Workplace Dress Codes

As with many things, this is cultural and varies country to country. This post discusses the typical US workplace, but some of the tips will be applicable no matter where you are. If you travel abroad for work, your employer will be able to guide you on cultural expectations for your destination.

Workplace dress codes can be complicated. Expectations vary by industry, workplace location, and in some cases, by specifically what you will be doing. I’ll also talk about dress codes specific to women and some cases where a stated dress code should raise a red flag about company culture.

One thing that all workplaces have in common: Good personal hygiene and grooming is expected of absolutely everyone without exception. Some jobs involve getting dirty and/or sweaty, but everyone should always show up to work clean and well-groomed. Clothing should fit correctly and not have holes, tears, or stains.

Dress Code Descriptions

Throughout this post, I’ll talk about four types of dress codes.

Business Professional

For all: Jeans, T-shirts, shorts, sneakers, sheer clothing, and flip-flops or other beachwear are never acceptable for anyone under this dress code.

Men:  For you, business professional means a suit and tie. You’ll be expected to wear a suit or sport jacket and tie, a long-sleeved dress shirt, and brown or black dress shoes with trouser socks daily. Ties and shirts can be colored but should not be excessively loud, and you should wear an undershirt beneath that dress shirt. Shirts should be tucked in with a belt that matches your shoes. Facial hair should be shaved or neatly groomed, and visible tattoos and piercings are not usually acceptable. Cuff links are a nice touch but aren’t required.

A man who wears business professional daily should find a good tailor to ensure that his suits fit correctly.

Women: Business professional for women means a business suit, either a pantsuit or a skirt suit, or a professional dress. Pantyhose is expected at this level, as is appropriate jewelry. If your shirt does not have a collar, a necklace conveys authority, so I recommend one of the two. Your skirt should not be more than three fingers above the knee, your cleavage should not be visible, and you should wear closed-toe dress shoes. Piercings that aren’t in your ears and all tattoos should not be visible. (Ear piercings are acceptable for women, but should be tasteful.) Professional makeup is suggested and generally expected.

Professional Makeup

Professional makeup is also referred to as daytime makeup. Makeup of this kind should accentuate and even out the face, not draw attention to itself. Avoid loud or dramatic color, glitter and sparkles, and dramatic effects such as smoky eyes that are more appropriate for evening wear.

Business Casual

Business casual varies a lot from office to office, but these guidelines should be acceptable in most places.

For all: Shoulders and chest should be fully covered, and T-shirts, shorts, sneakers, and flip-flops or other beachwear are not acceptable. Jeans are seldom acceptable, but some offices have a “casual Friday” dress code that allows them on Fridays only.

Men: A collared shirt and slacks or khakis with loafers are the rule of the day. Ties are not generally expected, and polo shirts are acceptable. Dress shirts may be short or long sleeve, and loafers are the norm. Shirts should be tucked in with a belt. Many men in this environment who occasionally meet with clients keep a sport jacket and/or a tie in their office for an instant wardrobe upgrade if needed.

Women: A collared shirt or dress blouse and slacks or a skirt is the rule. Shoes may be open-toed flats or heels, and pantyhose is not usually expected. Dresses should be no more than three fingers above the knee. Sheer clothing should have a slip or a camisole beneath it, and your bra should not be visible. Shrugs and jackets to cover sleeveless blouses are commonplace in this dress code.

Business Comfortable

These offices say business casual, but business comfortable is my term for an office that is business casual with the emphasis on casual. The major difference between this dress code and business casual is that nice jeans and often sneakers are acceptable.

Caution: Never assume this dress code. Go for this only if it’s what the people around you are wearing.

Men: A collared shirt and nice jeans with or a belt, and loafers or sneakers.

Women: A polo shirt or blouse and nice jeans with sneakers or flats. Shoulders should be covered, but a sleeveless shirt can be covered with a shrug. Heels aren’t typical in this dress code but are acceptable.

Uniformed / Special Case

This applies to environments such as medical offices, retail, amusement parks, and other places where either for safety / hygiene reasons or appearance reasons, your employer will explicitly specify and will sometimes provide what you will wear. Follow your employer’s guidelines.

In these cases, all genders and gender identities should be clean and well-groomed no matter what. Piercings and tattoos may or may not be acceptable; your employer will specify.

💡If your employer provides the clothing they want you to wear, you can often keep it from becoming stinky and having to do laundry every other day by wearing a plain shirt beneath it. Your employer may tell you what colors are acceptable beneath it; if not, default to the same color as the shirt provided.

Industry and Dress Codes

The biggest drivers of daily workplace dress codes are your employer’s industry, location, and your employer’s company culture. Expect and default to the following dress codes from these industries.

Business Professional: Law, finance, politics, sales, hospitality*, broadcast media

Business Casual: Government, most industries not otherwise mentioned

Business Comfortable: STEM, healthcare

*Except uniformed employees. Hospitality is usually either uniformed or business professional depending on role.

Information Technology (IT)

IT counts as STEM, but IT is a support function for nearly every business in existence today, so IT workers will often follow the dress code for their employer’s industry. For example, IT professionals employed by a law firm will be expected to wear at least business casual and possibly business professional. If not guided otherwise, they’ll tend to default to STEM.

IT attire is often driven by practical considerations. Because of the occasional need to crawl under desks and root around in closets and basements and under floors, the majority of women eschew skirts and open-toed shoes in favor of slacks and closed-toe shoes.

Media

Dress code for media from day to day depends on what one is doing. If you’re on camera, business professional is usually absolutely required, and both men and women will wear makeup. The good news is that you’re unlikely to have to do it yourself; most news media outlets retain makeup professionals whose job is to fine-tune your on-camera appearance.

If you’re off-camera, it varies. Radio DJ’s might well wear jeans and a T-shirt. If you’re in media, default to business professional and follow the lead of those around you.

Remember: these are default guidelines only. If your company does something different, follow their rules.

Location

What city you work in can influence the details of how you dress. Fashion-forward locations such as London, Paris, or New York may accept more edgy attire than a conservative city such as St. Louis, Houston, or, interestingly, Washington DC. To determine the norms for your city, walk down a street downtown at lunchtime on a weekday, and stop in an eatery downtown. Look around you — what are the majority of people wearing?

Non-Office Environments

If you don’t work in an office, or you spend time in environments that are not an office, the above may not apply to you. Construction yards, kitchens, nurseries, operating theaters, and factories all have their own needs and their own rules. Chances are that if you are trained in these fields, you already know what the requirements and restrictions for attire are. If not, ask your employer.

Interviews

Put simply: if you are interviewing for a non-office job in an industry that is not notated as being business professional, business casual may be acceptable. Otherwise, business professional attire is always de rigueur for an interview, with some further restrictions.

For interviews, skip the loud colors and lean conservative. Choose a suit that is navy blue, black, or gray; brown has also become acceptable in recent years. For men, shirt should be white, and the color accent can be in the tie. Women can go with a colored shirt or blouse. Color choice depends on what you look good in and what you want to convey.

  • Black: Authority
  • Brown: Practicality, “down to earth”
  • Blue: Honesty and work ethic
  • Gray: Sophistication
  • Red: Passion (use this color sparingly)

Company Culture and Dress Codes

Individual company dress codes can say something about its culture. The more formal and restrictive its dress code, the less tolerant of personal expression it’s likely to be, and the stricter it’s likely to be in other areas as well. A company with a formal dress code is concerned about its corporate image. Conversely, a company with a relaxed dress code is relaxed in other areas as well and is more likely to have a “whatever works” attitude. Companies like this can be disorganized and organic in nature.

Caution: Be wary of a company that wants you to dress like an executive, but wants to pay you like a scrub. Maintaining a professional wardrobe isn’t cheap, and a company that isn’t willing to pay you commensurately with the expected dress code probably doesn’t care about you or your needs.

For the ladies: There are still some companies that expect and demand that women wear skirts and heels daily, despite an increasing body of medical evidence suggesting that daily wearing of high heels does permanent damage to the feet. This requirement indicates a company culture that has strict expectations for gender roles and should raise a red flag for women whose profession falls outside traditional gender roles or who have medical issues that preclude the wearing of high heels.

A Final Word

Remember this: every company is a little different and rolls their own. What I have given you is a set of safe defaults that will be acceptable in nearly every situation. As you gain time in a new job, you’ll learn more about its culture and what and will not be accepted.

You can quickly determine a company’s dress code during your interview. Look around you at what the people passing by, and most especially your interview team, are wearing. That’s the dress code that will be expected of you should you take the job.

Personal Hygiene

I know, I know. This is stuff everyone knows, right? My experience says that no, it isn’t stuff everyone knows. So bear with me.

What is personal hygiene?

Personal hygiene is stuff like having and wearing clean clothes, showering, washing your hair, wearing deodorant, keeping your hair (facial and otherwise) trimmed, and so forth. Makeup and clothing is covered more under grooming, which is a more complex subject to be covered in a future post.

Why is it important?

You’ll be judged by whether you take care of yourself or not. If you don’t care enough about yourself to take care of yourself, why should anyone else? Failure to maintain good hygiene can affect every aspect of your life.

It will affect your ability to form relationships, whether romantic or platonic — who wants to be around someone who smells?

It will affect your ability to win and keep a job — since you are a representative of your employer, poor personal hygiene can reflect badly on your employer and create a nasty work environment for those around you. People can and do get fired for poor personal hygiene, especially in customer-facing jobs.

It can affect your health — failure to wash regularly can result in some nasty skin conditions, not to mention carrying or contracting communicable diseases.

What do I need to do?

How much you need to do depends on the situation and circumstances, so this is broken into sections.

Essentials

These are things that everyone absolutely has to do in order to be acceptable in public. The only time it’s okay to skip things in this category is if you’re cleaning, working out, or doing something else that will get you dirty or sweaty, in which case you should clean up afterwards.

These include:

  • Showering (with soap)
  • Washing your hair (with soap)
  • Washing your face (with soap)
  • Wearing deodorant
  • Wearing clean clothes
  • Brushing your teeth

For our friend college students: Pajamas don’t count as clothes that are OK to wear in public.

If you have good hygiene, you shouldn’t smell like anything in particular. If you’re prone to heavy sweating or your body odor is particularly noxious, it could be a medical issue. Consult with your doctor for suggestions on how to reduce sweating and problematic body odor.

A note about hair washing: Most people don’t have to wash their hair daily, and indeed, most hairdressers recommend that you don’t because of the risk of hair breakage. For those with oily scalps, they recommend using a dry shampoo every other day to absorb the oils and keep your hair from looking stringy. I have yet to find one of these that works for me and doesn’t make my hair go limp or frizzy, so I do wash my hair daily and use a biotin conditioner to strengthen my hair. How often you need to wash is based on your ethnicity, genetics, and activity level. Consult with your hairdresser, but use your own best judgment.

Suggested and Appreciated

These are things that are generally wise to do, especially if your clothes are revealing in some way. Doing these things will improve your appearance and how people regard you, but not doing them won’t usually get you thrown out of an establishment.

These include:

  • Removal / trimming of unwanted hair
  • Nail care
  • Skin care
  • Hair care – brushing/combing, etc.
  • Use of mouthwash

Keep in mind that heavy perfume/cologne can trigger asthma attacks in certain people, and even if they smell good, too much can also be offensive. Go easy on these products.

Clean Clothing

Some clothing can be worn more than once, if it has not been somewhere smelly or dirty. This usually applies to outerwear. Here’s a general guide to “can I wear it a second time?” If the answer is no, it should be tossed in the laundry hamper at once. If it can be re-worn, lay it neatly over a chair or similar.

  • Does it smell like anything? If so, NO.
  • Does it have any marks or stains on it? If so, NO.
  • Is the article of clothing underwear or socks? If so, NO.
  • Is the article of clothing a pair of trousers that have already been worn more than once? If so, NO.
  • For the ladies: is it a bra that has already been worn more than twice? If so, NO.
  • Is the article of clothing a shirt that has been worn more than four hours? If so, NO.

Washing Your Hands

Improper or insufficient hand washing is the most common means of spreading flu and the common cold. You should wash your hands:

  • After using the bathroom
  • Before eating
  • After touching your face
  • After sneezing or coughing
  • Whenever they get dirty

To wash your hands properly:

  • Wet your hands with warm water.
  • Add 1-2 pumps of soap and rub vigorously for 20 seconds.
  • Make sure to get the backs of your hands and in and around your fingernails.
  • Dry with a paper towel.

Sharing of Personal Items

If you live with your bestie or you live with your children or spouse, and money’s tight, it can be tempting to share personal hygiene items in the interest of conservation. However, because of the possibility of sharing germs and communicable diseases, there are some items that should never be shared.

  • Underwear. Please don’t ever share underwear with anyone. Yeast infections and some STD’s can be passed in this way. Throw it away if you suspect that anyone else has worn it.
  • Socks. Athlete’s foot is a fungal skin infection that is an unholy pain in the rear to get rid of once introduced. It can be passed by wearing someone else’s used socks, so don’t.
  • Toothbrushes. Do you really want to stick something in your mouth that has been in someone else’s mouth? Neither do I. Get your own and keep track of whose is whose.
  • Hairbrushes. This is particularly an issue with school-age children, but can happen to anyone. Sharing a hairbrush with a school-age child is asking for a case of head lice.
  • Body sponges / washcloths. Two people shouldn’t use the same one at the same time, although in the latter case, a washcloth that has been through the laundry is safe for another person to use. Body sponges should be washed or replaced regularly.

A Final Word on Hygiene

These instructions given above are typical. Everyone is a little different, and your exact hygiene routine will depend on your ethnicity, genetics, and activity levels among other things. Personal hygiene goals:

  • You shouldn’t smell like anything in particular.
  • Your hair should not be stringy, dirty, or messy.
  • You should not be sweating copiously.
  • You should not have bad breath.
  • You should not be a carrier of communicable disease.