The updated guide to office dress codes

Are you wearing a suit to work today??


Work attire is a subject that has been gaining serious attention in the news lately. A few years ago, we went through a massive discussion around appropriate work attire and people proclaiming “business attire is DEAD!” Fashion trends come and go, but professional work attire trends are much more rigid with mostly subtle changes over the years. Recently, the main focus has shifted from formal versus informal to conversations regarding dress code as a whole versus gender. Some of the more memorable headlines include a female news anchor being told to put a sweater on during a live broadcast; a British woman forced to leave work for refusing to wear high heels, and the passing of transgender dress code regulations in New York.


These days it would seem that there is no longer a standard for work attire, leaving too much room for individual interpretation and subsequent confusion and questions surrounding the subject. Even the typically conservative industries such as Law, Finance, and Accounting are trading their suit jackets for sport coats. This trend shift has caused general uncertainty in the workforce about what to wear to work every day, leaving HR Managers and business owners with the task of creating their own definition of acceptable work attire.


How can you go about creating a dress code that not only keeps you and your workers safe, but also the company brand intact all while understanding that casual is the new business and jeans are now the accepted norm?

Here are my top tips for creating a modern AND updated dress code policy:


What is business casual?
Business casual seems to be the go-to term for describing current dress code standards, it is most commonly defined as a style of clothing that is less formal than traditional business wear, but is still intended to give a professional and businesslike impression. I took a quick survey of colleagues and asked them to define “business casual”, which they used interchangeably with the terms “smart casual” and “business informal” to describe the look. While each person had a clear understanding of what the expectations were for their firm, each answer differed pertaining to their specific employer’s rules. One colleague said “no graphic tees” while another said, “T-shirts are okay as long as they are clean and have no harmful wording.” The concept of what is “appropriate” got even more complicated when items like hem length, perfume, and grooming were brought up.


If HR and Recruiting professionals do not have a unified view of business casual, how can you expect your staff, which come from all different backgrounds, to have a clear understanding of the term?

Whatever your business attire standard of dress may be; make sure you clearly define what it means in your workplace, take the time to thoroughly explain and discuss it with all employees, and have it readily accessible for reference in your company handbook as well as your company intranet. Pro Tip: In addition, your HR Manager should always review your dress code expectations along with the rest of your company’s policies during the On Boarding process.


Casual does not mean unprofessional:
This idea is becoming more important the more expansive and flexible acceptable workplace attire becomes. Whether you are working at an accounting firm or design firm, the perfect outfit would be described as “put together.” This simple terms means you have a clean, color coordinated ensemble with matching shoes and accessories from the last decade. In my books, it doesn’t matter if a person is showing up for a work sponsored 5K in athletic wear or an executive meeting in a three piece suit; each outfit can look terribly out of place.


Here are my requirements for a well put together work appearance:
1. Give thought to the overall look and make sure that the clothes fit nicely with your grooming choices (hairstyle, makeup, facial hair) and accessories.
2. All clothes should be clean, pressed and free of pet hair.
3. Take the weather, location and office culture into consideration.


Take the gender language out of the conversation:

Many dress codes were written when women were still required to wear nylons and men a suit.  The same way that dress codes were updated to reflect women’s right to wear pants, we are now in another transnational time where we need to rethink standard workplace dress codes again.


Transgender, non-binary, and gender-expansive is language that HR professionals and our society as a whole are adapting into their vocabulary. A great way to update a manual to be more gender inclusive is to get rid of the mention of genders altogether. Instead of splitting up a guide and having separate sections for men and women, create general rules for grooming standards, appropriate clothes, and expectations around styling. It can be as simple as changing the terms men and women to simply employees.


Is dressing to impress an outdated concept?

I lived by the rule of “dress to impress” and “dress for the role you want, not the one you have” throughout my career, but with the growing popularity of business casual and an overall increase in the casual dress trend as a society, some workers may see these terms as no longer relevant or applicable in today’s workplace.

I am very interested in hearing your opinion on modern dress codes and whether or not you think dressing to impress is a thing of the past. I would like to share some of your unique answers in an upcoming PC Pointer so please don’t hesitate to write in with your opinion.




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