What Not To Wear

Demystifying the rules of appropriate work attire

In the “Casual Friday” episode of NBC’s “The Office,” the clumsy and socially inappropriate character Meredith (Kate Flannery) wears a short dress with no undergarments and repeatedly exposes herself to her coworkers throughout the day. The shock and revulsion of the other characters each time Meredith moves, and the various ways in which she reveals herself, is a consistent joke throughout the episode.

While a sight gag in a TV show can be comical, dressing inappropriately at work or for work-related functions, such as networking events and holiday parties, is no joke. Most people are, of course, self-aware and informed enough to know not to go as far as Meredith, but even lesser appearance-related infractions can have a negative impact on workplace perceptions.

In the 2013 National Professionalism Survey Workplace Report by York College of Pennsylvania, a total of 80.6 percent of the respondents gave a rating of 4 (39.7 percent) or 5 (40.9 percent) — with 1 representing “no impact” and 5 representing “great impact” — indicating the importance of appearance. Categories included hygiene, attire, facial piercings, inappropriate footwear, visible tattoos and unnatural hair color. Consistent with previous findings, as the respondents’ ages increased, so did their perceived impact of appearance. The younger the respondent, the less likely they were to consider appearance a detriment to the perception of their ability.

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This gap in opinion highlights the need for companies and managers to educate individuals before they enter the workplace, to make the dress code and workplace culture precise and well known to prospective employees, and to gently and tactfully revisit and enforce it as needed.  

Unfortunately, dress codes can be ambiguous at best at many companies, especially since the advent and rise of casual Friday or the business casual workplace. It’s important for interviewees and current employees to do their homework and discern what their particular company considers appropriate for the office.

In some industries (think creative trades and some tech startups and dot-coms) it’s acceptable and even encouraged, for example, to don jeans, T-shirts and a pair of Chuck Taylors, but for those in a more conservative corporate atmosphere, suits are still de rigueur. Casual at one office might mean dress pants and a buttondown shirt, and at another it could translate to shorts and flip-flops.

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A good rule for most office employees is to err on the side of conservative and avoid anything too casual, too tight, too low or too short. The adage to “dress for the job you want,” also comes in handy, especially for those looking to move up in their company.

It’s also important to take into account how fashion forward your company culture is and act accordingly. Four-inch platform heels, high-sheen cloth or fabric with sequins or glimmer, garments with avant-garde tailoring and the like could come off as too trendy or reminiscent of evening attire and viewed as inappropriate in some workplaces. But that doesn’t mean you can’t mix it up. For example, wearing a classic blazer over a shimmery top is a good way to tone the shimmer down for the office. But remember, one bold item is usually enough for work hours.

Because it’s not always well-defined even in a written dress code, asking your supervisor, someone in human resources or a trusted colleague what’s considered acceptable is a great way to get a grasp on the best attire for employees at your company and in your position.

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Whatever you do, don’t take fashion cues — or really any cues — from Meredith. Ask questions, pay attention to what your managers wear and put your own personal stamp on it. If after all of that, you come to the conclusion that the dress code is too stifling for your free spirit and sense of style, perhaps it’s time to rethink more than just your wardrobe.

Melanie Warner Spencer is editor of New Orleans Bride Magazine. Her writing has appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, the Houston Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune and Reuters. Spencer’s ever-expanding library of etiquette books is rivaled only by her ever-ready stash of blank thank-you notes. Submit business etiquette questions to Melanie@MyNewOrleans.com.



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