“You are how you dress” sounds a little harsh when it comes to workplace attire, but the truth is how you present yourself at work will influence the way you’re treated and the way people perceive you.
The variables can be difficult to navigate. And the task becomes even more complicated when you throw in things like the proverbial casual Friday and other events where dress codes change.
Part of the problem with dress codes is that every company interprets the terms differently. For instance, heading to work at Apple means putting on an Apple t-shirt and the rest is up to you. A reporter may have to dress in slacks, a dress shirt and tie at one paper while being allowed to sport jeans and a polo in a different newsroom.
We’re going to spend the next two posts unraveling the world of workplace dress codes, relying on the opinions and insights of popular HR and business websites.
Dress Code: The Definition
Dress codes can be like speeding laws. Some people approach them as rigid while others see them as suggestions rather than decrees. Given the non-confrontational manner of most workers today, you can see how the meaning of dress codes can become fuzzy when employees and managers fail to enforce the rules.
We’re going to go with human-resources website The Balance’s definition of dress code:
“A dress code is a set of standards that companies develop to help provide their employees with guidance about what is appropriate to wear to work. The formality of the workplace dress code is normally determined by the number of interactions employees have with customers or clients.”
We like the aspect of customer interaction here, because we agree with the notion that clients dictate dress code. Let’s use Starbucks as an example. People go there for coffee and food and an employee’s clothing rarely influences whether a customer wants to buy a product. And, the product is relatively inexpensive as most items can be had for less than $5.
On the other hand, if you’re handling multi-million dollar mutual funds pitched to C-level workers, shorts, a polo shirt and a green apron would be embarrassingly out of place. Suits –tailored, designer suits – are a must, as are great shoes, a nice watch and a stylish tie.
Particularly in sales environments, dress codes will be tailored to the client. One wrong color or accessory could lose a huge sale so the details are important.
“Depending on the organization, the dress code may be written in great detail, or, in the case of a casual dress code, very little detail is necessary,” The Balance’s Susan Heathfield wrote. “Over the years, employees have seen a shift towards a more casual dress standard, even in industries that were previously very formal.”
Heathfield does well to point out the shift to a more casual workplace; startups with insanely high valuations are packed with twentysomethings wearing jeans and t-shirts.
And that brings us to our next section, the two types of dress codes.
The Two Main Dress Code Options: Formal and Casual
Every workplace you encounter will have some form of a dress code, and that code will usually follow two schools of thought: business formal or business casual.
Business formal attire is the classic suit-and-tie you’re probably envisioning. In a sample dress code document, The Balance talks about some of the classic guidelines you should include in formal dress-code policy.
“Business attire for men includes suits, sports jackets and pants that are typical of business formal attire at work,” their sample document says. “For women, business attire includes pant and skirt suits and sports jackets appropriate to a formal business attire environment.”
Again, each company has flexibility with the level of detail in these dress codes. In high-level sales positions, there could be specific rules about the type of suit and tie you wear, or perhaps the type of watch you wear.
Either way, the goal here is to present the company as professional, intelligent and meticulous; dressing accordingly can reinforce your organization’s strengths and focus.
Each employee has the freedom to navigate the dress code within the parameters the company sets forth.
For example, Canada’s McMaster University points out that the darker the suit, the more formal. As for the dress shirt or blouse beneath, white, blue and beige are go-to, “safe” colors. Here are some other solid strategies:
- Women’s jackets should range between ¾ length or short sleeve, depending on the season.
- Crop pant suits are okay, but shouldn’t be worn during an interview
- Men should avoid bold colors or patters in dress shirts.
- In a three-piece suit, always match the vest’s material and color with the jacket and slacks.
Read Our Next Post for Business Casual Guidelines…
In the second part of our series on workplace dress codes, we’ll talk about the guidelines for business casual. We’ll learn why your dress code affects more than your customers’ first impressions; it can create a clash between the company’s desired direction and its culture.