There was once a time when every professional, no matter his or her industry, put on a suit each morning. Today, there are many interpretations of formal, business casual, smart casual, etc. If you’re not aware of the environment you’re in it can be easy to look sloppy, and it can be equally easy to be over-dressed.
Dress Codes vs. Self-Expression
“Dress codes have most certainly relaxed over time, particularly since the introduction of ‘jeans Fridays’ and dot-com era casual attire,” says Judah Kurtz of BPI group, a human resources consulting firm in Chicago, Illinois. “What is considered ‘appropriate’ varies by company and culture, as well as what parts of the house are strictly internal versus client/public facing.”
“Dress code policies walk a fine line between portraying a professional image to clients and customers while allowing employees to be comfortable, engaged, and expressive,” said Kevin Sheridan, senior vice president of HR optimization at Avatar HR Solutions, also in Chicago.
While some have adopted casual dress code policies that allow for self-expressions, others believe it’s important to have dress codes with limitations of expressions.
Franki Brandt-Pethtel, the Director of Operations for Bond Jewelers in the Tampa Bay Area, thinks maintaining a proper dress code shows respect for your employer, clients and yourself.
“Would you purchase an expensive piece of fine jewelry from a woman with a green Mohawk and sleeve full of tats? That’s why I wear a suit to work every day. My personal expression can wait until my day off,” she said.
While it’s ultimately up to each organization’s culture to deem what is fit, various human resource professionals believe general dress guidelines are useful as they create some parameters and expectations around what is considered appropriate. At the same time, allowing some freedom of individual expression can have positive impacts on company culture and employee satisfaction.
“You may be memorable, but make sure you are memorable for the right reasons,” said Kurtz. “Be yourself, but don’t let your appearance or behaviors detract from your selling points: your intelligence, accomplishments, strengths and experience.”
Before you decide on an outfit for any professional appointment, carefully consider your audience. If you’re meeting someone abroad, research what the locals wear for business meetings and dress accordingly. When meeting with a high-level executive, do your best to mirror what he or she will wear.
For men, putting your best look forward often comes down a clean, crisp look from head to toe. Svelte suit. Slick tie. Shined shoes. Spruced hair. For women, the same rules apply. An equally unfettered, conservative — basically safe — professional look is often the best choice for meetings, regardless of your gender. If you wear a skirt with your blazer and blouse instead of dress pants, double check that it’s not too short.
Startups are notoriously contrarian cultures; they are looking to change the status quo. Dressing in a suit represents the status quo, or at least, a caricature of it.
Silicon Valley has a peculiar and yet virulent bias against the suit. It’s even a euphemism for an overly conservative, corporate-buzzword-speaking, pointy-haired Dilbert boss. No one wants to work with an “empty suit”. Software engineers help strongly define the culture in Silicon Valley, and they overwhelmingly don’t wear suits, or in general they don’t want to work with people who do.
If you are meeting with a tech startup, business casual dress is often the way to go.