“What to wear?” It’s a question you’ve probably asked yourself a million times — and one that takes on heightened significance when dressing for a professional setting.
Robert Half recently asked senior managers if clothing choices affect a worker’s chances of earning a promotion. Eighty percent of executives said yes. But that hasn’t stopped professionals from making fashion mistakes. Respondents also provided hilarious examples of office outfits that missed the mark. Among the wackiest gear employers have seen: pajamas, studs and motorcycle gear, a bathing suit, and even a dinosaur costume. And, no, none of these odd outfits was worn in observance of Halloween.
While it may be tempting to dress down in today’s workplace, clothing that’s too casual or revealing can keep you from getting hired or receiving a raise or promotion. Even “tamer” fashion faux pas, such as wearing torn jeans, low-cut shirts or flip-flops, can cost you points with the boss.
Here’s how to structure your professional wardrobe for a variety of situations:
1. How to dress for a job interview
With only one chance to make a good first impression, best stick to classic business attire when meeting a potential employer. For a corporate position at, say, a financial institution, a clean, well-fitting suit is the safest choice. If you’re applying for a job with a less-traditional company, such as a startup, you may be able to lose the tie and go for a collared shirt and khaki pants or a skirt instead.
Keep in mind that it’s difficult to overdress for an interview. As long as you don’t show up in a tux, you’re pretty much OK. On the other hand, appearing overly casual can lead a hiring manager to believe you don’t take the opportunity seriously, which could cost you the job. So, when in doubt, err on the conservative side.
2. How to dress for your first day of work
Dressing for a new job can be challenging, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the company’s policies around workplace wear. As such, it’s always a good idea to ask about the dress code ahead of time.
If your new employer doesn’t have any formal fashion guidelines in place, picture what the hiring manager wore at your interview and try and emulate his style. Or choose an outfit similar to the one you wore to the meeting. In general, it’s better to be overdressed than underdressed; you can always adjust your style on Day Two.
3. How to dress for casual Friday
When it comes to work-appropriate wear, the term casual can be misleading. No matter what day of the week your team has decided to collectively dress down, don’t make it an excuse to be lazy.
Always keep in mind what your clothes say about you. Sweats, for instance, should be reserved for the gym or for lounging at home; ditto for too-tight yoga pants and T-shirts you’d normally wear to bed. While jeans in place of slacks or dress pants may fit the parameters of your office’s casual code, they should still appear professional in both fit and style.
4. How to dress for changes in the weather
As temperatures rise, hemlines tend to get shorter. However, there are very few office jobs where showing a lot of skin — no matter the season — is a good professional move.
During the summer, opt for lightweight slacks and dresses or skirts that hit within an inch-and-a-half of the knee. If the heat is unbearable, consider opening a window, asking your office manager to turn on the A/C or pointing a desk fan at yourself.
When the weather cools, similar rules apply. Keep your style professional and conservative, and don’t let the need to bundle up become an excuse for dressing too casually. Layers you can shed once you get to the office are a great option. If you must wear boots to wade through sleet and slow, be sure to bring office-worthy shoes to change into (or keep a pair at your desk).
5. How to dress when you want to stand out
If blending into the crowd isn’t your style outside the office, you may be tempted to differentiate yourself in a similar way at work. Rules around slogan-bearing shirts, visible tattoos and piercings differ from company to company, so make sure you’re up-to-speed on the finer points of your employer’s dress policy. No matter the guidelines, don’t go overboard. You can often still get your point across with small touches, such as an interesting button or pin, cool earrings or wacky socks.
While these tips can help you make better decisions around your work attire, every office has its own set of rules when it comes to what is and isn’t kosher. When in doubt, go for more conservative clothing or ask your employer to clarify the dress code for you. Finally, before you head out the door in the morning, remember: If you need to ask yourself whether your outfit is work-appropriate, it probably isn’t.
Robert Half International is the world’s first and largest specialized staffing firm with a global network of more than 400 staffing and consulting locations worldwide. For more information about our professional services, visit www.roberthalf.com. For additional career advice, view our career bloopers video series at www.roberthalf.com/bloopers or follow us on Twitter at www.twitter.com/roberthalf.