I was at a networking event recently and ended up talking to a job seeker who I’d already met on a few separate occasions. Despite the fact that our meetings were spread out over the course of almost six months, this job seeker (from now on, JS) unfortunately still didn’t have a job. It can be tough out there, especially in “this economy” (one of my new, least favorite phrases), and JS was hard proof of that. I offered my support and whatever advice I could. Walking away from that encounter, I wondered why this particular job seeker was having such a tough time of it—after all, JS was, it seemed, showing up at all the right networking events. Then a friend I was with cut to the chase:
“From what you know, would you recommend JS for a job or pass along an opening?”
I admitted I would not. And not because of a lack of qualifications or skills (in fact I knew very little about JS’ qualifications and skills) and not because I wasn’t impressed that JS was taking a lot of initiative to come to all these events (I was impressed) but rather, frankly, because JS made a very poor impression: came off as a whiner, appeared to have no confidence, and was dressed poorly and unprofessionally. JS’ tactic at this and other events seemed less like networking and more like fishing for sympathy; a discussion of job search difficulties came across to me more as unhelpful whining; and JS’ appearance, dressed in a pilled sweater and frumpy corduroys, and rocking some fantastically disheveled hair, didn’t do much to help the cause. The cumulative effect was none too impressive and rather off-putting.
In this bluntness, I don’t mean to downplay the difficulties of a job search nor suggest that some righteous bitching and moaning isn’t a key part of staying sane during the process. But you need to pick and choose those moments, and a networking event is not it—rather, that is the time to buck up, shine your shoes, and put your best foot forward. I was reminded of this encounter by an article on Monday in the Chronicle of Higher Ed. advocating for this idea: “Can’t we be smart and look good, too?” A pretty funny and fascinating article (subscribers only, sorry). While I’m still unsure of the effects Botox, highlights, and sparkly lotion will have on my self-esteem (they seem to have worked wonders for the author, Rachel Toor), I appreciate Toor’s greater point that, in all professions, appearance, and thus the impression you make, matters. Says Toor:
For years, as an acquisitions editor, I traveled to campuses, knocking on doors and visiting professors in their book-lined lairs. What I remember most about those encounters was the ugly shoes…I also attended the annual conferences of a number of disciplines, seeing academics in their dress-up duds…Men wore badly fitting suits, or ancient corduroy sport coats and food-stained ties. Professorial jewelry tended toward “interesting,” which usually meant big, clunky, and inexpensive; there’s rarely anything shiny on an academic woman. Those clad in tailored jackets and pencil skirts, with glossed lips and flat-ironed hair, were either publishers or graduate students on the market for their first job.
A friend finally made Toor realize that “I could be both a thoughtful person — indeed, a feminist — and care about how I looked. I could even look good.” But, Toor was still conflicted. Even though she felt good when she looked good, she felt like she was doing something wrong:
Why, then, did it feel like a betrayal of academic values?…Because we’re supposed to be above all that.
Something similar sometimes happens in the international arena—caring about appearance is only for the corporate; we’re in it for the cause, so everything else is secondary. But as Toor concludes, this shouldn’t be the case:
Friends, there is no inherent virtue in frumpiness. Ill-fitting clothes and frizzy hair do not make us look smarter, only less appealing.
Just because the field of international affairs often (and hopefully) takes us to dazzling locales where comfortable and appropriate attire is often the opposite of a coat and tie, this doesn’t mean that looking good should be abandoned. And by looking good, I mean not just dressing well, but also coming across as confident and strong, and thus maximizing your impact. I think this applies to all professional interactions and settings, but seems to be particularly relevant when it comes to networking and the job search. Take Rosetta Thurman’s story about the intern who, when in a room where a potential future employer might have been present, went down without even swinging:
When it was his turn to speak and introduce himself, [the intern] raised his head meekly, and said, “Oh, I’m just here to take notes for the meeting.” No matter what perception we had already made about him, at that moment he deemed himself completely insignificant.
True, the kid may have been dressed in a tux, but his lack of confidence outdid him. The same was true for my job seeker: JS might have been the most qualified person in the room, but by making sloppiness and whining the two most apparent traits, all else was lost.
You don’t need Botox or highlights. You don’t need absurdly expensive clothes. But making the effort to look put together, sharp, and stylish (and stylish doesn’t mean “only dark suit”—make it mean what you want it to mean and inject your personality in the way you look*) will only help you in those networking situations—and not just because you’ll look good to others. Take it from me, the guy who was deathly afraid of looking like a scrub when we started doing public appearances for Working World. With a little expert guidance from my girlfriend, a few new shirts and a jacket later, I looked really good and because I knew I looked good, I felt that much better about myself. And I think it only helped me to be that much more effective in what I was trying to do.
*I sound disconcertingly like a judge on Project Runway right about now. But I guess I’ll leave it be….