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Clothing Etiquette - Bad Wardrobe Decisions Are A Serious Career Mistake

Dec 14, 2007
Business Etiquette - Major Shortage on the Fashion Police Force

There it was! The perfect outfit I'd been looking for to wear when I go on my cruise to the Bahamas. A metallic crop-top cami, a floaty sheer chiffon tiered skirt, strappy stiletto sandals, lots and lots of bangle bracelets, and enough stringed beads to be the envy of any fortune teller. Where did I see this? Not on a runway. Not in the pages of Elle. Not on the "hot fashion trends" segment of Today. No, this little number was courtesy of an intern on her way to a business briefing.

I thought she might be auditioning for a part in Carmen after work, but not so. Apparently she sees each new day as an opportunity to dazzle her bosses and coworkers with her fashion savvy. Someone desperately needs to tell this young woman that unless she signs a major recording contract or plans to start reading palms full time, she should forget about setting trends and focus instead on developing a professional image.

In my completely subjective opinion, the end of civilization as we knew it started when people began wearing athletic shoes and sweats at work. Okay, so jogging or walking midday is healthier than gorging on nachos and Ho-Hos at a desk, but did anyone else notice that even those who weren't exercising during lunch started to wear Reebok's with business attire? While I don't doubt that some people were genuinely intent on improving their health by moving more and eating less, plenty either liked the comfort of such clothes or they were trying to convince themselves and others that they were actually getting buff by just dressing the part.

This was the first chink in the wall of decorum, and from what I've seen recently, that wall's about ready to come "a-tumblin' down." Consider the establishment of "Casual Friday" in so many businesses--clearly linked to bringing the gym into the workplace. Now employees are trying to bring the weekend into the workplace as well. What is the thinking behind this trend? Is this a subtle indication that we are buying in to the idea of a four-day work week? Is this in some way supposed to appease disgruntled employees?

Even if it started out to be some sort of perk, dressing down at the end of the week has been twisted beyond recognition. This is proof of that old expression: "Give 'em an inch, and they'll eat the whole enchilada." Warm weather makes the situation even worse.

Granted, we expect to see more flesh in the summer than at any other time of the year. Wherever people choose to take a break from work and rising temperatures (the beach, a park, mountain trails), we aren't shocked by the sight of bare arms, legs, backs, midriffs, or feet. We can even understand a more pared down approach to dressing in the workplace when temperatures soar, but even so, overexposure and lack of discretion have reached epidemic proportions. Where are the fashion police when you need them?

Just because it's hot, this is no reason to ditch your duds or common sense as you head off to work. Most indoor workplaces are air conditioned these days, so it's not as though you'll be putting in time at a sauna, unless that's where you work. If that is where you work, then you can stop reading now. For the rest of you, keep going.

Many of you probably had mothers or grandmothers who advised you to always wear clean and intact undies when you left home, just in case you got hit by a bus and had to be whisked off to an emergency room somewhere. The presumption was that you actually would be wearing something over your "unmentionables." Apparently that part of the message got lost in recent years. Consider the popularity of such items as camisoles, belly shirts, halter tops, and miniskirts. While these are fine away from work, they are not okay at work--ever!

So who is to blame for the fashion crimes that abound in workplaces today? From what I've been able to tell, the fault lies with two entities: 1) employers who have let the ponies out of the starting gate and can't corral them back in, and 2) employees who have never heard of dressing for success. Here are a few tips for both sides.

For Supervisors

- If your organization has no dress code, establish one.

- If your organization has one, enforce it.

- Set the standard by being compliant yourself.

- You are your employees' supervisors, not their pals. Speak up when your sensibilities are assaulted.

- If all else fails, send employees home who are inappropriately dressed for your workplace.

For Employees

- Know your organization's dress policy.

- When in doubt, stray on the side of conservatism.

- If you hope to advance in your organization, emulate the style of those whose -positions you would like to have.

- If you expect to be treated professionally, look professional--even on "Casual Friday."

- Use common sense and realize that the media sell trends and not necessarily good taste.

Obviously the standards will vary from one workplace to another. If you work for an organization that requires wearing a uniform, you can quit reading now. If you work for a business that is nontraditional and rather laissez-faire where work attire is concerned, you can stop too. For the rest of you who work in places that have established rules that can be misinterpreted or pushed to the limits, stop and look in the mirror before you leave home. Ask yourself: Does what I have on reflect the image my business wants its clients or customers to see?

I'm not suggesting you need to be unduly formal. After all, evening wear in the workplace would be just as inappropriate as a thong bathing suit. Somewhere between these two extremes is a "happy medium" that will allow you to do your job and look professional. In the meantime, don't rely on fashion or style magazines to determine what is appropriate for your workplace. Save the trendy items for your hours away from work--no if's, and's, butts, or bellies about it!
About the Author
Kate Zabriskie is the founder of Business Training Works, Inc., a company that specializes in down-to-earth, soft skills training in the workplace. http://www.businesstrainingworks.com/Directories/etiquette.html
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