Career Coach: How to avoid confusion over dressing "business casual"

By Special to Capital Business
Monday, November 15, 2010; 23

Recently, I attended a business-related workshop where the dress code was listed as "nice business casual." I saw everything from formal business attire (suits) to jeans, cutoffs and T-shirts. I heard several people commenting about how confusing today's dress code has gotten. I had to agree with this; it seems we are seeing all kinds of dress (or undress) at work these days.

I raised the question with a number of the MBAs at the Robert H. Smith School of Business. As future business leaders and entrepreneurs, I felt they would have a valuable perspective. Only 12 percent said they understood today's dress standards. The rest of them felt that dress codes were anywhere from slightly to extremely confusing. More than 70 percent said they have seen people wearing inappropriate clothes to work.

What difference does it make if a person wears inappropriate clothes to work? Even if the standards have gotten more relaxed over the years, people still believe a person's clothes send a signal about his or her professionalism, which impacts the reputation of the firm. As one MBA student said, "people tend to judge others based on clothing and appearance. Those people represent the company and reflect the professional standards of the firm."

In addition, some people feel awkward interacting with individuals who are dressed inappropriately. For example, some employees have reported feeling uncomfortable working with women who were wearing revealing clothes (low-cut tops or short skirts) or men wearing overly tight clothes. They also commented that if they are the same sex as someone dressing inappropriately, it makes their whole sex look bad and they feel they have to work even harder to be taken more seriously. In fact, research shows that women who dress in sexy attire are viewed as less competent and are passed over for promotions more than their more modestly dressed female colleagues.

Of course, what is considered inappropriate might depend on the type of firm you are working for. The dress codes in technology firms or start-ups are often very informal. Regardless of industry, there are some commonalities in what is appropriate or inappropriate at the office.

Guidelines for business casual dress

In general, clothes should be clean, unwrinkled and look professional. Your clothes should have a good fit -- not too tight or loose -- and anything too revealing is definitely inappropriate (cleavage, stomach, undergarments, etc.). Also, you should consider what you will be doing on a particular day. If you are meeting with clients, err on the conservative side. Generally, clothing suited for the beach, dance clubs, exercise classes, sporting events and yard work is often too casual for work.

Hats -- Usually hats and ball caps are seen as inappropriate in the office, but obviously head covers worn for religious purposes are fine.

Footwear -- Dress heels, deck-type shoes, loafers, flats, dress boots and walking shoes are usually seen as fine. What are often viewed as inappropriate are flip-flops, slippers, hiking boots, sneakers and overly flashy athletic shoes. Key to remember: Shoes should be clean and polished (not scuffed).

Slacks, pants and suit pants -- Generally those slacks that are wool, flannel, corduroy, linen, cotton (similar to Dockers or khakis) or nice-looking capris (for women) are acceptable. Inappropriate: jeans, sweatpants, leather pants, cargo pants, short shorts, leggings, biking shorts, exercise pants and overalls.

Skirts, dresses and skirted suits -- Casual dresses and skirts of a length that let you sit comfortably in public are fine (usually skirts should fall to the knee). Short, tight skirts, miniskirts, beach or sun dresses and spaghetti-strap dresses are seen as inappropriate for the office.

Shirts, tops, jackets and blouses -- Usually casual button-down oxford shirts, dress shirts, sweaters, golf shirts are seen as acceptable at work. Inappropriate tops: tank tops, midriff tops, halter tops or shirts with offensive graphics (logos, pictures, slogans) or sweatshirts. Basic white and chambray are good colors. For women, sweater sets are also fine.

Accessories (jewelry, makeup, perfume or cologne, scarves, belts) -- Generally accessories should be conservative and in good taste. Wear perfume and cologne sparingly since some people are allergic.

Sometimes, you still have to use your judgment about what might be seen as inappropriate at work. Err on the side of being more conservative. You want to be evaluated based on your work-related skills, not the way you dress.

Joyce E. A. Russell, PhD, is the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership, negotiations and career management. She can be reached at jrussell@rhsmith.umd.edu.

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