Are Your Looks a Workplace Distraction?

How does it feel when we (women) are confident of our looks and know that people look at us and are inspired by us? We feel good, of course!

What wouldn’t we all do to get that stunning look, burn some fat to carve out those wonderful curves that others would kill for and look good in business casuals at work? Who doesn’t enjoy dressing up? Looking good increases our confidence and helps us create a positive impression.

Looks matter when creating an impression. But can looks create a wrong impression? Does a “look” depict who you really are as a person? What if people start to perceive your personality and capabilities wrongly based on your looks – especially in the business world?

The other day few of my male friends were talking about a distraction during an official presentation that happened at work. No, it was not due to an annoying ring because somebody forgot to silence their phone or the noise of the photocopy/fax machine in the background.  The reason for their distraction was the low buttoned shirt, big bosoms and beautiful curves of their new colleague making the presentation.

Do you think they caught any actual facts and figures from her power point presentation? Not. When I asked these fellows, they replied, “Even though we were trying to look past her physical appearance, it is the hardest temptation to resist.”  And this gets harder when she turns around to reveal her cleavage and brings it into their sight.

Her looks were a distraction in the workplace. We can only imagine how many times these fellow might have taken a walk in front of her desk just to get a glance of her or how many times they must have had small talk over the phone with their male colleagues about it.

This woman, and others, are not being taken seriously in the corporate world because of their looks. There are opinions that women deliberately look this way to garner attentions and favor. Others question if women are even aware of how their “look” impacts the impression they leave with others.

What do you think? If a woman dressed in an “acceptable“ way, would that eliminate the possibility she would not be perceived in less than professional manner? That colleagues would know who she really was as a person?

Can the way a woman looks inadvertently send a wrong message? Should she care?

About the Author

Nisha Raghavan

Nisha Raghavan-Your HR Buddy!! is an Talent Management Professional and a blogger who likes to paint her thoughts with the shades of HR at http://nisharaghavan.com/ . She writes about Work Culture, Social Media, Organization Development and engaging employees with Employee Engagement Initiatives. Her experience in the corporate world was as an HR Deputy Manager from Reliance Communications Limited, India where she specialized in orchestrating Talent Management & Development. She is also a proud Co-host of DriveThruHR-HR's #1 Daily Radio Show and a contributing author at WomenOfHR.com and SocialBusinessNews.com. Connect with her on Twitter @Thehrbuddy.

14 Comments

Daniel Curtin, SPHR

As as as older male HR professional, I totally agree with Tammy Colson’s philosophy . Treat your employees like professionals and the vast majority (90% plus) will respond accordingly when it comes to office dress.

Counseling a female who is attractive in her dress and looks, but is dressed professionally and not overtly seductive, to “tone it down” , that would be discriminatory. The behavior of employees who react to her inappropriately is what needs to be curbed if it gets out of line as long as she is not an as active participant. Trying to police dress is a fool’s game you can’t win as an HR person. The liabilities are just not worth it. Focus only the real outstanding outliars to the dress code or any person’s dress which may be causing s gross distraction or conflict, no matter what sex they are but ALWAYS be fair.

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Regards

Dan Curti

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catnip

I am told i am attractive and at my previous workplaces, quite a few men, including bosses hit on me. luckily not all bosses. i am actually surprised when a man doesn’t hit on me, because it is so rare, I m thinking “what is wrong with him?”. I was a fashion model for a big chunk of my life, and I also have a Phd, with a few other undergrad diplomas. I never thought i was “hot” because people in the modeling industry were really beautiful, so i saw myself as average compared to them. but compared to people in the workplace, i guess i was above average. GEtting all the attention from guys made my ego inflate to the point that I expect it now as a normality. i have yearned for some men to just see me as a sister or another human being, without being distracted by my looks, or body. And no, it doesn t matter what i wear, even in a snowsuit i still attract attention. Sometimes i liked that, it game me a sense of being loved and wanted, most times it was an annoyance and i felt frustrated that men didn t see my true self, my intellect. It was like, i was talking and felt like i was on mute while they were observing my lips moving or my face changing expression. i have at times used my looks too , to my advantage, to sway decisions, to get what i want. Other times i felt like i needed to use my looks to make something better, save someone, appease a conflict, rescue.
Deep down i have a lot of insecurities and no matter how much attention i get it will probably never fill the void.
On the other hand, I have also seen men trying to seduce (me) and it is up to me to accept it, or reject it. I believe a woman is free to dress in a way that makes her feel good, and that doesn’t hold her accountable for the behavior of men. If certain men are so easily distracted, perhaps they need to cover their eyes instead of women having to wear a burka. And inversely with the opposite sex.
The real question to me is : What is my motivation for dressing this way, acting this way? Do I want to stay true to myself or am I trying to get physical/sexual attention ? If I squish my boobs so men don’t see them (not that i have big ones) shouldn’t they flatten their butt cheeks or strap their “jewels” so it doesn’t distract the me?
How about the men wear long robes like monks so we don’t see their bodies? sounds like equality 🙂

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Dahlia

I have a feeling Ross is a woman. (snicker)

Anyway, I have a smaller frame, but am endowed, so I avoid button-up shirts and mostly wear pull-over business shirts with appropriate necklines.

To balance out my figure and create a visual diversion, I’ll usually wear a darker jacket. This has been completely acceptable with my employers, until now. I’ve not received any complaints, but it’s obvious my chest is a distraction. (I’m average looking, so I know it’s not my looks.)

I’m doing what I can to lessen the distraction, but it’s so darn hot in that place. One room is freezing, the other has hot, stale air. My office is the latter. So, keeping on extra layers is nearly impossible. I asked them to address it a while ago, and they did what they could. But, they may have to get me my own personal a/c unit.

Another option? I already wear minimizers. Maybe I’ll try some sort of binding?

I am very frustrated at this point. I like my job and I work my tail off for the company. But, something has got to change.

(One thing about burqas, they may conceal a woman’s femininity, but they do not prevent lust. I heard lust is rampant in those societies.)

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Ross

hi Nisha
Im a man and i dont have a problem with taking a woman seriously at work who is showing cleavage or dressed very sexy.
A woman can be sexy and professional.
We should not judge her by her attire but focus on her ability talent intelligence. I think more men are learning to treat women in the workplace as equals and to treat her as a professional rather than a sex object and to respect her professional ability and talents- its probably because women have achieved equal status and position and authority in the workplace and so this has changed mens attitudes to them
Ross

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Lyn Hoyt

Tammy, the burqa comment is fascinating when it comes to the study of human social history. That men don’t want to be distracted by women so they cover them up to maintain self control. Sad too this all seems to call for some kind of androgyny in order for humans to work together. Women have boobs. Move on men. Ladies, if you think your boobs could affect your message… it is your choice to be in command of that. We all walk through the door sending signals. Intended or not. Corporate culture should have those rules defined in some way that helps promote appropriate dress. And employees should have some common sense on the matter as well. Dang it I hate those days when I have put on the extra 5 lbs and the low cut button up is all that is clean in my closet. Who was it that did the blog post on those silly bibs you can button into your shirt that makes it look like you are wearing a camisole? Great post and comments.

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Kimberly Roden

I love this post and the responses because it just goes to show you what perception is all about and how different we humans are — in more than just looks and appearance.

To Tammy’s point, we all need to get the job done regardless of how folks look but since humans are naturally judgmental it just doesn’t work that way.

This goes well beyond what’s considered “professional.” Ask 50 people what’s professional you may get answers that are all over the place. For instance, I’ll contrast Kelly’s comment — I see nothing wrong with wearing snug clothes provided there are no body parts trying to squeeze out for air or signs of buttons ready to pop.

This is about people wanting to be accepted and they’ll follow the lead of the people they think are already accepted. So when Soledad O’Brien is wearing an adorable suit or dress that fits her like a glove, why not?

This debate will go on until the ends of time. For a woman to dress for work as if she was going to a party may not be professional but it’s what she knows. Or maybe she does know better but she wants the attention — for better or for worse.

If it impacts the job getting done or disrupts business, do we step in and have a chat with them? Doesn’t seem like it should be our job, in my opinion. All it does is continue to give HR the negative stigma of treating employees like children.

Dressing properly for the event we are attending (work, bar, party, black tie gig, etc.) *should* be like having table manners — stuff you learn at home but then what we have to write about if we weren’t entertained by these stories? 🙂

Great post and comments!

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Tammy Colson

I totally agree that dressing for the occasion doesn’t always occur – and sometimes we have to manage the exception.

But I don’t think “the distractor” is really the problem. The distractee is usually the problem. Does what we wear to work really impact the bottom line? So… why are we discussing it? I’d rather talk about the great recruiting strategy that will take our talent pipeline to the next level.

No one in my office cares if the engineers wear shorts, because well – they are actually doing their jobs!

And no one cares that I wear (respectable and professional) skirts and heels to work most days – even though I’m typically WAY over dressed for this environment…. because I’m over here at my desk finding and hiring 10 awesome employees since I got here in March.

I’ll continue to live and breathe by this:
Manage THE exception without managing BY exception.

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Nisha Raghavan

Hey Tammy,
Thank you for adding on to the conversation. I agree that wearing what ever is comfortable to people shouldn’t really drag them back in demonstrating their capabilities and adding to their productivity at work. I liked the way you said “adults should act like adults to become more productive”. But human nature is to instantly attend to attractive/forbidden things :). Don’t get me wrong!!

Nisha Raghavan

Hey Kimberly,

Thank you for stopping by and I must tell you I loved reading your post ” Get your head out of the sand” which talks about successfully and positively controlling how people are perceived by others. It is common for every company to have a standard dress code policy that people are generally aware of. Inspite of this, if people are really trying to create a buzz then its the HR’s job to step ahead.

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Kelly O

There are several things factoring into the challenges women face when dressing for work, not the least of which is retailers.

I know a lot of women, younger ones in particular, who think Express is a fabulous place to start their work wardrobe process. But many of the things there are a bit too stretchy, a bit too curve-hugging, a bit too low cut. It doesn’t help that the images we see of “professional” women in television and movies helps reiterate that a snug suit with a low cut or unbuttoned perhaps one button too far is okay.

I point out that one example because it’s the one I see most, but there are others. And there are also some women who feel like, in order to be feminine, they should show a little cleavage or more curve, and that it’s part of their statement of who they are. And there are others, as you mentioned, who feel as though their sexuality is a tool to command attention, not realizing that after the meeting their coworkers were not talking about what she said, but how she looked.

On the flipside, there is the tendency to over-frump yourself to avoid any semblance of this happening, which is almost worse. Because I don’t know that it’s any less distracting to watch someone in boxy, shapeless clothes deliver that same presentation. They could be equally competent, but are they being taken seriously, either too-tight or too-covered-up?

I had the conversation just this morning with someone – it’s amazing what a difference wearing clothes that fit properly can have on you. My example was a simple as buying the pants that were a bit too long and having them hemmed, or buying a shirt a size too large for my waist, but making sure it doesn’t gap in the front by having it tailored. There’s a misconception that tailoring is expensive, but it’s really not.

I don’t know if men struggle the same way to appear put together and competent, but not too (sexual, frumpy, out of date, etc.) Its’ a double-standard for sure, but it exists. Pretending it doesn’t really serves no purpose.

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Nisha Raghavan

Hey Kelly,

Interesting reading your comments and I agree that if someone is boxy or skinny, that shouldn’t really hinder one’s competency at work. But the moment people exhibit themselves and think they can twist other’s attention to their advantage, to make up for their lack of competency, it questions the credibility of their personality. However there are exceptions as well.

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Tammy Colson

My theory on this has always been – unless someone is “hanging out” of their clothes – curvy women will always be curvy women, and well built men will always be well built men – even in what you would call “appropriate” attire. Sloppy can be just as distracting.

The onus, for the most part, is on the part of the ogler to keep doing their jobs and stick to business.

I’ve had drop dead gorgeous men and women around me in my workplace. I still manage to get the job done.

The flipside is: do we tell those attractive people to please wear burlap sacks or burqas to keep their colleagues from acting unprofessional? Should we be saying “no, you should not wear clothing that looks good, fits well, or may accentuate any positive attributes, because, well… we are drooling dogs who can’t be grownups in the workplace”.

What about the less attractive person who someone in the workplace just FINDS attractive? Is the unwanted attention THEIR fault as well?

I find it more productive to instruct adults to act like adults – no matter how pretty, handsome or troll like their coworkers might be.

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