SIMPLE HACKS FOR DECODING YOUR OFFICE DRESS CODE
From figuring out your commute to successfully completing your first tasks, there are plenty of nerve-racking moments to starting a new job. In the modern workplace, we’ve got one more thing to add to the list: the dreaded office dress code.
As the new kid on the block, you want to make a good impression on your coworkers and bosses, but you also want to fit into the workplace culture. And that means appropriately dressing the part.
Gone are the days where “office attire” meant suits and fedoras for men and below-the-knee skirts for women. Instead, today’s office dress code is a minefield of dos and don’ts with indecipherable phrases like “business casual” and “business professional” thrown about with alarming regularity by human resources departments.
Figuring out what to wear to the office doesn’t have to feel like a complicated math problem. With a few key observations, an understanding of modern dress code definitions, and a little common sense, you can decode any dress code that comes along your way.
Start With the Basics
Every office dress code has one purpose: create a baseline expectation for what is appropriate for employees to wear. Sounds simple enough, right? In practice, though, dress codes are far from being uniform — with a few exceptions. Ask yourself these questions:
- What’s the industry standard? Some industries tend to have a more clear-cut dress code than others. Financial or legal professions typically require more formal apparel than the creative or technical sectors.
- What did you see on your interview? You’ve got plenty to worry about during a job interview, but this is a great time to observe what the people at the workplace are wearing. When you start your new job, you can use this insider knowledge to dress appropriately on day one.
- What does the employee handbook say? Many workplaces have detailed employee handbooks that may go into the specifics of what’s okay to wear and what isn’t. If all else fails, ask your HR representative to send you a copy before you start.
- What will your day-to-day job require? If you’re going to be attending a lot of boardroom meetings with the executive team or clients, you’ll need to wear a more formal outfit, even in a creative field. Likewise, if your Fortune 500 company job requires you to go out in the field interviewing oil rig workers, you will need to dress appropriately to that task. Think about what you’ll be doing all day and choose a wardrobe to match.
- Where do you live? Some regions — the West Coast especially — are far less conservative when it comes to dress codes than others, like the East Coast and Midwest.
Breaking the Categories Down
What is business casual? I don’t even know what that means.
— Kelsea M. (@KelsAMed) August 10, 2015
Your employee handbook or your boss might tell you that the dress code is “business casual,” but what exactly does that mean? Office dress codes typically fall into three broad categories — and here’s what each one is telling you:
- Boardroom Formal: Wear professional, conservative clothing that belongs in the boardroom or corner office. According to Business Insider, the standard attire for men is a dark suit, white dress shirt, a subtle tie, and black dress shoes. For women, choose a matched suit or conservative dress in neutral colors and pair with hosiery, a closed-toe pump, and minimal accessories.
- Business Professional: Your outfits should not be quite as formal as boardroom attire but still crisp and put-together. According to McMaster University’s business school, men can wear non-matching separates, a matching suit with no tie, or dress pants with collared shirt. Likewise, women can wear non-matching professional pieces, including jackets, skirts, pants, and blouses.
- Business Casual: A 2010 Society for Human Resources Management survey found that 35% of workplaces allow a more casual style of dress almost every day. Relaxing standards, unfortunately, makes them more difficult to navigate. In this case, it’s helpful to think about what not to wear. Stay away from anything you’d wear at the beach, to the gym, or at a sports game. Keep lengths of skirts and dresses conservative and avoid anything with logos. And what about jeans? Some business-casual environments may ban jeans outright, but if denim is allowed, make sure your favorite pair adheres to the following criteria spelled out in Forbes: no distressing/ripping, a darker wash, thicker-grade denim, and proper fit.
When Casual Fridays and Sports Mania Strike
If the term “Casual Friday” evokes images of Hawaiian shirts, it’s because the roots of dressing down on Fridays goes back to the mid-’60s. According to Marketplace, that’s when the Hawaiian garment industry came up with the idea of “Aloha Friday” as a gimmick to sell more shirts — and it worked.
A Society for Human Resources Management survey revealed about 57% of workplaces allow at least one casual day — most likely at the end of the work week.
Marie Claire editor Lea Goldman notes that women are especially at a disadvantage on casual Fridays, since the concept was created by men for men. As such, there’s no real equivalent to the polo-and-khakis matchup that a mainstay for a typical man’s casual ensemble. She offers seven rules, three of which apply equally to men and women: opt for pieces you can wear on Monday or Friday, stick with a dark denim, and save bold hues for Friday.
“Casual Fridays” doesn’t mean to dress casual. It means dress to yet another nuanced code and STILL no bare midriffs with sticky jam smears
— Drew (@MostlyPregnant) August 14, 2015
Big sporting events like the Super Bowl, the World Series, and the Stanley Cup finals also rustle up some serious dress code issues, especially if the hometown team is in the running. Fans want to show their pride, but is a team jersey ever acceptable, even on casual Fridays?
It depends. The best practice is to take a cue from your organization. Crain’s Chicago Business reports that many Chicago-area companies, for example, allow their employees to wear Blackhawks jerseys either on Fridays or on big game days. If a hometown team is in the running for a big sports championship, no doubt your company will show its support. But it’s probably a good idea not to show up every Friday sporting your favorite player’s jersey.
Learning your way around your office dress code is a delicate dance. Start by observing your colleagues, understanding the key differences in the different types of dress codes, and exercising some common sense. Soon the guidelines will become second nature — and you’ll be dressed for success.