12/07/2012 03:03 pm ET Updated Feb 06, 2013

Looks Can Kill and What to Do About Your Crappy Reputation

Just like in the good old days, reputations are mostly the stuff of appearances, not reality. Many of us would like to think that we are primarily judged on our abilities. But appearance does count. Big time. In fact, your entire reputation can be based on what you wear, if people can't get passed it and it's all they can seem to remember about you:

"You know, she's the one with the...

"big hair "

"You know, he's the one with...

"his crack showing"
"unwashed jeans he wears for days on end"
"1985 suits"

Think of the way you look as your "packaging." What does your package say about you? Your look can help brand you in a good and memorable way OR can be a distraction from the reputation you want. You may get you labeled with a reputation you never dreamed of or wanted.

My friend, Amanda, works as an on-air reporter. She loves clothes and shops for those that make her look expensive and powerful. Amanda is highly ambitious, and wants to show that she's "cutting-edge." Both are good reputations for someone in her line of work. So what's the problem?

The quality of her clothing and her sense of style is soooo far above that of her female supervisor's that Amanda, who has the great misfortune of also being young and pretty, is actually threatening.

Amanda's packaging is too expensive for the culture she's in. She's like a Godiva alongside all the Goobers. Amanda's supervisor and coworkers are having a real hard time seeing Amanda's talent and dedication, because they can't get passed the feeling that Amanda in her Armani is trying to outshine them. From the supervisor's point of view, Amanda is too big for her britches and doesn't know her place; definitely not Reputations that are going to help Amanda get anywhere fast in that company, except perhaps out the door.

While Amanda is in the beginning phases of her career, and still pretty low in the hierarchy, it would be better if she aimed for a reputation like "team player" for the next few years and saved her Chloe for the weekend. By conforming a bit more to the culture, Amanda would not distract coworkers and superiors from her obvious talent, and they would be far more inclined to support her rather than block her.

What you present on the surface has a tremendous impact on the entire Reputation. Is it stupid -- yes. It is real? Also yes.

What You Don't Conceal, You Reveal

Appearance, though is more than how you look, it's how IT ALL looks. I've learned the hard way that if you show them the dirt, your reputation can be mud. From seemingly innocent and irrelevant conversational exchanges, many of the people I know have landed reputations that have NOTHING to do with their abilities:

Big Drinker: "Every Monday morning we look forward to Brian's weekend binging episodes... Unbelievable!"

Incredibly Cheap: "Jordon spent nine hours tabulating who had the side of cold slaw..."

Sleeps Around: "Carol said that guy she was with was hung like a horse, and she hung from the ceiling! Last week it was a German gymnast, wasn't it?"

Slob: "Donna had a week's worth of dirty thongs hanging from her Nordic Track, right in the middle of her kitchen!

Irresponsible: "Yeah. Linda told me she gets more final disconnection notices every month than she does paychecks."

Loser: "God, that guy is always getting dumped. What the heck is wrong with Gary, anyway?"

Obsessive Compulsive: "Hannah said she's late every day because she has to go back 20 times to see if she left the iron plugged in, if the stove was on and if the water was running..."

You get the idea here. Basically, all these unflattering specifics we inadvertently reveal can lead to only one place: these people have zero discretion, which means they are not smart enough to keep their mouth shut, which means they can't be trusted, which means they will never be put in a position of trusted responsibility. All because we let our coworkers see our hangin' thongs...

The Damages: Over the Spending Limits

So what do you do if you find out that your reputation isn't so hot, or if you know you've done something seriously brainless to damage it, like the time I badmouthed my boss to anyone who would listen? Well, like defaulting on a loan, a serous blemish on your credit rating can stay on there a long time -- seven years, to be precise.

First, give yourself a break. We all make mistakes. You MUST to be patient with yourself while you dig yourself out. When your reputation gets tarnished for whatever reason, we say plan each step according to our Triple AAAs:

Appearance: After a huge gaff, drunk at the office party; insulted CEO's wife; the telling of the completely inappropriate personal story that has people thinking twice about you, make a noticeable change in your look. Get a different hairstyle, work on looking like you pulled it "back together" with a few new outfits, impeccable grooming and a fresh makeup scheme.

Attitude: Don't do the walk of shame. Keep your head up and engage people -- especially your detractors. This is considered very professional. Ask their advice about work-related matters. Act normal. People will eventually push the episode to the back of their minds if you don't do anything overt to remind them that it happened.

Ability: Enlist the help of someone within your company. Find someone you feel has influence and potential interest in you and ask her what are the kinds of things you can do to make a positive impression. Then do exactly what she tells you to do. Everyone likes to be solicited for their opinion and in return for your trust, this person will be likely to support you around the office in other ways and help you rebuild your reputation.