The traditional office dress code is becoming a thing of the past, so where can employees turn for guidance to dress for success? A dress code works well for private schools, team sports, and workplaces with pressing safety concerns. No employer wants to see workers operating heavy machinery with loose clothing that can get caught in the mechanisms and cause injury. Schools wish to shift the focus on learning, not teenage fashion shows. But in the office, strictly enforced dress codes are becoming a thing of the past. There are a few simple explanations for this evolution. While clothing guidelines can help elevate a shared sense of order and professionalism, they can also be difficult to enforce. Though HR teams are trained experts, they have limited time on their hands. Therefore, they don’t love being drawn into tedious arguments about the difference between a permissible “sandal” and a strictly forbidden “flip-flop.” In addition to wasting time and causing needless disciplinary action, attempting to enforce a dress code can lead to legal trouble if this action infringes on gender equity or violates an employee’s right to certain forms of religious and personal expression. What’s an employer to do? And as traditional dress codes come to an end, how can an employee decide what to wear? How can office workers make sure that their personal style decisions don’t harm their careers? We can’t answer the first question, be we can provide some general guidance on the others. Here are a few quick tips for office workers with fashion concerns.
High heels are not “required”
High heels can be uncomfortable, unhealthy, and sometimes even dangerous. But they suggest a labor-intensive approach to getting dressed in the morning, which appeals to some corporate employers. Until recently, companies in the UK could legally require women to wear high heels as part of a standard dress code. That option is now being called into question. Across the pond in the US, women are peer pressured to wear heels instead. Employees who feel obligated to wear them have a few choices: wear them, reject them and accept the outcome, or change jobs. If you feel pressured to wear high heels every day, question the environment. What else will you be pressured to do? It may be time to find a new job. Work for a company that values you for your skills, not your shoes.
What about ties?
And as it happens, overdressing can be just as career damaging as underdressing — if not more so. Dress for success, don’t dress to impress. Wearing a suit and tie in an office full of T-shirts can suggest distain for your coworkers or a sense of superiority. You may not feel that way whatsoever, but you may accidentally send that message. But these moves won’t protect your career when promotion decisions are made. Look around. Let the existing culture of your workplace guide your morning routine. Observe what other people wear. Notice how people treat you when you wear different outfits. It’s not easy to dress professionally in most offices these days, so it may take some practice.
The rest of the dress code is subjective
When you get dressed for work (or when you shop for new clothes) don’t rely solely on your company’s dress code to guide your decisions. Instead, use your eyes, your situational awareness, and your common sense. “But I followed the dress code” won’t protect you from charges of “just not having the look we like” or “not fitting in with our culture.” If you’re confused, ask a few trusted coworkers for their input. Pick coworkers with different styles. Find your own work style in their various answers. For more on how to navigate every aspect of office life, including your clothing choices, turn to the guidelines and job search tools on Livecareer.
June 6, 2016