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Not long ago, what was considered acceptable business dress wasn't hard to figure out: Men wore suits, women wore dresses or skirts and blouses. For salespeople looking to build a rapport with their clients, deciding what to wear was easy. But with more companies adopting casual dress codes, your chances of clashing with your customers' environment have increased tremendously.
If you show up for a meeting in your best dark suit or your most powerful dress and find the table crowded with people wearing jeans and sneakers, you're not only going to stand out, your clothing is going to be a distraction from your purpose for being there. Unfortunately, what people will see won't be the brilliant marketing plan you worked on all night, but your starched white shirt.
On the other hand, if you dress down for a meeting and show up in jeans and sneakers, finding everybody else dressed to the nines is like that strange naked dream come true.
"Dress is an important element during those first three minutes of mutual assessment," says Susan Pelteson, 45, president of All About Events Inc., a Longwood, Florida, party planning business. "You're trying to connect on a variety of levels, looking for a common ground, and one of the ways you do that is through your appearance."
It's important to blend how you want to represent yourself and your company with what will make your customers comfortable. So how do you avoid sticking out like a sore thumb? Before calling on a company for the first time, do a little investigative work on its dress code. If you know people who work for the company, find out what they wear to work. Look up any colleagues you have in common with the company; they might have the information you need. You can even talk to the com-pany's receptionist to find out what his or her co-workers wear.
If you're going to see customers in a variety of environments during the day, wear clothes that allow you to be flexible. "I keep a jacket in my car and jewelry in my purse that I can put on and take off as the situation [dictates]," Pelteson says.
And what do you do when you've clearly chosen the wrong apparel? "A good sense of humor goes a long way," Pelteson believes. Acknowledge the situation, and quickly move on. "You need to compensate for the fact that you're not dressed appropriately, so immediately show your expertise."
Jacquelyn Lynn left the corporate world more than 12 years ago and has been writing about business and management from her home office in Winter Park, Florida, ever since.
Neither Here Nor There
It's 8 a.m. Do you know where your employees are?
Businesses are losing millions of dollars each year due to unscheduled absenteeism, and the problem is only expected to worsen, according to CCH Inc., a Riverwoods, Illinois, provider of tax and business law information. Results from a 1998 CCH survey reveal the most frequently cited reason for last-minute absences is family issues, followed by illness, personal needs, stress and simply being entitled to a day off.
Not surprisingly, companies with fewer than 100 employees have the highest absenteeism cost per employee: $1,044 annually according to CCH. That figure includes salary as well as overtime pay for other employees, salaries for temporary workers and supervisory time spent rearranging work schedules.
Traditional leave plans don't address the primary issues that drive employee absenteeism, leading employees to call in "sick" when they're really dealing with other situations. What's an entrepreneur to do? Develop time-off programs that truly fit the needs of both your workers and your company.
According to CCH research, the most effective absence-control program is a paid-time-off system, which provides employees with a bank of hours to be used for various purposes. Other programs that have proved effective include job sharing, flexible scheduling such as a compressed workweek (for more on flexible scheduling, see next month's "Staff Smarts"), time off for school functions and company-provided emergency child care. For information and assistance with implementing such programs, contact your local chamber of commerce, industry association or other small-business organization.
All About Events Inc., P.O. Box 916902, Longwood, FL 32791, (407) 862-7212
CCH Inc., (847) 267-7153.