How to Make A Great First Impression

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checkIn the Concise Oxford Dictionary, image is described as “the character or reputation of a person or thing as generally perceived.” Within seconds of meeting you, based on a single observed physical trait or behavior, people will assume to know everything about you (Social Psychology by H. Andrew Michener, John D. Delamater and Daniel J. Myers).  Furthermore, according to research by Dr. Albert Mehrabian of UCLA, appearance and body language accounts for fifty-five percent of an invaluable first impression.

The Relationship between Image and How You Are Perceived

Since light travels faster than sound, you are seen before you are heard. This is why, before uttering a word your visual image will say a multitude about you as an individual (your perceived level of intelligence, competence, affability, self-esteem, confidence, power, beliefs and success) and about the organization you represent (its philosophy, culture, and standard of service).

The National Research Council of Canada’s Caroline Dunn and Lucette Charette found that, “People are affected by your appearance, whether or not they realize it, and whether or not they think appearance is important.”

“I work in a field that is devoted to assessing people,” states Kathryn Ricker, 30, Statistician, Educational Testing Service, Princeton, New Jersey. “One of the concepts we talk about is known as the ‘halo effect.’ That means that if we know certain positive things about a person, we tend to have a generally positive impression of that person, sometimes even in spite of evidence to the contrary. What I’m realizing is that the halo effect also extends to a person’s appearance. I think that is why a positive first visual impression is so important. If someone is nicely dressed and looks well put-together, we have greater confidence in his or her abilities even before he or she has said a word.  If that is the case, why not always have your halo looking its shiniest?”

The Relationship between Appearance and Interview Success

A recent study, conducted by an employment law firm, Peninsula, asked businesses in the United Kingdom what interview habit they found most annoying and found that over a quarter were upset by unsuitable clothing or appearance.

Pamela Monticelli, 50, Senior Recruiter for Sovereign Bank in Tom’s River, New Jersey, believes, “Especially in the financial industry, which tends to be a more conservative environment, a lot of young people don’t understand that we are looking for someone to represent the company. Your appearance is not just representative of you; you will also be representing the company the way we want it to be represented.” She adds, “I have raised four teenagers and every one of them has, at some point, gotten a piercing or tattoo and said, ‘If I am are going to work for XYZ Company they need to accept me for who I am.’ My children need to understand that at some point they might have to modify their appearance to fit into a professional environment.”

Adds Meghan Meyer, 31, Human Resources Manager for The Mercadien Group in Princeton, New Jersey, “A comprehensive and well designed resume will get you to the phone screening process. An articulate person, who speaks confidently about his or her skill sets, will land an interview. But it is how you are perceived during the interview that will leave the lasting impression.”

The Relationship between Clothing and How You Perceive Yourself

Clothing is an inner cue affecting your self-image. Feeling good about how you look can make you feel good about yourself, thus increasing your personal presence.

Karen Dixon, 42, Supervisor, The Mercadien Group, Princeton, New Jersey, indicates, “Dressing in a professional yet stylish manner can give you a tremendous feeling of confidence that is exhibited to others through your attitude and actions.”

The opposite is true when we just don’t feel right about how we’re dressed.

The Relationship between Clothing and Behavior

When you wear more powerful looking clothing (e.g. professional business attire, a suit, darker colors, etc.) and clothing that is appropriate for your profession, it changes your mindset – switching from “relaxed mode” to “professional mode.” This positive change in attitude is reflected in body language and behavior (e.g. better posture, firmer handshake, maintaining eye contact, sticking to business, etc.), giving you greater visual power.

The converse is true for more insignificant or inappropriate clothing choices, such as washed out colors or informal ensembles where more traditional clothing choices are the order of the day. Without you even knowing it, people will take the liberty of interpreting what you are saying via your body language and will judge and respond toward you accordingly.

Jackson Lewis, a law firm that specializes in personnel issues, polled more than 1000 human resource executives who implemented a dress down policy.  They reported a thirty percent increase in flirtatious behavior, contributing to an increase in sexual harassment lawsuits.

The Relationship between How You Dress and Your Professional Goals

An indifferent professional image can adversely affect your professional goals and your organization’s bottom line. However, a well-defined and consistent professional image can improve the perception of your professional abilities.

Emily Oswald, 22, Account Manager, TrailGraphix, Washington, D.C., in her first job out of college, states, “After three months with my company, I was promoted. Out of 300 people in my company, and 35 who hold the same job, I am the youngest. When I meet with clients, typically fifty-year-old attorneys, I dress professionally. There is nothing comfortable about wearing a suit and heels but it does affect how you carry yourself and how you are perceived. Dressing professionally has definitely helped me move up quickly in my company.  The first impression, and the second and the third, are important.”

The Relationship between Dress and Success for Working Women

While appearance for both men and women can be a key to success, a survey by Women Work! found that seventy-five percent of respondents believe that appearance affects how women are perceived at work more than their male counterparts. Nearly eighty percent of respondents said that clothes, hairstyle and makeup make a significant difference in one’s perception and confidence that a woman has the skills and knowledge to perform her job.

The Relationship between Local Corporate Culture and Global Corporate Culture

Markets differ from country to country, state to state and town to town. Where on paper the same dress code policy applies, employees often find that when they travel within their company, they face dress culture shock. This leads to confusion and awkwardness. However, global, cutting-edge organizations understand that employees are an extension of their corporate brand and that, irrespective of where they set up offices, it is vital that the corporate brand is expressed uniformly.

10 Thing Employees Can Do

  1. Dress Appropriately. In a more conservative environment (banking, accounting, law, etc.) dressing “alluringly” can be perceived as “provocative,” sabotaging your chances of attracting the kind of attention that wins you credibility.  Likewise, in a more artistic industry, dressing in a dark colored, boxy suit will cause people to doubt your creativity.
  2. Dress Consistently. Dressing appropriately one day and inappropriately the next sends mixed messages causing confusion for you and the observer.
  3. Dress with Special Attention to Color. Research shows that color is a powerful communicator that has emotional and physiological affects on the wearer and observer. Determine what your best colors are and use this information when putting together your professional wardrobe.
  4. Dress for Your Body Type. Find out your body type and the best fit for your shape. Clothes that are cut for somebody else’s silhouette can make you look disheveled.
  5. Dress in the Best Quality You Can Afford. For the discerning wearer, “cheap chic” can be felt, making you uncomfortable (itchy fabric, poor fit); for the discerning viewer, it can be spotted a mile off. Aim to build a core wardrobe with quality rather than quantity.
  6. Dress with Finesse. Never neglect to cultivate and maintain impeccable grooming habits.  Little is more off-putting than body and food odors, greasy hair, overdone makeup, torn pantyhose or socks etc. Your attention to detail will show that you care about all the components that make up the big picture.
  7. Dress It up a Notch. The more client-oriented your role, the more professional your appearance needs to be. No one wants their banker to look like they just got out of high school or as if they’re heading out for a day at the beach.
  8. Dress into the 21st Century. Throw away neon colored clothes, platforms and loud prints.  You don’t have to look like you just stepped off the pages of Vogue or GQ, but keeping your wardrobe up-to-date shows that you’re current rather than “old fashioned.”
  9. Dress for The Part You Want to Play. If you look content with the position you are at, that’s exactly where you’ll stay. Jeanine Rhonstein, Co-Chair, Princeton Community Works, indicates, “Often opportunities present themselves to you, not the other way around.  If you dress according to where you want others to see you heading, you may find more doors opening.” And David Watson, 39, Vice President, TrainRight Solutions in Louisville, Kentucky, seconds by saying, “I live by this motto when it comes to professional dress.  ‘You dress for where you want to be, not where you are.’  This means if you are a manager and you want to move to the executive suite, then you better dress like an executive.”
  10. If You’re Fresh Out of School Get Help. Transitioning from a school wardrobe and environment to your first job can be a daunting task.  Find out from your organization if they offer professional dress training.  If not, hire a specialist.

6 Things Employers Can Do

  1. Decide if Casual Dress Is Right for Your Company. The start of causal dress days began on the West Coast to encourage creativity. However, based on a survey of 500 companies, Dr. Jeffrey L. Magee, a consulting psychologist, found that continually relaxed dress leads to relaxed manners, relaxed morals, relaxed productivity and an increase in complaints to Human Resources. Make an informed decision about casual dress based on your culture and business goals.
  2. Have Policies. Employees are often confused about dress expectations at work.  On the one hand, they may receive compliments from their colleagues, and on the other hand, they are reprimanded for not being professionally dressed.  Provide clear dress guidelines and follow through if employees do not follow the policy.
  3. Provide Professional Appearance and Etiquette Training. Offer employees a professional image seminar if they lack basic know-how in this area and provide dress code guidelines during new employee orientation.
  4. Provide Sexual Harassment Training. Dressing provocatively can lead to flirtatious behavior and increased sexual harassment complaints. Failure to adopt a proactive and aggressive stance on sexual harassment in the workplace can result in costly lawsuits, loss of employee morale, decline in productivity, and an erosion of a company’s public image. It is less expensive to implement sexual harassment policies and training than to be involved in one sexual harassment lawsuit. Provide employees with clear examples of inappropriate behavior and dress and train supervisors to deal with complaints.
  5. Provide Global Training Programs. Other than marketing materials, your employees are the first point of contact for customers and clients. Ensure that, irrespective of geographical location, employees are on the same page in terms of expected behaviors and company image.
  6. Hold Leaders Accountable to Model Your Company Image. When leaders fail to live up to your company image, employees become de-motivated and angry. Provide ongoing training, coaching and review of company leaders.


The work world demands making a great first impression and keeping it. To communicate more effectively, start by understanding appearance psychology. Doing so can lead to greater professional and personal success. If you don’t believe us, then perhaps you will believe Mark Twain, who said, “Clothes make the man.  Naked people have little or no influence on society.”

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Judy Lindenberger "gets" leadership. She is the rare coach and trainer capable of coupling personal growth with professional development, which is why top companies and individuals invite her to work with them. Judy focuses on driving performance. From developing more impactful communications to helping successful leaders become even better; from navigating your career to managing conflict; your team will leave her programs with renewed energy and focus. Judy's background includes designing and facilitating the first-ever sexual harassment prevention training for federal workers, leading the management training department for a major financial organization, and creating a highly successful, global mentoring program for a Fortune 500 company which won the national Athena Award for Mentoring for two consecutive years. She is also a certified career coach and human resources consultant. A must hear speaker at industry conferences and a published author, Judy earned a B. A. in communications and an MBA in human resources. In her free time, Judy serves as Member, Board of Trustees, YWCA Trenton and Vice President, Hopewell Valley Regional School District. She is the Past President of the Board of SERV Achievement Centers, and is a trained community mediator and child advocate. SpecialtiesCustomized training (instructor-led and e-learning), career coaching, HR audits, organizational assessments, and human resources consulting. Contact: [email protected] or 609.730.1049.