Many people know that a well-received image is essential in the workplace, but few can adequately define what "image" means. Laura Morgan Roberts, a professor at Harvard Business School, defines professional image as the "set of qualities and characteristics that represent perceptions of your competence and character as judged by your key constituents." Image goes far beyond appropriate dress and embraces fuzzier concepts that are more difficult to measure. Working on your professional image is a worthy goal, and can positively affect your life outside of work as well.
The importance of image in the workplace starts the moment you walk in the door for an interview. It is vital that you make a good first impression, and according to the Career Services Department at Eastern Illinois University, 65 percent of the message you convey is nonverbal. You need not spend money on an expensive wardrobe, however. You can present a strong image by wearing neat, pressed clothes that are clean and in good condition. Pay equal attention to hair, nails and shoes. Most importantly, walk in the door with a positive attitude and carry yourself in such a way that denotes confidence.
The saying "dress for the job you want," is good advice, although it does not address the entire picture. Pay attention to the image your supervisors project and consider whether it is an overall style -- both personality and dress -- that works with your personality and goals. Harvard Business Review blogger Sylvia Ann Hewlett notes that "executive presence" often comes from self-confidence engendered by dressing well, and that such confidence is the hallmark of a leader. If you want a promotion, consider what you need to do to build your self-confidence, as it is of more importance to your image than what you wear.
Higher-ups aren't the only people who notice your work image. Clients, like everyone else, form an opinion based on external factors as well. If you are a salesperson or manage corporate accounts, chances are you'll enjoy a smooth relationship if you are regarded as trustworthy, caring and capable. While a polished appearance can hint at capability, you'll need to work to establish a reputation as a trustworthy, committed person who respects clients best interests. Such an image cannot be built overnight, but must be worked on consistently for months or even years.
Improving Your Image
Everyone can benefit from working on their image, whether they work as a cashier, physician or pastor. Ultimately, once you have spiffed up your wardrobe, gotten a manicure and a nice haircut, what is left is your character. Build your character by following through on your commitments, focusing on people's positive attributes and engaging in other character building activities. The Character Council of Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky recommend regularly taking actions such as smiling, putting your heart into your tasks and resisting discouragement in the face of failure.
Elise Wile has been a writer since 2003. Holding a master's degree in curriculum and Instruction, she has written training materials for three school districts. Her expertise includes mentoring, serving at-risk students and corporate training.