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Your Professional Image

Reality TV shows like "Extreme Makeover" amuse, entertain and make money. But the reality of the workplace is this: Without a makeover, some very qualified employees may never get the promotions they deserve. Others may not get hired at all.

Kali Evans-Raoul is trying to change that. An African American with experience as a cosmetic chemist, Evans-Raoul founded The Image Studios in 2000 after realizing the salon industry wasn't serving women like her. Her Chicago-based company now employs 10 people to help clients look, sound and act in ways tailored to their particular career goals. Her staff -- including a wardrobe consultant, hairstylist, image coach, and speech and language pathologist -- helps clients gain positive notice from bosses and interviewers.

Self-Expression and Work

Looking professional does not mean selling out your cultural or ethnic heritage. Evans-Raoul helps her clients balance self-expression with workplace realities. Her goal is to get them to be true to themselves within the bounds of professional etiquette.

African American women often work in organizations where fellow employees rarely dress in ways that are significant to any specific heritage, Evans-Raoul explains. While a large Afro may be culturally significant and a prideful expression of individuality, extra-puffy hair may send a message that the wearer is "not in control" of herself, according to Evans-Raoul. The unanswered (and unasked) question becomes: "How can she control a project if she can't control her hairdo?"

Many African American women do not wear makeup, Evans-Raoul notes -- it's not part of their culture. Yet others may perceive that as a lack of polish indicating an inability to perform at a higher level. And long, curved or glittery nails, while stylish at home, can distract a colleague or customer, preventing the wearer from being heard.

"Sometimes professional image development can be more challenging for women who are African American," Evans-Raoul says. "Our hair and makeup are outside professional fashion norms. It takes more consideration to make sure that hairstyle and color are not distracting."

Every Office Is Different

Personal-appearance coaches must consider a client's particular workplace or profession. A hemline that is considered risqué in one office might be acceptable in another; a trendy outfit may be acceptable in an ad agency, but out-of-bounds in the law firm down the hall.

However, Evans-Raoul says, certain standards apply everywhere. Clothing should be "the best quality you can afford." Quality, she notes, is measured by fit and fabric, not just price.

Send the Right Message

But looking good gets you only so far. "African Americans must also focus on grammar, intonation and inflection," Evans-Raoul says. Speaking "office English" does not take away from one's cultural heritage, she insists. "Our abilities as individuals to be chameleon-like and have others feel comfortable with and around us is critical to our success. The degree to which we are successful depends very much on how well we fit in."

She uses the analogy of a famous brown uniform. "Nobody who works for UPS says 'I won't wear the uniform.' But when you go home, no one asks you to keep it on. It's self-sabotaging to think that looking the way you're supposed to look in your particular field means you're undermining your personal self."

In the workplace, Evans-Raoul says, "you must always have your game face on. People constantly make split-second decisions about you. Most of the time those decisions have nothing to do with race; they're about the crispness and cleanness of your message, and the ability for them to see you without any distractions."

It's sometimes harder for minorities, who may have a particular sense of cultural style, to tread that line between self-expression and professional appearance. But the workplace is not a TV show. It's reality, and Evans-Raoul does her best to help clients land starring roles.

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