Google Guy: Dressing for success — don’t do it all the time

, ,

By Jason Warner — One of my direct reports told me I’m wearing VP shoes. Apparently, my Eccos are the most popular shoe brand among vice presidents at Google.

It’s not surprising that I dress like a VP. Because dressing like what you want to become is an important part of an overall career strategy. What surprises me is how many professionals don’t recognize this or simply choose to ignore it.

But it’s not as simple as dressing for success. This is one of those times where too much or too little can make all the difference. The key to dressing like that which you want to become is to only do it 75%. If you go overboard, you’ll distance yourself from your peers, which is why the discussion about VP shoes threw me. I never want to distance myself from the people on my team. You have to be careful about this.

Here are some guidelines you should follow.

1. Don’t look like you’re trying too hard.
It is part of our corporate culture that you don’t have to dress up to be serious, but the groups I support are sales and operations, and they all dress in a business casual. They wear nice slacks or khakis, nice shoes but they wear quality clothing. So I choose to dress like them and buy nice stuff. I try and invest in nice shoes and belts, and also nice quality shirts. You can get away with buying inexpensive pants — Dockers, for example.

2. Don’t put yourself on the wrong side of the middle.
I see lots of people screw this one up. They see that some of those above them dress casually, so then they choose to dress casually. If you choose to dress like those above you, aim for the right side of the bell curve and dress like the successful people. If everyone dresses casually, then you are on your own, but I’ve found that there’s usually at least a light correlation between the best dressers and the best performers.

3. Don’t dress more than 30% above your level.
Okay, so some of you can swing the Rolex watch in your first job out of college, and to you I say, “Great choice in parents”. For the rest of us, the fastest way to distance yourself from peers and those above you is to overdress the part. It creates awkwardness all the way around. The CEO doesn’t want to see you wearing the same watch she does, nor does your counterpart in the next cube who has been with the company twice as long as you. It’s okay to step it up a little, but show some restraint. It is best to be slightly more done out than your cube-mates.

After all of this, I do have to admit that my new career experience at Google (week six as I write this) has got me a little wrapped around the axle however, as the vast majority of Google employees simply wear jeans and t-shirts to work. And those really bad boots — I think they call them Uggs. So now I’m thinking I may have to adjust my strategy some in this new world of work that is filled with Generation Y.

On this, and my VP shoes, I will keep you posted.

Recommended by:

60 replies
  1. Paul Quek
    Paul Quek says:

    Maybe we should “Just Relax”, even if we are not one “Generation” younger. Why work up such a storm over dressing for work? By all means, dress up a little if you “feel like it” today, of if it’s necessary (say, meeting a client, having a biggie interview). But if you don’t feel like “dressing it up” tomorrow, then just “dress easy” (not the same as dress sloppily, more like easy, comfortable and still look “smart” and not looking like you just woke up) … and then “Just Relax”. You’ll have more equanimity! As Jesus once said, “Don’t Worry!” (He didn’t say, “Don’t Plan!” … he said “Don’t Worry!”)

  2. Cara
    Cara says:

    I used to work in an office where the boss wore old jeans and sweatshirts with food stains on them. Some of my colleagues would make snarky comments because I actually took the time to dry my hair and put on a little makeup. Although I think it’s good to use the bell curve of your peers as a guide, I think there should at least be a minimum level of grooming. What do you think?

  3. laurence haughton
    laurence haughton says:

    Good points. People do make important decisions about your character based on your appearance but the “Dress for Success” formula was far too simplistic and rigid.

    Cara is right too. There are minimums.

    I find watching TV and movies helpful because wardrobe professionals use clothes to help tell the story (who’s with it, who’s a goof, and who’s not to be trusted). I also ask my wife because she’s got a much better fashion sense.

    * * * * * *

    Love this tip, Laurence: Dress yourself by watching TV. So true. The stylists get paid a lot of money to know what clothes convey what image. Pick the character you want to be like and copy the styles.  Great idea. And then you can feel like you’re furthering your career while you watch TV :)


  4. Charles Knight
    Charles Knight says:

    What’s a URI? (See Leave a Comment form)

    This topic just came up last week! I am an SEO, a Search Engine Optimizer, a techie, but 45 years old. I went to a prospective client’s office – he is the director of Marketing for a large Hospital. I wore what I like to wear, blue jeans mixed with a good white collared shirt and a tie, nice watch and class ring, etc. The blue jeans freaked out my friend. Always dress at the executive level, he said. I felt like being “true to myself” and dressing as “the real me,” but he wasn’t buying it. Please RSVP; should I dress up even if I feel uncomfortable and do it only because I’m supposed to do it? He argued that if there’s a 10% chance of making a bad first impression, why take the risk? Is there ever a place for individuality or am I just being naive and immature? Thanks! Charles Knight (public email is OK)

    * * * * * *

    I think there’s plenty of room for individualism while still hitting the sweet spot with regards to dress.  Particularly with today’s fashion trends.  For example, today I am wearing a shirt that the guys in the gym give me a hard time about and say is my “Rodeo Clown Shirt” (draw your own conclusions).  I also have spikey hair.  If you are creative, I think it’s pretty easy to remain an individual and still not stand out in all the ‘wrong’ ways.  The key is being smart about it.

    – Jason

  5. Cara
    Cara says:

    Charles: my opinion, for what it’s worth, is that you’re being paid to do a job, not to express yourself. If it were up to me, I’d wear blue nail polish 24/7 and not wear heels and nylons, but I remind myself that my job is not “me” and that, for now, I have to dress the part that my job requires.

  6. Liza
    Liza says:

    Charles, URI = your web site address.

    I think when you are meeting with a prospective client in an office setting, jeans are pretty much always a bad idea.

    Given your industry, I think you can substitute khakis for jeans in the outfit you describe, and usually be ok. But some industries are more conservative about appearance than others. If you have law firms as prospective clients, for example, I’d find a suit for the early meetings.

  7. Charles Knight
    Charles Knight says:

    I was joking – I think URL is a website’s address, not URI; it’s a typo, I believe.

    Thank you Cara and Liza for your feedback.

  8. Recruiting Animal
    Recruiting Animal says:

    1. Never put yourself on the wrong side of centre.
    2. Don't dress more than 30% above your level.
    3. Never look like you're trying too hard.

    Didn’t Buddha say the first one, Confucious the second and George Costanza the third?

    These are classics that should certainly be handed down from father to son. I’ll see what I can do to propagate them.

  9. MarilynJean
    MarilynJean says:

    This discussion has surfaced in my life recently and I am already tired of it! I just recently experienced a workshop on “dressing for success” and I thought it was horribly outdated.

    Great blog and discussion, though. At least here you have some more interesting perspectives. I agree with Charles and it is nice to see that he is 45 and still desires individuality! I wish we could move away from how a person looks and focus more on ability, product/output and workplace performance. I think eventually those in authority are going to make decisions based on performance and less on image. If I were a manager making a hiring/promotion decision, I would certainly be more interested in the person who wears khakis and a t-shirt everyday who exceeded goals and show initiative versus the person who just “looked” like management material. Besides, I always feel more productive when I am dressed comfortably.

    I don’t agree with the statement that you are “being paid to do a job” and that you’re not there to “express yourself”. I do think expression and staying true to yourself is essential to good job performance. For many people, it is important to be happy with yourself in order to be happy with your job. You spend at least 40 hours a week there, so why not be comfortable in your skin, and in Cara’s case, where the blue nail polish?

    Plenty of people wear suits (politicians, bankers, lawyers, CEOs) and they are the people you should trust the least and perform the worst in the workplace.

    Plus, I would love to work at Google with the jeans dress code. Wearing jeans at that place certainly hasn’t stopped workers from making it the powerhouse that it is.

    * * * * * *

    I think the key is moderation.  The jeans at Google are nice, but I still feel a little weird and under-dressed.  I wonder if that will go away with time…
    – Jason

  10. Caitlin
    Caitlin says:

    Charles, URI is not a typo. URL stands for uniform resource locator and URL stands for uniform resource identifier. In general usage it’s the same thing. However in technical terms, there are subtle differences and a URL is actually a type of URI. URL is certainly the more common, and more correct, term.

  11. Cara
    Cara says:

    “Plenty of people wear suits (politicians, bankers, lawyers, CEOs) and they are the people you should trust the least and perform the worst in the workplace.”

    Thanks for the permission to wear my blue nail polish. However, I’m a lawyer! LOL! :)

  12. Charles Knight
    Charles Knight says:

    I stand corrected! I did not know the difference between a URI and a URL, but I sure do now! Thanks! -Charles

  13. Bob Ackerman
    Bob Ackerman says:

    Scott McNeely was once asked: “Is there a dress code at Sun?”

    His answer: “You must.”

    Look where that got them.

  14. Neuromancer
    Neuromancer says:

    Interesting article must read the rest of the posts.

    Though those Eccos shoes do look from a UK perspective how can I put this politly slightly chavvy they look like the sort of thing a posh ned wears along with his or her oh so stylish nylon tacksuit.

    i’me normaly a 501’s and Converse’s scruf but when I get suited and booted its in a silk suit and proper shoes.

  15. Ryan
    Ryan says:

    [Paul Graham]( has an interesting essay that touches on this topic as well. A taste from the essay:

    > Suits do not help people to think better. I bet most executives at big companies do their best thinking when they wake up on Sunday morning and go downstairs in their bathrobe to make a cup of coffee.

  16. JW
    JW says:

    Dress well.

    Wear clothes that fit. And I don’t just mean “small, medium, large.” Find clothes that have a suitable cut for your body and proportions. Update your clothes as you grow out or up.

    I don’t buy into your pop workplace psychology. Fine-tuning your appearance based on the perceptions of your peers is impossible. Fine-tuning it based on the current shape of your body and the color of your eyes, skin and hair is not only doable, it makes you look your best.

    This is true regardless of whether your workplace expects business casual or formal dress.

  17. Alejandrina Fernandez
    Alejandrina Fernandez says:

    If you don’t have to wear a suit to be serious the reverse also holds true. I have been to a couple of interviews at the Googleplex and decided to wear what I wanted, what felt good to me versus trying to figure out what would be acceptable. Regarding your shoes, people will have a myriad of opinions on what shoes they like which is also true about other kinds of judgements…what differentiates true innovators and leaders is relentless confidence in themselves and their ideas. Conformity is not the path to success and while I wouldn’t wear jeans to a meeting with a corporate client, what I trust they will remember is how I inspired them to think about their business in a completely different way and not what shoes I was wearing.

    Common sense and trusting your own sense of style are the keys to deciding how to dress…wherever you go.

  18. Brandon
    Brandon says:

    Dude, the shoe of champions at Google is clearly the Croc. I see everybody wearing them — from the guy delivering mail to the people who run the company.

    They share the privilege of being both the ugliest *and* most comfortable shoes I’ve ever worn.

    * * * * * *

    Brandon, I will check them out.  Do VPs wear Crocs also?  :)

    – Jason

  19. Mark
    Mark says:

    As someone who may be in the job seeking market soon, living in N California I was wondering what to wear for interviews?
    Bearing in mind that it’ll probably be in the 90’s (degrees F) when I start interviewing and I’ll be going to IT companies who probably all wear casual – what the hell do I wear? (extra) Smart casual or the whole suit, tie and shiny shoes?
    Help me out here guys?

    btw, it seems to me that Google’s minimal entry requirements are a doctorate and a Nobel prize (and that’s just for admin assistant).

    * * * * * *

    You should be fine wearing a nice button down shirt and slacks (no tie, no jacket required).  I wouldn’t wear Crocs though.

    – Jason

  20. Bob Dole
    Bob Dole says:

    So, wearing cheap casual semi-dress shoes makes someone overdressed?

    It really says a lot about the way people dress these days if the VPs of a company top out at Ecco shoes.

    It would be different if you were to say, it was mentioned that I wear Edward Greens to the office. Then you might be somewhat overdressed.

    I hate casual dress codes. You do not look like a professional if you wear jeans. You look like an idiot if you wear a wrinkled short sleeve polo short with pleated khakis. You look like an idiot if you wear a silk suit (in re: to another commenter.)

    People need to learn how to dress again.

  21. billwrtr
    billwrtr says:

    Most of this is sound advice, but:

    “…The CEO doesn't want to see you wearing the same watch she does, nor does your counterpart in the next cube who has been with the company twice as long as you….”

    Your watch is going to affect your career path. C’mon! Really!!!

  22. Mike
    Mike says:

    In my experience, your dress is not as important as your professionalsim. Your dress level should reflect a high level of professionalism – not the other way around.

    If you are in sales and meeting with customers, you should always be in a suit or coat/tie – always. I can’t think of anything that screams “unprofessional” than to greet a CxO in ripped 501’s and flip-flops (unless you are one of those rare mad-scientist-genius types who can get away with it.)

    If you are working in such a shallow culture that others think negatively about you because you wear Rockports and not Eccos; then you need to get away as soon as possible. That is not an environment that attracts quality people regardless of hom much their stock options are worth.

    Google has definitely “jumped the shark” and turned into another of a million other Silicon Valley drone companies.

  23. Ben
    Ben says:

    ‘Google has definitely "jumped the shark" and turned into another of a million other Silicon Valley drone companies.’

    I think perhaps you’re reading too much into this thread. People I work with at Google dress in a way which puts each other at ease — this varies by department, of course, but for engineering seems to generally be a variant of T-shirt / Polo shirt, jeans, and something one grade up from sneakers. There’s also wide individual variation. I also don’t see *anyone* paying much attention to people’s dress.

    Also, speaking as the head of a fairly large team at Google, I can speak with some authority on the topic of whether “people think negatively about you because [of your shoes]”. I, and all of my peers, judge people’s performance by their performance, not by how they dress/look/etc. That’s just rational behavior. Really now. Sheesh :)

    * * * * * *

    I agree Ben.  The original post was aimed at the nuance of social interaction in the workplace.  Clothes ain’t gonna save you, nor are they going to get you promoted.  But I do think they matter to a degree.

    – Jason

  24. Gwen
    Gwen says:

    “there's usually at least a light correlation between the best dressers and the best performers”…I have to take that to mean those who perform best at climbing the ladder. And frankly, I’ve found an inverse correlation between those who perform best at their jobs and those who perform best at the ladder race – those are two very different skillsets, in most cases.

    * * * * * *

    Great comment.  I would argue that there is a high correlation between being the best performer and growing your career.

    – Jason

  25. Phil
    Phil says:

    “I have to take that to mean those who perform best at climbing the ladder.”

    Or, possibly, taking care of your appearance is one symptom of being a together, intelligent, productive person.

    I don’t see why this is so contentious.

  26. MarilynJean
    MarilynJean says:

    It’s contentious because people are talking more about conformity and shifting fashion standards in the working world. Depending on your take, you may take issue with being judged solely on your wardrobe. Many people – like myself – find the notion that clothing affects your career path ridiculous (though the reality).

    Being a together, intelligent, productive person DOES NOT have to correlate with wearing a suit, pantyhose or any other combination of conformist apparel.

    The point I see people making here is to be clean, be presentable and appropriate when you’re dressing for work. However one’s work product and merit should be the ultimate decision-maker, not the brand of your shoes, the watch you wear or the color of your tie.

  27. SMO
    SMO says:

    Would you suggest these tips for a student applying for a position in the online sales and operations department?

    * * * * * *

    When interviewing for a job, I recommend wearing clothing that is forgettable.  As I mentioned above, button-down shirt, nice slacks and that should be sufficient.

    – Jason

    • Crow
      Crow says:

      No no no, never wear a button-down shirt. That is far too casual and unprofessional to wear at the workplace, much less an interview.

  28. Neuromancer
    Neuromancer says:

    “" – The CEO doesn't want to see you wearing the same watch she does, nor does your counterpart in the next cube who has been with the company twice as long as you – ."

    Your watch is going to affect your career path. C'mon! Really!!! ”

    Its also very negative towards Eric – and as a new HR employee 6 weeks into a job almost suicidal.

    Read what He wrote and think about what it says about Eric – its implying that he has a bigger chip on his soulder than sirallen has.

  29. Phil
    Phil says:


    I don’t see how showing that you have enough culture and taste to make basic decisions about your clothing wouldn’t give you an edge over a less stylish counterpart. It certainly doesn’t preclude you from doing good work.

    I’m sure that the GOOG engineers have the necessary disposable income to buy a pair of the Ecco’s mentioned above, or even some (by fashion standards) actually decent footwear.

    * * * * * *

    Phil:  The key point you make is that it doesn’t preclude you from doing good work.  My original post was aimed at the nuance of social dynamics in the workplace.  There are all sorts of ‘little things’ that we as humans do which form the basis of social perceptions with others.  Being conscious of these can only be beneficial in a corporate setting.

    And I hear you on the Eccos.  I am afraid I may have fallen behind permanently in any effort to keep up with fashion trends.  I know all the songs to Dora the Explorer however, which helps me divert attention away from my shoes while I’m at parties.
    – Jason

  30. Phillip Rhodes
    Phillip Rhodes says:

    Wow, what a bunch of nonsense in some of these replies. Unless how you dress has the potential to impact your job performance in some fashion, it’s irrelevant. Eg, if you’re selling to bankers and wearing a suit on sales calls is necessary to meet your quota, then by all means, wear a suit. Or if you’re welding, definitely wear safety boots to protect your feet.

    But outside of situations like that, what you wear to work should not matter. And I suggest that anyone working in a company where things like that *do* matter, quit immediately and seek another job or start your own company. Life is too short to waste time worrying about what some prissy d%!# thinks about your shoes, or your watch.

    For my part, if and when I get my company to the point of hiring people, I think I will put “must wear a suit to interview” in my job ads, and then send home anybody who shows up wearing a suit. I want people who can think for themselves, not lemmings. Show me the guy or gal who shows up for for an interview in a pair of torn blue jeans and a Slayer t-shirt, and that’s somebody I’ll want to talk to.

  31. Paul
    Paul says:

    This article must be written for marketing drones/cube dwellers and other employees where the job is so inconsequential that the only way to differentiate yourself is by the brand of shoes you wear. If you have the type of job where competence matters, then it is likely that your boss is less likely to care about the brand of shoes on your feet than they are about whether you can pull off what they just promised their client on-budget and on-time. If I had the type of job where I had to consider the minutae of my wardrobe as being relevant to a successful career then I would be seriously thinking about changing my line of work.

  32. Gloria
    Gloria says:

    From my personal experience in many work places I have to say that I agree with the need to dress for success, well at least if you plan to make a career and it is not just a temporary place. You are always more noticed if you look more “organized” than the other workers at the same level, when people are chosen for executive positions their appearance and the prediction that they are presentable is an important part. Sure you have to deliver and no suit would save you if your lousy at the job, but when all things being equal these kind of things can certainly make a difference.

  33. Crow
    Crow says:

    For the love of god, don’t ever, ever, ever wear a Rolex. It marks you as a rube who will pay huge amounts of money for a technically uninteresting watch that rolls off of an assembly line. President Bush wore a Timex. Either wear a $30 dollar watch from Wal-Mart, wear something nice and a bit expensive like a Seiko or Citizen, or just go all the way to the high-end, skipping Rolex and the like altogether.

    • Alex
      Alex says:

      Google are a client of mine – I’m an ex CEO and now a management consultant. I’m also female…
      I turned up to my first meeting wearing my usual biz suit and felt really uncomfortable. I now wear designer jeans, designer T, tailored jacket. heels. oh and I wear a rolex! (mens yacht master). I bought it when I did my first million dollar deal and i will not take it off for anyone…!

      I don’t for one minute think my opinion is any better than anyone else’s. I have been successful in the past and I am only doing business with Google because of my record and performance. My clients at Google have also been very successful in the past too.

      I am an entrepreneur and I have made money. My clients like the fact that they have a successful consultant working for them – after all, how would you feel if your doctor drove a Ford focus – would you not prefer them to drive a Merc?

  34. Google Rocks
    Google Rocks says:

    Dear Sir. What do you think about someone who is Interviewing for the COE position? Should it be business casual? How about a Google t-shirt (maybe the polo t-shirt with Google logo)? Would that be a no-go?

    Thanks for being an awesome company that contributes back to technology – you guys rock!

  35. ipad3
    ipad3 says:

    The content on this publish is really a single of the top material that I’ve ever occur across. I love your article, I’ll appear back to verify for new posts.

Comments are closed.