TechRepublic reader Francois Bezuidenhout suggested that I write about IT consultants’ personal appearance. Francois says that he keeps an extra shirt in his car so that when he gets dirty from pulling cables and drilling holes he can tidy up before visiting his next client. One of his clients complimented him on his neat appearance, and contrasted that with the unkempt look of one of his competitors.

As Francois says, we all like to think that we judge people on their character and performance, but that first impression has a way of sticking. How you treat your own appearance and hygiene sets an expectation of respect from others. But it’s also possible to overdo it.

When I first started out in consulting, I began every new engagement wearing a nice suit and tie; I figured it was better to err on the side of being overdressed, and then adjust based on what they were wearing. That strategy worked well for some clients, especially on the East Coast and in the UK. But at West Coast companies, if you show up in Calvin Klein and wingtips, that all-important first impression may run something like “Here’s the high-priced know-it-all who’s more worried about looking the part than actually solving our problem.” Programmers who work at California tech companies are likely be in shorts and flip-flops. While it’s good to come in a cut above that with a neat business casual, you don’t want to look pretentious.

In fact, you don’t want to pretend at all. You need to be yourself, not someone else. Sure you want to exude confidence and put your best foot forward, but if that isn’t part of who you are, then it isn’t going to fly.

Long ago, when I worked in R&D for a software company, I wore a long beard that completely covered the knot of my (then required) necktie. My hair was also a bit shabby, as I considered a more frequent than quarterly shearing to be inefficient. I wore sensible shoes.

When I was later promoted to management, I felt like a daemon out of root. I didn’t know what I was doing, so I tried to play the part. I started dressing nicer, and I lost the beard. My boss, the VP, said to me “you shaved off your credibility.” Even though he was clean shaven, he realized that the beard was part of my guru identity. Though my facial hair didn’t possess any Samson-like powers to preserve strength or even mental man pages, shaving it off was a signal that I was trying to be someone other than myself.

Francois also asked about the appropriateness of wearing a uniform. He’s considering buying five matching shirts that go with dark pants so he can always appear in the same uniform when he visits clients.

I work from home 99% of the time, so my work uniform is a tee-shirt and sweats. When I visit clients, it’s a big deal for both parties. But I realize that many consultants spend most of their time at clients’ offices, so in that case, the relationship becomes physically more familiar, and some sort of standard dress code seems in order.

I wonder, though, what an outfit that you’d call a uniform says about you. Does it say, “I’m a utility worker?” Does it put you on the same level as the electrician, the plumber, and the UPS gal? If so, I’d stay away from that perception. An IT consultant should do more than install things and fix them when they’re broken. The word consultant implies that you have wisdom to share that goes beyond the day-to-day, how-we’ve-always-done-it. So don’t dress in a manner that says, “Journeyman.”

When I’m preparing to go on site, I make sure I know what the expected dress code is at my client’s office. If I don’t know, I ask. Then I add just a touch of class above whatever they say. If they say, “jeans are fine,” then I’ll go with slacks instead. If they say “ties required” (which hardly ever happens anymore), then I’ll wear a suit. I want to look just a little bit nicer than their expectation, but not out of place.

How do you dress when visiting clients? Have you given much thought to it? Do you have any horror stories to share about how a fellow consultant’s personal appearance affected their work?

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