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Let’s briefly forget about business casual and business professional and do a little test. I want you to do this exercise the next time you go out of the office and see people sitting outside on their lunch break, try to guess what type of person they are.
- Who looks reliable?
- Who appears super-focused on their careers?
- Who looks like a loner?
- Who looks like the prima-donna?
- Who looks like the popular person?
- Who looks like management material?
- Who looks like the office slut?
How did you do this? You do not know these people so how can you arrive at an opinion? You may have overheard some of them speaking but that will apply for just a few. The way you came to this conclusion is based on the following:
- You looked at their dressing (business casual, business professional or something else)
- You looked at their posture, stance and behaviour
- You looked at their facial expressions
- Then you took all these things and compared them against your own perceptions.
That’s pretty much how humans work. Until you know a person you rely on just these three signals. How many times have you said to yourself, “This person does not look serious or reliable? I should stay away from them” You’ve done that based on just these three signals. Sometimes as you hear the person speak, they speak to you or someone talks about them, your perception of this person changes.
This is why your dressing is such a powerful indicator. Whether you dress business casual or business professional tells the world so much about you. It can quickly and effectively create an impression of you. Your dressing is dependent on your company, its culture, the sector, geographic location, your title etc. This article looks at dressing for professionals in banks, law firms, consulting firms, corporate etc.
Business Casual or Business Professional?
Let’s start with women and some observations about how women should dress. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list. Again, this is a comparison between wanting to dress business casual or business professional and how to do it. It is meant to highlight some principles for professional dressing;
Your dressing is part of the brand of the company. Some companies expect all the employees to dress in a certain way. Like IBM did for many years. So while you need to be comfortable, remember not to damage the brand equity of the business. If your firm insists on business professional (suits), then wear a comfortable suit. Don’t come to work in sandals and jeans (business casual, although even this is maybe too casual). You are not seen as making a statement; you are seen as damaging the brand of the firm. Would you use a different logo on your letterhead? Probably not. The same applies to the dress code. If your company wants business professional than you have to fit into the culture.
Even when there are options for dressing it is always wise to dress business professional. If it is acceptable, wear a full suit. If full suits are not worn, then wear just the suit skirt/pants and a professional shirt. Remember in the test earlier, you need to meet people’s expectations of a reliable and professional person. This should not change between seasons.
Open shoes have become popular is some offices. Women have started wearing open shoes with their suits etc. This is probably not a good idea and conveys a casual image. It is too casual. Dress appropriately and wear covered shoes. Building a business casual look with your shoes can damage an otherwise good outfit.
Plunging necklines and micro-mini skirts may be your preferred choice, but think about why you are wearing this type of clothing. Does it really help you do your job better? Does it help your career? If you answered no to either then you probably shouldn’t do it. Business professional is always recommended when it comes to necklines (not too deep) and skirt-lengths (on or slightly below the knee)
Your handbag is not an accessory. Some days it may be fine to take a small handbag to work but as a professional, your handbag should be part accessory and part functional. It is there to carry out a job and you should make sure it is designed for this. Stay away from flashy handbags that draw attention away from you as a professional.
Your mobile phone, Blackberry or iPhone is also not an accessory. Again it is wise to stay away from jewel encrusted phones, Hello Kitty ringtones and bright colours. If you are not sure of the reputation to convey, choose a style which conveys a neutral image. You can always change your image later.
The colour you wear is not so important. Where and how you wear it is more so. Bright pink, body fitting tops under your suit jacket are not recommended. However a bright pink neck scarf on a white shirt may work.
Boots are generally not advised. I cannot think of a single situation where this will work accept possibly the harsh winters in Canada and Russia. If you must wear boots, wear something stylish but neutral. No fir trimmings, bells or pictures on your boots. Business casual for boots are definitely not an option since they are already on the borderline.
Everything you own and is associated with you should be seen as an extension of your dressing. These include pens, notebooks, accessories etc. They all need to be conservative and professional
High heels are fine provided they are elegant, professional, and not shiny and have covered toes. Any other combination for high heels does not work well. High heels are particularly dangerous. It is very easy to create the wrong impression with them. Take extra care to create a business professional look.
Fitted suits are just as good as off-the-rack suits. It is really your choice. If you go the fitted-suit route ensure they look sleek, elegant and not too sexy. You need to balance professionalism with your personal preference.
Casual Fridays are unusual days. It says to me that for 4 days of the week we are struggling to adjust to a culture we do not like, and to make up for the four days, we can wear anything we would like on a Friday. If you accept a company and its values for what they are, and do not see this as just a “job to pay the bills”, then the idea of casual Friday’s make no sense. If you are forced to dress down on Fridays, then wear the most conservative clothing you can.
Don’t be a drone. While you are an extension of your company and its brand you can look elegant, stylish and beautiful without revealing too much or breaking the companies image. essentially you can vary your cut, colours, texture etc to achieve different looks which are all business professional
In general, you need to dress for the image you want to project and career you want to have. When you select your clothing in the morning keep this front and centre in your thinking.