Dress Code & Business Etiquette

    September 8, 2003

Does it matter what you wear to work? Heavens yes. Like it or not, many decisions are made on first impressions. You’ll be quickly checked over for cleanliness, grooming, and what you have on. It’s part of business etiquette.

Are there rules you can memorize? Not really. Like all social rules, you have to intuit what’s going on because it can differ from place, to city, to state, to country.

What we wear is nonverbal communication. It’s sending a message, and remember, you’re communicating whether you think you are or not. Some people use dress to express hostility or provoke others or to express their conflicts. The more conscious you are, the more able you’ll be to make the way you dress work for you. It’s hard enough to get a job these days without shooting yourself in the foot.

If you have trouble figuring out what the rules are, take some Emotional Intelligence coaching. It will sharpen your ability to be appropriate and act in your own behalf, verbally and nonverbally.


When it doubt, spell it out. Students at Claremont High School had the new fashion rules mailed to their home as part of a general information notice during the summer. The code includes, “students will have to ensure that shirts cover their stomachs and touch the top of their pants.”

Outline the consequences of failing to adhere, i.e., the Claremont notice said, “The school office can provide alternate clothing for the day, if required.”

Is this talking to adults like teenagers? Well, that’s appropriate if they’re behaving like teenagers.

The purpose said the Claremont officials “is to create a learning environment,” and the purpose at work is to create a working environment. Remember to nip it in the bud. The first time someone breaks the code, take action, or you will have lost your credibility — and not just in the area of dress code.

If you’re the employee, listen up. My client Marcia was returning to the work world after 2 years leave of absence to care for her dying mother. She was looking forward to getting back to work, and to dressing up. She applied for a job at Habitat for Humanity and was told “We’re construction industry. We wear slack and sandals.” That wasn’t what Marcia wanted, and it mattered to her.

My client Alexei nearly got fired because he wouldn’t adhere to the dress code, despite his exceptional talents in his field. He said when he took the job he “knew he could get them to make an exception.” Is this wise? Not usually. Fight your battles somewhere else, not where your bread and butter is concerned.

We each have our own values and priorities. Part of EQ is thinking it through before you take the job. What must you have? What can’t you stand? Check it out. In my book, once you sign on the dotted line, a deal’s a deal. That’s integrity. That’s EQ.

Susan Dunn, MA, Marketing Coach,
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