvious rips, holes, or stains (we can debate whether that should be an expectation but generally it is) and which fit reasonably well. “Basic grooming” is less about makeup and perfectly coiffed hair and more about things like not having hair hanging your face and generally looking neat and clean.

In most fields, there is no expectation that you will wear designer clothes or high heels.

It’s fine to have grey hair. Many, many professionals do!

In most fields and in most jobs, what you’re describing won’t be a problem. You’re a little rumpled! You sometimes have an ink stain on your hands. In most jobs, those things are not a big deal.

There are some fields and jobs where you’re expected to look more polished — think fashion, some types of sales, some parts of law, some parts of finance, some types of PR, some services catering to the wealthy. You would almost certainly know if you were in one of those industries. It’s not most of them.

That said, even in fields that don’t expect that kind of polish, sometimes you will go further if you have it, especially as your roles become higher-level. Then again, it’s also true that plenty of people succeed in those roles without it. There are far more “quirky” or “rumpled” people in high-level roles than discussions of professional polish often acknowledge.

There’s certainly a spectrum of “scruffy” and being on the very far end of it can be a problem, but based on what you described, you’re almost certainly fine.



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