For six months, Edward Rangel excelled as a waiter at a Red Robin in Bellevue, Washington. Customers and supervisors might occasionally notice the small religious inscriptions he had tattooed around his wrists, but no one complained about them, and they didn’t interfere with his duties serving food.
Then a new manager started at the franchise. Displeased by the tattoos, the boss told Rangel to conceal the ink, citing company policy. Rangel explained his belief that covering the tattoos violated his Kemetic faith and asked the company to accomodate his religion. Management refused to make an exception on the grounds that changing its dress code policy would undermine its “wholesome image.” So Rangel was fired.
That’s when the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission stepped in, filing a suit to defend Rangel’s right to an accomodation. Red Robin eventually agreed to settle the case, paying Rangel $150,000 and making policy changes to protect the rights of other employees.
Choosing work attire poses a perennial puzzle. Companies often have both explicit dress code policies and unspoken rules about the unofficial office dress code, but as Rangel’s story demonstrates, those rules can’t infringe on workers’ rights. And just because an outfit is allowed at the office doesn’t necessarily mean it will make a good impression on your boss or clients.
What’s legal at work?
Companies are legally allowed to implement and enforce a dress code as long as it is reasonable and tied to a legitimate business purpose, says J.J. Conway, an attorney who specializes in employment law.
What’s appropriate for the office?
Choosing appropriate work attire depends on your industry, company and specific job function. The key consideration? “Dressing for your audience,” says Jacqueline Whitmore, etiquette expert and founder of The Protocol School of Palm Beach.
People who work in creative fields, like media, advertising, entertainment or cosmetology, may have more freedom to express their personalities in their clothing, Whitmore says. In those careers, bright colors, funky accessories and innovative hairstyles may be acceptable or even expected.
Conversely, employees in conservative fields like wealth management or a government agency often must dress more formally, sometimes in suits.
No matter your general industry, your company will likely have written or unwritten corporate culture rules for what to wear to work. Figuring out what’s acceptable may take research and a bit of inference. When you first go into an office for a job interview, make sure to look at what your interviewer and the other employees are wearing and take mental notes.
After you’re hired, if your workplace lacks a written dress code policy, or if you want more clarification, it’s best simply to inquire with the human resources department, says Edward Yost, manager of employee relations and development at the Society for Human Resource Management.
“Ask the questions rather than blindly roll the dice and send the wrong message,” he says.
Even if your company has a general set of guidelines, what you should wear depends on your particular job responsibilities. People who work in customer service jobs, for example, should dress for the comfort of their clients and in ways that project competence, Whitmore says.
Regardless of the particulars of your company dress code or office culture, office clothes should fit well, be clean and cover what children call “private parts.”
“Presentation is the most important,” says Bridgette Raes, personal stylist and author. “No matter what you’re wearing, make sure it’s in good shape, well cared for and you look groomed.”
What is business casual attire?
Many office environments call for business professional or business casual attire. That typically means slacks, khaki pants or modest skirts or dresses; cardigans, blouses or button-down collared shirts; and closed-toe dress shoes. Raes suggests putting thought into work bags, too: “Don’t take the same grubby backpack you carried all over your college campus.”
In terms of what not to wear, it’s important not to distract others with your outfits, Raes says. “You want to make sure you’re standing out for the right reasons,” not because your clothes call attention to you, she explains.
There are two universal “don’ts” for how to dress business casual: no shorts and no flip flops. Beyond that, Raes advises against casual sandals, sweatshirts, any type of “athleisure” wear and clothing that is distressed or ripped. Outfits that are too revealing are not appropriate for the office.
Dress for the job you want
It may sound trite, but experts agree that you should dress for the job you want, not the job you have. Taking clothing cues from your boss could help you attain his or her position in the future.
You never want your manager to question your professional capabilities because of your outfits. Supervisors sometimes have to “fight the stereotype or that silent judgment that’s been formulated” because of what a worker wears, Yost says. “People who don’t work with the individual on a day-to-day basis may see the tattoos, piercings, vintage clothing that’s not your standard business casual, and when they’re up for a promotion, the question will come: ‘How serious are they?'”
This also means to think carefully about what to wear to an interview. It’s important to dress to impress when you’re hoping to get hired, so even if the company usually follows a business casual dress code, consider donning formal business attire. For example, after a period of job seeking, one of Raes’ clients changed the outfit she wore during interviews and saw immediate results: She received three job offers in one week.
The lesson? “When we change how we present ourselves, we send our message more effectively,” Raes says.
What happens if you violate the dress code?
If you had to wear a uniform in school, you’re probably familiar with the impulse to disobey the dress code. And although your boss probably won’t make you stand up in front of your co-workers while she measures the length of your hem, employers may take punitive action against workers who repeatedly violate the office dress code.
There’s usually a “progressive discipline process,” Yost says, meaning that a manager or HR representative may treat a first-time violation as a learning opportunity: “We’re not going to send you home today, but going forward, we would prefer you not wear jeans with rips and holes in them.”
If someone continually flouts the rules, an employer might send him or her home and dock pay. And if the problem continues, the employee may be fired.
What’s appropriate for the office gym?
Office gyms are popular perks, but they are also landmine fields when it comes to clothing. Employees who work out at the company gym should remember that they’ll likely run into their co-workers while putting in miles on the treadmill or lifting weights. Avoid wearing T-shirts with offensive slogans or outfits that are excessively revealing, Raes recommends: “You’re still in the workplace; this is not personal time.”
What’s appropriate for the office holiday party?
Similarly, treat your office holiday party as a work experience that requires appropriate dress. Your boss will take note if you wear anything too revealing or silly.
“You want to continue to send a professional and positive message,” Yost says. “People make silent judgments all the time. They’re not going to come up and tell you, ‘That tie you wore was stupid and I lost a lot of respect for you,’ but it still may be happening in their minds.”
On Halloween, if your workplace permits employees to wear costumes, keep yours reasonable.
What about tattoos and piercings?
Attitudes toward tattoos in the workplace and piercings in the workplace have changed in the past few decades, but not every employer will be happy to see them, Yost says.
“[Tattoos] are generally more accepted than they would have been 10 or 15 years ago,” he says. “However, there are going to be some ‘family-run’ environments, or ‘family-friendly’ environments who may be a little more rigid: ‘Sure you can have your tattoos, but we’re going to ask you to keep them covered while at work.'”
If you’re wondering how to cover up tattoos for work, Yost recommends long-sleeved shirts, strategically placed Band-Aids or applying foundation makeup that’s the same color as your skin tone.
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