Dear Mr. Molloy:
Social workers throughout the United States are paid very poorly. Normally a social worker has to have a master’s degree in order to be employed. The salary for a social worker with a MSW is 1/3 lower than someone with an MBA.
I’m wondering if you’ve done any research on successful dress for social workers. As you know we have to work with the poor and are regularly required to visit homes that are often unkempt and sometimes dangerous. Is there any way for a social worker to dress successfully and still communicate effectively with their clients? Are there any outfits that will make social workers look successful and allow them to do their jobs?
H.G. Dallas, Texas
Social workers are caught in a Catch-22 situation. If they dress in a style that says they are successful professionals, they will find it unsafe to work in many poor areas. Social workers dress as they do because their outfits are camouflage, their primary objective is to protect the wearer.The outfits worn by most social workers have evolved over the years to increase their ability to communicate with their clients. I don’t have to research what social workers should wear, they’ve done it themselves. Since that is the case I recommend that you stick with your present outfits when visiting clients.
I think that social workers should have two uniforms; the first they will wear when they visit homes and a second one to wear when they’re working in the office. The first one to be effective must be low status the second one must be high status. The second uniform would let them blend into a typical office setting. The reason they must change their image is they will never be paid a middle-class wage while dressing lower class. There is a direct correlation between the status of an office worker’s clothing and their salary.
I’m sure many of your colleagues will have difficulty with my suggestions because many of them come from blue collar backgrounds and they have been taught by their environment that image is not important, If you can get them to look at professions similar to theirs where advanced degrees are required but the pay is low, they will find that the people in those professions usually do not dress like professionals. A prime example of that is librarians who are required to earn one of the more difficult degrees offered by most universities and yet are not paid well. The reason that is so is most people look at the library and think that everyone who works behind the desk is a librarian. Most are not, they are simply clerks. Unfortunately, most of the librarians dress in the same style as the clerks so the public does not see them as special or well educated.
I’m giving you the right answer but I don’t think I’ve changed anything. Twenty or so years ago I spoke to a meeting of the Library Association. When I made the same statement to them that I’m making to you; if you want to be paid like a professional look like a professional, the room split into two groups and they argued for at least an hour and a half while I was present and I’m told four hours after I left. Nothing changed.
Dear Mr. Molloy:
I am a semi retired attorney and I specialize in negotiating high-tech contracts because before I became an attorney I was an electrical engineer. Because of my reputation when I arrived I was offered a position with a local firm. I’ve been working about 2 to 3 days a week ever since and I love the arrangement. If I were retired I would go crazy. Before I retired, I spent most of my time in Virginia and worked most of my time in Washington DC. There everyone wears suits and I of course did as well.
Once I arrived in Tampa I found the heat uncomfortable and in summer you can melt walking to and from your car. Part of my image as a negotiator was I was always put together very precisely and I think my appearance impressed some people and intimidated others, so I’m not challenging Dress for Success. However, since I hate the heat I was going to call those I would be negotiating with and suggest that we all leave our suits, shirts and ties home and dress very casually and comfortably . I thought before I did that I would write to you and ask if I am making a mistake?
Your way of beating the heat is wonderful if you are a large man preferably with a deep voice. However, if you are below average in height or even average it may be one of the worst decisions you’ll ever make. Our research indicates that size becomes the dominant nonverbal power signal when everyone is dressed casually. That is one of the reasons that I suggest women in casual environments wear suits or at least jackets, because they are usually shorter than men.
Height is not the only non verbal power signal, in fact at times that is not the dominant one. What we’re talking about here is the power of intimidation. Some men are just naturally intimidating not because they are tall but because they are large, muscular, have a rough look about them or their general demeanor is threatening. If you are none of these things stick with suits.