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Chapter 2

Business Dress 101: Handling Attire Problems in the Workplace

I have heard with admiring submission the experience of the lady who declared that the sense of being perfectly well-dressed gives a feeling of inward tranquillity which religion is powerless to bestow.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson was probably right—but the opposite is also true. Being less than perfectly well-dressed in a business setting can result in a feeling of profound discomfort that may well require therapy to dispel! And the sad truth is that "clothing mismatches" on the job can ruin the day of the person who’s wearing the inappropriate attire—and the people with whom he or she comes in contact!

What can go wrong when it comes to professional attire? Plenty. In this chapter, you’ll find to-the-point advice on handling the most important issues related to workplace attire. As you’ll soon learn, even "casual day" wardrobe selections that carry potentially dire implications on the job can be avoided with just a minimal investment of time, care, and attention.

Tip #10

Know when to dress-up — or dress down.

Offices vary when it comes to dress codes. Some businesses have very high standards for their employees and set strict guidelines for office attire, while others maintain a more relaxed attitude. However, it is always important to remember that no matter what your company’s attitude is regarding what you wear, you are working in a business environment and you should dress accordingly. This applies not only to business casual wear but to more formal business attire, as well. Certain items may be more appropriate for evening wear than for a business meeting, just as shorts and a T-shirt are better suited for the beach than for an office environment.

Your attire should reflect both your environment and your position. A senior vice president has a different image to maintain than that of a secretary or sales assistant.

Like it or not, you can and will be judged by your personal appearance!

This is never more apparent than on "dress-down days," when what you wear can say more about you than any business suit ever could. In fact, people will pay more attention to what you wear on dress-down days than on "business professional" days! Thus, when dressing in "business casual" clothes, try to put some flair into your wardrobe choices; recognize that the "real" definition of business casual is to dress just one notch down from what you would normally wear on business-professional attire days. Avoid jeans, worn, wrinkled polo shirts, sneakers, scuffed shoes, halter-tops, and revealing blouses. For men, try wearing a neat pair of pants and a buttoned shirt with long or short sleeves that has more color or texture in the fabric. For women, wear skirts or tailored pants with blouses, blazers, and accessories that mean business yet convey a more casual look than your standard business attire.

Tip #11

Know when it’s time for your organization to adopt a new dress policy.

How would you rate the way your colleagues or employees dress for work? Try answering these questions to find out:

  1. Do the women in your organization wear scrunchies and mules? (For the men reading this resource, an explanation is probably in order. Scrunchies are those brightly colored fabric doodads that hold in place the ponytails of adolescents and others experimenting with low fashion; mules are shoes without backs.)
  2. Do male employees interpret "permanent press" as meaning "not needing to be ironed, ever"?
  3. Does it look like stock in Spandex must have risen dramatically based on the clothing choices of your organization’s employees?

If you have answered "yes" to any of the above questions, ask yourself if the way you and others representing your organization is reflective of the professional image you want your company to project. If you are in a management position, draft a memo that updates the dress code. Otherwise, consider suggesting, subtly, that someone in authority revisit your dress policy.

One simple, never-to-be-violated rule that applies to both men and women: Avoid wearing clothes that reveal too much or leave little to the imagination! For example, men who wear shorts to the office—even on Saturdays— may unintentionally signal to others that they don’t recognize standards for appropriate business casual dress. The same rule holds true for women who wear skirts that are tighter and shorter than "business professional" skirts. Why risk the chance of not being taken seriously by managers and colleagues?

Remember, there are boundaries between your career and your social life. You should dress one way for play and another way when you mean business.

Always ask yourself where you’re going and how other people will be dressed when you get there. Is the final destination the opera, the beach, or the office? Dress accordingly, and you will discover the truth in the axiom that clothes make the man—and the woman! When in doubt, always err on the side of dressing slightly more conservatively than the situation demands. Remember, you can always remove a jacket, but you can’t put one on if you didn’t take it with you!

Tip #12

Avoid overaccessorizing.

Whether you are a man or a woman, the way in which you use accessories reveals a great deal about you. Accessories can communicate who and what you are as a person, in the way you are presenting yourself and in your attention to detail.

The most common opportunity for overaccessorizing is probably to be found in jewelry. In this case, the basic rule of thumb in a business environment is that less is more. Earrings on men are strictly taboo; women should choose earrings that are simple yet elegant and should wear no more than one pair. Pins provide nice accents to a business ensemble, yet they need not be the main attention-grabber. Be tuned into your organization’s culture to decide whether or not you can wear multiple-bangle bracelets; in some workplaces they are considered inappropriate. For both sexes, "appropriate" in a professional setting means wearing a maximum of one ring on each hand, worn on either the ring finger or the pinkie.

Tip #13

Skip the cheap accessories.

Make sure that (for instance), the business pen you carry portrays a positive professional image. When dressed professionally, avoid carrying a plastic pen, just as you would avoid wearing a Power Rangers watch with a plastic band.

While you’re investing in a decent-looking pen, you should also take note of your computer case, luggage, and umbrella. Are they as well-maintained as they can possibly be? Do they look sharp? Or can they stand to be replaced? If a "maybe" even popped into your mind, get out there and invest in new accessories that will pay big dividends for your career.

Tip #14

If you’re an employer, clarify "business casual attire".

Some companies set up a "dress-down day" policy, then forget to tell the employees exactly what they mean by "dress-down." Unpleasant sartorial surprises sometimes arise as a result!

If you are the person responsible for creating a policy and procedure manual—or at the very least, a detailed memo—that describes specifically what you do and don’t want to see on business casual days. By doing this, you’ll give your people guidelines to follow and help them plan that (often tricky) "third wardrobe."

Remember to mention the basics: If you want men to wear shoes and socks instead of open-toed sandals and women to wear hosiery or trouser socks with slacks, even if they have a great tan, say so. By taking a few simple steps to formalize the boundaries of business casual day, you can clarify what is and isn’t acceptable, keep your working environment professional, and avoid the strange looks from important visitors when your work force as a whole looks like it just returned from Schlockville, U.S.A.

Tip #15

Refer to "the Book" to solve attire problems among subordinates.

Recently, I received a call from a personnel director who wanted to know how to approach a woman who wore sleeveless blouses to work (whose bra and slip straps always seemed to show). The caller wanted to know how she could get this person to change the way she dressed, without shattering her ego?

I suggested that she appropriately update the organization’s procedure manual to include a business casual code and that she depersonalize the exchange by taking a "rules are rules" approach during a private (and low-key) meeting. It worked!

Did you ever see the cover of the Dilbert book, Casual Day Has Gone Too Far? The scene, of course, is a modern office on "business casual day." In addition to various strangely dressed employees, a nude cartoon character— presumably an envelope-pushing employee—walks calmly among the maze of cubicles. You may not have to deal with problems like that on a regular basis on casual day. However, it’s entirely possible that you will have to contend with outfits that leave far too little to the imagination, excessive jewelry, T-shirts that display offensive messages, or any number of other "creative" attire choices that draw not just second glances, but gasps of disbelief.

In other words, today’s managers will have to contend with fashion statements that send the wrong message— loudly—to colleagues, visiting clients, and last but not least, The Big Boss. In cases where you’re looking at major provocations, rather than minor misunderstandings of the company dress code, your best bet is to pull the person aside, find a place for a private discussion, and explain the nature of the problem sensitively yet directly. Your cause will be considerably easier if you have a written dress code that outlines your organization’s definition of business casual dress. Begin by telling the person that he or she is a valued employee. Then explain—without making accusations or casting aspersions on the other person’s style—that business casual dress is a tricky thing and that the way the company has attempted to avoid confusion is by stating what it considers appropriate in its handouts and printed materials. Let the offender know that the company needs his or her assistance now—that it’s time to go home to change into "appropriate" business casual attire, rather than the "casual" and inappropriate garment(s) he or she is currently wearing. Specify exactly what’s "over the line": a halter top, a see-through blouse, Bermuda shorts, a miniskirt. Be specific, rather than assuming that the person can read your mind. Whether the person lives 10 minutes from work or an hour, you should take this action. Why? It will set the necessary precedent, relaying to other employees that rules are meant to be followed and if they are not, changes will have to be made.

Tip #16

Make sure your business casual dress says that you mean business.

Is there a bigger workplace faux pas than showing up seriously underdressed for work because you had a different idea of what "business casual dress" meant than everyone else did? Well, yes, there probably is, however that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t concern yourself with staying on the right side of this potentially tricky issue if you’re not in a position to formulate clear written guidelines yourself.

How casual is your organization’s business casual policy? The answer varies from company to company, of course, and, alas, not all companies develop formal written guidelines for the benefit of employees. One thing is for certain, though. You will never get in trouble for being too underdressed in a business casual arena if you follow this simple rule: Change your regular professional attire by only a single garment.

For example, men, if your organization’s culture requires that you wear a suit on "business professional days," wear a sport coat when dressing business casual. And for women, swap that conservative blouse you wear on most days with a knit top that is compatible with your blazer.

By following this simple (and, yes, conservative) rule when dressing business casual, you’ll still be able to go to a last-minute client meeting on a moment’s notice—without having to apologize for how you look. I’ve been asked many times whether it’s acceptable for women to wear slack suits on dress-down days in professional environments where this would otherwise be considered inappropriate. The (frustrating) answer is: It depends on the culture of the organization for which you work. The safest standard is probably to keep an eye on what the highest-ranking woman in your organization does and follow her example.

Do you dress in "business ready" attire?

How does your organization recommend that you dress for work? Are you encouraged to dress "up one notch" from business casual, so that you look like you are ready to do business on a moment’s notice? Whatever guidelines your organization has set out, you can be sure that the way you dress is a reflection of how credible you are perceived by clients, vendors, investors and/or stockholders.

Ask yourself, "How would others describe your style of dress at work?" Would it be "business professional"? Would it be "business casual"? Or might it even be (gasp!) "business sloppy"?

Today in business, "looking the part" has definitely resurfaced as a priority in the eyes of many decision-makers. Perhaps that’s why so many organizations are encouraging their employees to wear "business ready" attire. Dressing in a "business ready" mode means wearing clothes that ensure that you are one of the first individuals to come to mind when your manager realizes he or she is double-booked and needs an instant replacement for that upcoming meeting. "Business ready" means never having to say you’re sorry for how you look during a meeting.

In short, "business ready" attire means dressing for the position you want rather than for the one you have. It’s the best (and most lucrative) approach to business attire, and it’s one you should adopt whatever formal style guidelines your organization promulgates.

Key point summary

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