Dressing for the job: Presentation and the art of neutrality

Everyone seems to have different ideas of how to dress for work as a Clinical Psychologist or therapist. NHS dress codes are often generalised from nurses on the ward and make exclusions including jewellery, open-toed shoes and nail polish which seem unduly controlling and irrelevant for a therapist. Others argue that diversity is a good thing, and that a therapist can dress however they want to represent their personality and culture, and should not be judged for it. Many settings exclude jeans, whilst others say that jeans are comfortable, practical and come in a range of colours and cuts that are hard to distinguish from other forms of trouser. Are my dark blue velveteen trousers jeans because they have rivet joints, rear pockets and a zip fly? Some employers exclude visible tattoos, piercings beyond a single stud in each ear and hair colourings that are not naturally occurring, whilst these choices are becoming increasingly prevalent in society. Some want staff to dress conservatively, excluding garments that expose the midriff or involve short skirts or low cut tops for women, but is this just sexist? Some make specifications about being clean and tidy, but this means different things to different people. So I figured I’d reflect on my thoughts on the topic of appropriate dress for work as a Clinical Psychologist.

Firstly at a personal level: When I dress for work, most of the time I try to be as neutral as possible. I don’t want my appearance to lead potential clients and colleagues to make judgements about me that form a barrier between us any more than the factors I can’t avoid such as my gender, age, ethnicity, or accent. I want to appear professional but not intimidating, clean and well presented but not ostentatious. I want my clothes to be serviceable if I want to sit on the floor with a child to play, and not to inhibit me if I want to use paints and felt-tips, and not to cause offence to anyone else. Plus I want to be comfortable and not self-conscious about the way I move or sit. For these pragmatic reasons I normally wear trousers, though I do sometimes wear a long skirt or dress. I also like to wear fairly colourful clothes. I suppose I think they are more cheerful than drab colours, and suit me better than paler colours. So you’ll often see me in navy blue, bottle green, chocolate brown, burgundy, purple, turquoise or multi-colour patterned prints.

Of course I have more scope for relaxed dress, as I am effectively the boss, so no-one can tell me off for what I wear! It also makes a difference that I work with children and families, which is generally a more eclectic and casually presented workforce than settings like neuropsychology or forensics where “power dressing” in suits and business wear is more typical. Likewise my clients tend to be younger and more adventurous about what is acceptable than older adults, and I don’t work in health settings where the stronger dress codes apply. Nonetheless I don’t want to be so casual that people think I don’t take the work seriously, and I know that as a senior professional I need to acknowledge the expectations of others who imbue me with status and power. Certainly when I go to court I will always wear a suit to show I take the responsibility of advising on people’s lives seriously, and when I train other professionals I think carefully about my audience and the message I would like to convey. But here I am thinking particularly about client-facing work.

In terms of others, I’ve had to grapple with all kinds of examples of inappropriate presentation over my career. I have had members of my staff wear ripped jeans and trainers to meetings with professionals and clients. I’ve had some who seem to want to look like surfers or a member of an indie band, in slogan T-shirts, bermuda shorts and unkempt facial hair. To me this seems disrespectful towards those who have come to see you. I’ve had staff who have shown too much skin, whether midriff, cleavage, or the dreaded builder’s crack. This can trigger very strong responses in certain people, whether due to their own abuse history, their assumptions about showing more skin indicating sexual availability, or through their religious beliefs about modesty. I once had an employee with significant body odour, and had to have a cringe-inducing conversation in supervision to feed this back. However, not only is body odour unpleasant for those around you, it also creates a bad impression to clients and colleagues, and would put us in a hypocritical position when observing or trying to improve poor self-care.

At the other end of the scale I’ve had staff who over dress. I’ve had graduates who turn up in power heels and suits for everyday work. Or those who look like they’ve just dropped into a session on the way to the catwalk or tea with a Duchess, wearing designer clothing, expensive jewellery and branded accessories. It isn’t very practical to have shoes that you worry about getting wet, or a coat you can’t put down in a dirty environment, and if a client knows you spent more on your handbag than they get in 10 weeks of Job Seeker’s Allowance this may cause understandable resentment. At a more practical level, doing a home visit in a rough area whilst wearing £1400 of accessories, expensive jewellery and talking on a £600 smartphone must surely increase the risk of being a target of crime.

I am acutely aware that many of the families that we see come from high levels of socio-economic deprivation, so I would feel very uncomfortable if I felt that any of my clothes or accessories spoke of excessive wealth. I remember the feeling of visiting a conservative MP at home in a seven-figure mansion full of antique furniture, and a member of the household staff being sent to make the drinks. My mind immediately asked “what can someone who lives like this know of what real life is like for the majority of people in their constituency?” I would hate for a client to think that about me, and to take longer to build trust, or not to be able to confide the whole of their story because of it.

As a result I rarely wear branded clothing, and tend to stick with shopping for most of my work wear in department stores or supermarkets. Likewise I wear quite practical and mid-market shoes. Beyond my wedding ring I wear little jewellery. I rarely spend more than £60 on any item apart from a suit, and I don’t wear things to work that I would be too upset to spoil. My approach is also wider than physical appearance: I try to also be aware of what I talk about  to clients, in terms of whether it reflects my relative wealth and education, or my cultural values. How much of this is my personal taste or my bargainaholic nature and how much is 20 years of cultivating the most neutral appearance possible is hard to separate. Also in the mix are the dress styles of the supervisors and mentors that I have most admired during my career (mostly very down to earth people, of humble appearance) and of my own parents, especially as my mum is also a Clinical Psychologist.

I expect my employees to also find this balance between being themselves and appearing professional and neutral for clients. This includes being clean and tidy, not wearing overly revealing clothes, and being smart but not ostentatious.But beyond that I am happy with some personalisation to reflect their own style and culture. I wouldn’t want a team of clones. I also encourage my staff to reflect on what they bring of themselves to a session or meeting, whether in terms of appearance, body language, accent or content in conversation. We are often unaware of how this would be perceived by others outside of our familiar social circle (which is often defined by similar age, socio-economic status, culture, political values, education or other factors we won’t necessarily share with our clients).

For interview I would always advise presentation that is one step smarter than you’d expect to wear in the job, whilst being something you feel comfortable wearing and not so bland that you are instantly forgettable.

Finally, I wanted to clarify that although I think it is helpful to dress neutrally in a professional role, I don’t consider a person’s dress to be an excuse for how others react to them. Intolerance of appearance or dress relating to someone’s culture or religion is unacceptable and a form of harassment. Using skimpy clothing as an excuse for sexual harassment or assault is likewise totally unacceptable. A person is always responsible for their own behaviour, no matter how others look or what they do. So what I am talking about in this blog entry in terms of reactions to appearance are thoughts and feelings, whether conscious or subconscious, that may have an impact on the therapeutic or professional relationship, not actions that cause harm or fear.

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