Dress codes have become increasingly more confusing in the business world. Back in 1981, it was easy for me to get dressed and go to work at IBM: I would put on a blue suit, white shirt and yellow or red tie. Then business casual came along, which made it slightly more challenging. At IBM, this meant a sport coat with no tie, but at other tech companies, like Apple, it included jeans.
Today, a more casual attire has permeated many company cultures, especially in those businesses that don’t see customers regularly. If your company's casual attire is becoming a bit too casual for your tastes, it might be a good time to redefine the dress code.
Definitions of Attire
There are so many different descriptors for dress codes, it's easy to misinterpret a directive. And the last thing you want is your employees (or you, for that matter) showing up at a client's office overdressed or underdressed. Here's a quick cheat sheet for the most common dress codes:
Traditional business attire. For men, this includes suits or sport jackets with ties and black leather shoes. For women, it includes skirts, dresses, blouses or suits and closed-toe shoes.
Business casual attire. For men, this includes dress pants, with or without a sport jacket, and a collar or turtleneck shirt. (In the summer, khaki pants are always an acceptable alternative for men.) For women, it includes a jacket or sweater, dress pants, skirt, blouse with open- or closed-toe shoes. Business casual may include darker-wash jeans for both men and women.
Casual attire. For both men and women, it means jeans, t-shirts and shorts. Footwear can include athletic shoes and sandals. Unless work takes place on a beach, swimsuits, flip-flops and halter tops should always be avoided.
Party attire. Does anything go? Not really. Think about what matches the culture of the company. When in doubt, dress in traditional business attire.
Dress for the Occasion
It's not just about following dress codes. Understanding how you're expected to dress in certain situations and occasions is also vitally important:
In the office. Before deciding on a dress code, think about the type of culture you want to create. What does the company brand represent? Is it casual or formal? If a customer showed up at the office, would you be proud of how all employees looked? Set detailed guidelines as described above so there is no misinterpretation. Some businesses also have a casual Friday to mix things up a bit.
Visiting a customer. Adopt the "when in Rome" philosophy. In his book, Enchantment, Guy Kawasaki discusses how businesspeople should dress and it depends on who their customers are. He insists that if you underdress, it sends the message that you don’t respect them. If you overdress, it sends a message that you are better than them. Kawasaki suggests “equal dressing” which means that we are peers and is optimal for forming strong customer relationships. Check the company's website to see how employees are dressed. If that doesn't give you an idea, ask the customer contact for how people dress at the office.
At a company event. The location and time of day will determine the dress code. For evening, lean toward party attire. For afternoons, use business casual. Remember, in this case, overdressing is better than underdressing. Break the dress code and your picture will end up on Facebook.
At an industry trade show. Search the event website ahead of time to find out if there is a dress code for the event. If the show is in Las Vegas or Florida, people will dress more informally. Remember, you will likely be photographed and it will be shared on social media. Think about how you want to represent your company. Use the same dress attire when traveling to and from the event. You may meet a vendor or customer while traveling or upon arrival at the hotel.
Virtual employee or working from home. Pajamas or sweats? Does it matter? Think about what attire helps you do your best work. When answering emails, it may not matter, but when writing a major strategy, it may have a bigger impact.
Read more articles on company culture.
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