The University Record, February 4, 1998

Attire, attitude, body language equally important

Workshop participants get a feel for 'moleskin,' one of the newest incarnations of polyester that blends the synthetic fiber with natural ones for a softer texture and easy fall. Linda Rains, Alumni Association program manager, models the look in business-casual wear from Casual Corner.

By Paula Saha

From boardroom behavior to skin care, participants got a crash course in professionalism last week at "Enhancing Your Professional Image," a workshop sponsored by the Alumni Career Center.

Yvette Austin, image consultant and purchaser for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, instructed a room of about 25 women and one man in the tricks and trades of workplace demeanor.

The first thing Austin addressed was the importance of professional attire. She brought along Melissa Frechen, manager of Casual Corner in the Renaissance Center. Frechen and models displayed several different styles of professional attire, from business formal to business casual, as well as a layered look that could be transformed from office to evening wear.

Many workplaces, said Austin, now observe a "business casual" dress code, which is more relaxed than the traditional suit. Austin cautioned that one should not take the word "casual" to mean sloppy. "Don't wear the clothes you would wear in the garden or to wash the car." Austin also said participants should be sure to maintain quality even in their casual clothing by wearing natural fibers and flattering cuts.

However, one material that used to be off-limits no longer is, according to Frechen. "Polyester isn't what it used to be," she said, citing a new material called "moleskin" that is a polyester blend. Blends, which combine synthetic and natural fabrics, are excellent, she said, because they wrinkle less, yet hang well.

Austin suggests that even on casual days, you should keep a jacket and some dress shoes in your office in case the boss calls an emergency meeting. This is particularly important for women, Austin says, because, "men keep their power when they take off their jacket, but women lose theirs. The jacket is the most important piece of the wardrobe."

To save money, Austin suggests "pyramid dressing," in which pieces from one complete outfit can be used with other clothes to create several outfits. One great way of getting used to this, she says, is to hang suits separately--bottoms one place, tops another--so you get used to looking at them separately and being able to mix and match.

Austin also stressed the importance of accessories, proper skin care, professional hair cuts and make-up to completing the professional look.

It's not enough, however, to only dress for success, she said. Equally important is body language in the workplace, particularly in a board or staff meeting. If employees are slouching, shuffling their papers, not paying attention and doodling instead of taking good notes, they do not look credible and give superiors and co-workers a bad impression.

The credible employee will give excellent eye contact, sit with a straight back and give feedback to the presenter. "Whenever you are given the opportunity to speak at a staff meeting," says Austin, "you should do so."

Overall, confidence and attentiveness are what a professional needs to convey, Austin said. All of these things stem from attitude. The first thing that needs to change to enhance one's professional appearance, therefore, is attitude.

"How do you feel when you see someone with a bad attitude?" she asked the audience. "What do you think of that person?"

Austin had a participant read a quote from Charles Swindoll. "Attitude," he wrote, "is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill . . . it will make or break a company . . . the only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude . . . I am convinced that life is 10 percent what happens to me and 90 percent how I react to it."

The Alumni Career Center offers a number of career services for members of the Alumni Association. For more information, call 764-0384 or visit the Web at rcenter.

The Handshake

"The handshake is the best non-verbal communication we have in America's business world," says image consultant Yvette Austin.

"The perfect handshake is strong and firm--it shows confidence," she explains. The hand should be offered with the thumb up and fingers together. Hands should always be clean; avoid perspiration by keeping a handkerchief or handi-wipes with you at all times.

An interesting side note, courtesy of one of the women in the workshop who has traveled overseas, is that in many places if one's hands are dirty, one will indicate their wrist, and proper etiquette is to take hold of the wrist and shake that. It is also considered a great insult in some cultures to shake with the left hand.

Handshake Don'ts

The "Dead Fish" This is the limp, clammy, "prissy" handshake. A definite "do not" in the professional arena.

The "Bone-Crusher" "This one happens a lot in the workplace," Austin says. "It's the intimidating handshake." If you know someone who delivers one of these squeezing and painful handshakes, Austin has this solution: when shaking, press your thumb down hard on the area between their thumb and fingers. Their grip will immediately loosen.

The "One-Finger" Some people offer just one finger as a handshake‹this is a definite taboo. As one workshop participant put it, "That's just creepy!"

The "Pump" This is when the hand-shaker gets a little too enthusiastic and pumps up and down continuously. "Very phony," Austin says.

The "Sandwich" This is when you take the offered hand in one hand, turn it so it is palm-down, and then put your other hand over it. "This type of handshake is very condescending," Austin says. "It is completely inappropriate in a professional setting."