When it comes to how you're judged at work, you might think that the quality of your work is all that matters. But human perceptions are a lot more complicated than that, and you might send signals that you don't realize or intend.
Here are five of the top ways that you inadvertently send signals about yourself at work – and how your boss and co-workers might read them.
1. Whom you hang out with at work. No matter how good your work is, if you're always hanging around co-workers who only do the bare minimum, have a complaint about everything or don't get along well with their managers, you're likely to be perceived as sharing those same traits – even if you don't. Likewise, if you spend time with the office's high achievers, you're likely to be perceived as having a similar work ethic and values (and those things can rub off on you in reality too).
2. What time you leave each day. If you watch the clock and leave every day at 5 p.m. on the dot, prepare to be seen as someone not especially committed to work, and only putting in what's absolutely required. That can impact you when it's time for raises and promotions. On the other hand, if you always stay hours longer than everyone else, you might be seen as committed – but you might instead be seen as someone struggling to handle her workload. Better than each of these is a more balanced approach – not running out the door at the stroke of 5 each day, but leaving around the same time most other people do.
3. What you wear. "Dress for the job you want, not the job you have" is an old saying for a reason. You might get away with wearing jeans and ratty shirts in your role, but if the people above you look more polished, you'll probably go further by wearing more business-like clothes. Fairly or not, people have an easier time picturing you managing others, doing higher-profile work and dealing with clients when you look polished and well put together.
Rather than thinking of the dress code as telling you the minimum you can get away with, think of your work clothes as telling other people how you'd like to be perceived.
4. How you behave in meetings. If you sit silently in meetings without participating, you're signaling that you don't have much to contribute, or that you don't care enough to contribute. Even worse, if you spend most of the time checking texts on your phone or reading sports scores, you signal that you're unengaged with the company's business. So try to participate if you can – and at an absolute minimum, make sure you look attentive.
5. How your office is decorated. If your office is utterly barren – no photos, no décor, no evidence that someone inhabits it – you might signal that you're just passing through, that you'll be on your way as soon as you find something better. It's easy to bring in a lamp and put an art print on the wall, and it will make a difference in how people see you. On the other end of the spectrum, don't go overboard: If every surface in your office is covered with photos, art and figurines, you'll look like your focus is somewhere other than on work. You also want to avoid a messy office, which can make you look disorganized and unconscientious.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results, and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.