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If dress/appearance has never come up as an issue for you, or any of your ABA supervisees, then gold star for you. For my experiences though, I have been on both sides of this sometimes awkward coin. I have been the ABA therapist showing up for work in questionable attire, and I have been the supervisor having to talk to a therapist about his or her choice of clothing.
Some employers will hire you and just expect that you KNOW how to present yourself professionally. Then there are employers who will make dress expectations clear, such as with an employee dress code. But what if you work independently? Or what if the supervisor over you is just too uncomfortable to bring this up? What if the parent disapproves of your wardrobe, but never says anything?
What can make this topic tricky is that as an ABA professional, you don’t have a “9-5”. Yes, you may literally work a schedule from 9am to 5 pm but you know what I mean. Your work setting could be extremely casual (as in parents opening the door in their pajamas kind of casual), your colleagues or clients may never say anything about your appearance, and you may or may not have received professionalism training during your supervision process. OR, maybe no one has brought this up with you because you’re the boss. Yes, I have had a few situations where my boss was the one who dressed inappropriately. How do you tell your boss to iron their shirt??
If this whole topic of presenting yourself professionally was never discussed with you, allow me to give you a few helpful pointers. If you can, I recommend incorporating this information into the company dress code policy.
Cons of too formal – As the clinical supervisor, I often am dressed a bit more formally than my staff. I don’t work 1:1 with clients, and when I visit homes I may be coming from a meeting, a child’s school, etc., so it’s rare for me to be in jeans. However, when first meeting a client or a new supervisee, or with certain types of families, it can come across as cold or intimidating if you consistently show up perfectly coiffed. You may find that your staff have a hard time speaking openly with you during a session, or avoid asking you to model techniques if your dress is a bit too fancy. Definitely something to consider, since building rapport with the family and staff is an important part of your job.
Cons of too casual – On the flip side of showing up to supervise a session wearing a business suit, is showing up a bit too relaxed. Flip flops? No. Caps or baseball hats? No. Strapless shirts or spaghetti straps? No. I work with a lot of staff who are 20-something college kids, and I really emphasize with them the importance of treating their job like …. a job. I know you play with awesome kids all day, but you are still at work. If you could easily go from a therapy session to the beach or a nightclub, I suggest rethinking your work attire.
Who is your client/What is the work setting – It’s important to think about the problem behaviors your clients exhibit when you are selecting work attire. To put it simply, once you have a client tug your earrings out of your ear you learn not to wear your flashy jewelry to work. :-) Depending on your work setting, your attire may need to be more business (like at an ABA clinic) or more casual (like if you see clients in home). You want to mimic the attire of the people around you. If everyone at the clinic wears closed toe shoes, then you should too. Or if the family never wears shoes in their home, odds are they don’t want you walking all over their carpets with shoes on either. If you occasionally accompany your client into the community (e.g. church), then your attire may need to change just on those days.
Do you work 1:1 with clients? – If your role as an ABA professional includes working directly with the clients, then you have to evaluate if your work attire is appropriate for: bending down, bending over, climbing, squatting, jumping, running (can you catch an eloping child in those wedge sandals?), sitting in child size chairs, etc. Try these different activities before leaving the house, and if any of these movements are uncomfortable or reveal too much skin then you need to rethink your attire.
Scrubs/Yoga pants – The main problem with scrubs is some parents don’t like it. I have had parents say to me that it made them feel like the staff viewed their child as a “patient”, and not a “client”. But, I get it. ABA staff wear scrubs or yoga pants/workout clothing because its comfortable, and they don’t want to get saliva, blood, urine, or mucous, on their nice clothes. However, if your yoga pants are so snug that your underwear is visible, or if you consistently wear a sports bra to work, be aware that this could be deemed inappropriate depending on the setting.
Perfume/cologne/scented lotions – I love my perfume, so this is a tip I share from personal experience. The family or your client may dislike whatever fragrance you choose to wear, and if your client cannot communicate they may have no way of telling you this other than problem behavior. My advice is to skip the scents when you are working with sensory sensitive individuals, especially if they can’t tell you “Your cologne is giving me a headache”.
Time to get super real for my last tip: the way you present yourself can cost you work.
You may think that's unfair or judgmental, but it’s true. Very recently I saw this happen with one of my staff, where the family requested a different therapist because they strongly disliked her work attire. I have also seen fellow BCBA’s get passed over for opportunities, because they don’t present themselves well-- they come across as disheveled, or messy.
Your appearance does play a part in how clients perceive your level of professionalism. If you feel that you perform your job well and have solid clinical knowledge, then why would you let your wardrobe take you out of the game? If you follow the tips I have in this post, you should have no issues with being incorrectly perceived as unprofessional.