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January 4, 2017

Business Dress Code Dilemmas

By Yolanda M. Owens for Authentic Journeys  
January 2, 2017  

If you’re looking for a way to stir up a debate conversation with American colleagues, bring up the topic of business attire. Depending on what generation the person subscribes to, you’ll find varying opinions on degrees of appropriateness. And with employers adapting to more “relaxed” work culture environments, knowing what’s a workplace fashion do or don’t is a plaid confusion of black, white, and everything in between. So, if you’re interviewing or currently employed, how do you decipher the business dress code dilemma? Here are some basic rules of thumb to help you crack the dress code. 

Know Your Audience 

Simply put, do your research and know with whom you’ll be meeting/working with and dress accordingly. If you’re interviewing for a new position, make sure you ask the person scheduling the interview for you the appropriate dress code to interview for the role. If you’re hesitant to ask the question, or don’t get a timely response, always default to business formal or business professional for a job interview (see chart below for definitions). Even if the office dress code/policy is business casual, you’ll find that mindsets are typically conservative with regards to how candidates should dress for job interviews. While the interviewer/employer may be dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, they expect job candidates to dress to impress. 

On the other hand, if you’ve already got the job, you’ll want to make sure that you and your work are being taken seriously by wearing the appropriate attire. Most companies will cover dress code policies in their new employee orientation or employee handbook. If not, you can feel free to reach out to your HR representative about the official policy. Now keep in mind, the policy may be very general or written in a way that makes you scratch your head in confusion. If this is the case, feel free to probe a bit deeper with your manager or team members to get a better sense of the company/team “style”. Start by getting a good sense of your role with the company/team and who you’ll be interacting with. For example, many companies have a business casual or casual dress code but the outside clients they interact with require them to dress in business professional or formal attire when meeting/interfacing with them. You’ll want to make sure to have these details addressed to ensure you’re representing you, your company/team and your work in the best possible light.  

Understand the Nuances/Boundaries  

Rules are always subjected to interpretation, or in some instances, misinterpretation. Business attire is no exception. We all tend to want to personalize our attire to make us feel more comfortable and confident in ourselves. However, our internal interpretation of what looks good or what feels comfortable and the external perception of what is acceptable can get lost in translation. For example, you may think wearing sweatpants to the office is acceptable because they’re designer and the dress code is casual. But your company may consider that taking casual to the extreme; even if the item of clothing in question is expensive or from a reputable label. Likewise, you want to be cautious of wearing clothing with sayings, political/religious statements, or graphics on them. While this may suit your personality and personal style, it may not be seen by your peers as professional and could call your personal judgement into question. The moral of the story is, understand how your work environment interprets “appropriate” and adapt that to your personal style. It’s okay to have your own unique style at work. You just need to understand where the boundaries are so you don’t find yourself in unfavorable situations. Again, if you have questions about what is acceptable, speak with your HR representative.  

Guidelines for the Different Business Dress Codes

Dress Code Type: Business Formal
Description: If your position requires you to regularly meet with executives, or you hold a high-level position, you might be asked to dress “business formal” or “boardroom attire.” This is the highest level of professional dress.

Tips for Men:
  • Tailored one, two, or three-button suit in a solid, neutral color like black, gray, or navy.
  • Modest, high-end quality Tie in solid, brighter colors (i.e. red) or patterned muted neutrals
  • White, collared, button-up shirt
  • Closed-toe oxford shoes in black/brown (no loafers)

Tips for Women:
  • Well-cut pantsuit or skirt suit in a conservative neutral color, such as black, navy, or brown.
  • Button-up collared shirt
  • Closed-toe heels in a neutral color such as taupe, black, grey, or brown.
  • Minimal accessories

Dress Code Type: Business Professional
Description: A step down from business formal, business professional is also sometimes called “traditional business.” Expect to present a professional appearance every day, injecting personality into your outfits with your accessories and color choices.

Tips for Men:
  • One- or two-button suit. Suit color should be neutral, but you can play with pattern – a conservative stripe or check, for example.
  • Pressed, lighter-colored dress pants worn with a sports jacket.
  • Conservative ties, but feel free to introduce colors and patterns. but no novelty ties.
  • High-end accessories, such as watches (preferably silver, gold, or white gold) and cuff links, if necessary.
  • Collared button-up shirts in conservative colors (i.e. blue, beige, or gray).
  • Oxfords or polished loafers in black or brown.

Tips for Women:
  • A suit or skirt, top, and jacket in a conservative neutral color, such as black, brown, or navy.
  • Collared button-up shirts that may be any solid color.
  • Dark or nude-colored hosiery.
  • Closed-toe pumps in a neutral color such as black or brown.
  • Minimal accessories.
  • Skirts never more than two finger-widths above the knees.

Dress Code Type: Business Casual
Description: Business casual is the most dress code in North America, allowing employees to add personality to their workwear without looking unprofessional. In a business casual environment, you can experiment more with color and accessories.

Tips for Men:
  • Colored, collared button-up shirts in any color. Conservative patterns such as checks/stripes, worn with or without a tie.
  • Ties are optional
  • Pullovers and sweaters worn over collared shirt. Primary and jewel-toned colors are best.
  • Dressy slacks, such as black dress pants or pressed khakis in the summer, worn with or without a sports jacket.
  • More casual accessories, such as a leather-band watch.
  • Shoes can be oxfords, loafers, or comfortable yet dressy, in brown or black. Avoid sneakers.

Tips for Women:
  • Business separates, a skirt worn with a cardigan or jacket, for example.
  • Colored shirts and blouses. Avoid low-cut shirts or bright patterns.
  • Slacks and khakis.
  • Shoes may be comfortable flats and loafers, as well as pumps, but should remain closed-toe. Can be any color, although black, brown, red, navy, and gray are among the most appropriate.

Dress Code Type: Casual
Description: Casual clothes that are still neat, pressed, and appropriate for the type of work you do.

Tips for Men:
  • Casual pants and slacks, dark-wash, straight-cut jeans.
  • Collared polos or crew-neck sweaters and pullovers. Colors and patterns are okay. No novelty graphics, such as a sports team logo.
  • Casual accessories, such as brightly colored watches.
  • Shoes that are clean. Sneakers are usually acceptable.

Tips for Women:
  • Nicely fitted tops and blouses. Shirts should never be tight or revealing.
  • Slacks or khakis or dark-wash jeans.
  • Skirts should remain at knee-length.
  • Open-toed shoes are permitted. Avoid flip-flops.

About the Author
Yolanda Owens
CareerSensei Consulting Founder, Yolanda M. Owens, is a career coach, millennial expert, national speaker and award-winning author of How to Score a Date with Your Potential Employer. Yolanda has been featured as a writer and top recruiting expert in Forbes, CBS News, USA Today, The Huffington Post, and The Daily Muse. With nearly 20 years in the trenches as a corporate recruiter, Yolanda understands first-hand what companies and hiring teams look for in candidates. From resumes to networking and interviews, Yolanda provides insider tips from a corporate lens on how to successfully navigate the job search process. To learn more, please visit  

Authentic Journeys: Bridging Culture on Virtual Teams

We help build effective, culturally competent global teams with focus on the cultures of the USA and India. Jennifer Kumar, Managing Director, an American citizen, has almost 10 years experience living, studying and working (owning a business) in India. Authentic Journeys Consultancy is registered as a Private Limited in India (Kerala) and an LLC in the USA (Salt Lake City, Utah). We provide onsite and live-online instructor-led courses, facilitation and corporate coaching.