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Dos and Don'ts of Workplace Attire

Dos and Don'ts of Workplace Attire


Whether you've just graduated from college, it's your first day on the new job, or you're angsting about what to wear to the office on a daily basis, how you present yourself in the workplace is crucial.

As much as we like to say that books (and people) are not judged by their covers (and their clothes), that's usually the case. And that's why it's important to choose clothing to suit your job and to be well groomed and generally put together. If you have visible tattoos or piercings you'll need to determine whether you'll reveal them or not. If you're not out professionally, there's one additional question to consider: Do you want your attire to out you?

What to Wear for the Interview

Before you even step into an office for your first interview, make an effort to find out how your potential new colleagues dress at the company in general and at your specific level of seniority. Try to glean clues from visiting the workplace beforehand, looking at its website for candid shots of employees at work or a posted dress code, or asking a friend or colleague in that business for advice. Then, take whatever you've learned to heart and emulate it as you dress for your interview (even taking it up a notch). For instance, one large corporation's dress code states women may wear only small stud earrings or smaller hoop earrings, while men cannot wear any earrings at all.

Not surprisingly, transgender workers are often the most affected by strict workplace dress codes, especially in fields involving customer contact: Traditionally, either you're a man or a woman, with no gray areas allowed. As a result, some trans men and women, as well as butch lesbians and effeminate gay men, often make an extra effort at conformity during the interview process. When in place, antidiscrimination laws that include protections for what's called gender expression help ameliorate this situation by prohibiting employers from assessing job applicants or employees with such non-work-related criteria. Sadly, these protections are still rare.

If you have doubts about which way to dress, it's best to err on the conservative, overdressed side. Those of us who wouldn't even consider wearing a suit to work often put one on when we're looking to be hired. But closely consider the company itself: What you might wear when interviewing for a position at Google or a barista gig will certainly differ from how you suit up for a bank, law firm, or CPA consultancy. The idea is not to impress but rather to not annoy or distract anyone.

If you're one of those who bristle at the idea of shaping his or her sartorial sensibilities "just" for an interview, keep focused on the goal of landing a good job. Think of it this way: The idea is to take appearances completely out of the equation, so that you can explain your qualifications and sell yourself without distraction. Once you land the job, you can be freer in how you dress. You're not selling out to adopt a more mainstream look for the interviews; this is just another step to get you in the door.

Facial Hair

While it's generally acceptable for men (including transmen) to sport a soul patch or a two-day growth of beard in many workplace environments, be sure to find out if there are any official policies about facial hair (sometimes available on a company's website). As an example, one major U.S. corporation has only recently allowed moustaches, which it states must be neatly trimmed, no longer than the corners of the mouth, and grown during your vacation. Sideburns cannot pass the earlobes. Got that? Many police departments also allow, if not encourage, moustaches (no surprise there!), but untrimmed beards are prohibited because they're said to look unprofessional.

Tattoos and Piercings

As has happened with facial hair, workplace policies regarding tattoos and piercings are morphing rapidly. Although they're still banned in some workplaces, in others they are considered on a par with edgy haircuts as simply another way to distinguish yourself. As one manager put it, "It doesn't matter to me if my employees show off their body art, because it doesn't mean they work less, make them stupider, or leave them any less of a person."

You'll also want to consider these questions:

* If you cover a tattoo or remove a piercing, will you be comfortable in that office environment? If you don't, will you fit in?

* Will you be seen as too much of an individual and not as a team player?

* Or, will this help you to be viewed as a creative iconoclast (that's usually a good thing)?
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Steven Petrow