Dressing for Success? Context is Everything

July 20, 2016 11:48 am

EY and Time Warner executives share tips and advice on executive presence and the role appearance plays.


By Eve Tahmincioglu

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Time Warner’s Yrthya Dinzey-Flores

“Always be prepared to meet with the CEO,” advised Yrthya Dinzey-Flores, executive director, corporate social responsibility & diversity at Time Warner Inc., about what to wear at work if you’re looking to climb the ladder. (Time Warner is No. 37 on the 2017 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list.)

It’s a concept Dinzey-Flores had to learn the hard way.

Early in her career, she was identified as someone with high potential, but her decision to keep wearing jeans to the office — something many other employees were doing — hindered her advancement.

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You can be trendy but still be professional, says Diney-Flores

“I should have pivoted but I didn’t do it fast enough,” she said about going from casual to professional attire at work.

In the end, it didn’t hurt Dinzey-Flores’ career advancement because she ultimately pivoted to a more professional wardrobe, but she learned a valuable lesson: what you wear can impact your career trajectory. So, she advised, “Dress for the job that you want.”

Appearance is a contributing factor to so-called executive presence — something that research from the Center for Talent Innovation found women and diverse professionals often lack or don’t give enough credence to.

“It’s important to look professional all the time as part of executive presence,” Dinzey-Flores explained. “It’s important to be conscious of what you’re wearing and what it says about you.”

[Related content: Executive Presence, A How-To Guide.]

But the significance of appearance shouldn’t be overblown.

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EY’s Diana Solash

The three components of executive presence are gravitas, communication and then appearance, said Diana Solash, EY’s (No. 1) director, global and Americas diversity and inclusion.

Appearance, she pointed out, is only 5 percent of executive presence. But even though it’s a small percentage, she continued, “It’s a very important first filter. It takes 28 milliseconds to make a first impression.”

But even if you nail your work fashion first test, that alone won’t carry the day, Solash stressed.


Fashion is just the first filter, Solash stresses.

Indeed, no matter what we’ve been conditioned to think by Madison Avenue and fashion magazines, clothes don’t make the woman or man. Your fashion choices, Solash noted, “won’t help you to show you can make decisions, or show confidence.”

Her advice is to not overthink what you wear, but just dress according to your job’s context. For example, she explained, “If you’re going to church you dress a certain way, versus hanging out at a friend’s house. It’s the same thing with business.”

Here are five tips to help you get the job-fashion context right:

  1. Trendy Trap

The news from the fashion runways in Europe recently has been all about sandals with socks for men. This trend, reminiscent of your grandfather’s fashion choices, is probably not a good call for office attire no matter how retro or cutting-edge it may be.

grandpa 2If you’re a fashionista you might be thinking, “Why can’t I just be my fashionable self?”

That’s where it gets tricky, said Solash. It’s okay to be fashionable, but you don’t want to be distracting.

She knows all too well about how trendy doesn’t always equal appropriate work attire.

She recalled deciding to wear really trendy, big wedge shoes to the office on a casual Friday — but she wasn’t expecting any top managers to be in that day. The problem with the shoes was that they would make a noise when she walked because they stuck to her feet, something like “cloppity, cloppity, clop.”

Unfortunately, she continued, “The vice chair of talent happened to be in the office. Maybe it was just me, but I was thinking, ‘She’s not listening to what I’m saying. She’s listening to my shoes.’”

Luckily, she added, “People can overcome their fashion mistakes once people know what you’re talking about.”

  1. Too Casual

Do not wear flip-flops to work. I repeat! Do not wear flip-flops to work…unless, of course, you work as a lifeguard.

Expert after expert, and almost every executive I’ve interviewed, is in agreement that proper shoes are a requirement when you go to work. Flip-flops are comfortable, but they send the wrong message at work.

“I grew up in the Caribbean and we believe in wearing flip-flops on vacation, but they’re not appropriate for the office,” stressed Dinzey-Flores.

Time Warner does not have a formal dress policy, but in the summer the company does have a more flexible dress schedule. But, Dinzey-Flores noted, “We remind people of things that aren’t appropriate office-wear.”

If you want to wear flip-flops to work on your commute during a hot summer day, make sure to change before you come into the office, she advised.

Speaking about hot days, shorts are another item employees should probably take a pass on at work. Men in particular should not wear shorts to work, Dinzey-Flores said. Also, forget about t-shirts with cartoons on them.

And even though it hasn’t been an issue at Time Warner, one of Dinzey-Flores’ previous employers had to send a memo out to all employees asking them: “Please don’t wear pajama bottoms.”

  1. Is There ‘Too High’ or ‘Too Short?’

How high is too high for heels? How short is too short for skirts?

These are perpetual questions women ask themselves.

Dinzey-Flores likes to wear high heels, but she doesn’t often wear them to work.

Again, it’s about context. When she worked for an auto plant and had to visit the factory floor, it was unrealistic to wear high heels because they weren’t safe.

And think about how such choices impact what you’re trying to convey. “If I go to an auto plant in 4-inch heels to talk about diversity and inclusion,” she asked, how will that be perceived?

To that end, Dinzey-Flores said: “I never wear miniskirts.” But, she added, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be worn if a woman thinks they’re appropriate for their workplace.  “Wearing mini-skirts is a very personal choice.”

“It’s about hemlines, the kinds of fabrics and colors you choose to wear,” she continued. “You have to be conscious about what is the image you want to project when you walk in a room.”

  1. Open Your Eyes

It’s important to look around you to get cues from other employees and managers on what’s appropriate to wear.

And this can change depending on where you work, as well as in different towns and countries.

Solash said she doesn’t wear stockings in the United States, but when she travels for work to other countries there are different expectations of women.

In India, she said, there was one office where she got feedback from the local employees that she should wear a long skirt and stockings. “I opted to wear pants,” she said.

“You always have to ask,” she explained, especially if you’re traveling abroad.

When it comes to meeting with clients, especially with their C-suite, she said, “Err on the side of formal.” But again, asking questions is critical. A client may be a laid back start-up, for example, where showing up in a suit could be awkward.

During a few job interviews in the past, Dinzey-Flores made sure to ask about the culture and whether it was a formal environment or not. Questions like those provide clues on what you might be expected to wear.

  1. Being Your Authentic Self

For diverse employees looking to move up in their careers, sometimes they face questions of whether embracing who they truly are will impact advancement.

One recent example highlighted in DiversityInc Best Practices was of a young Black woman whose curly hair ended up a viral post with the headline “Unprofessional Hair.”

“I do think people have notions of what more professional and more formal looking is, but I do also find a changing trend about curly hair,” said Dinzey-Flores. “I do wear my hair natural, and sometimes I wear it in the traditional straight fashion.”

In the end, it’s not about just fitting in.

“We all make assumptions,” she continued. “It’s about how do we help people understand what the culture and our work environment is and how do we express that in an authentic way for everybody.”