A Guide To Going Casual at the Office

When Dress Codes Aren't as Rigid, Here's How To Get It Right

Mar 13, 2019
Management

SMITH BRAIN TRUST  Last week, Goldman Sachs loosened the tie on its dress code policy for employees, the latest to follow suit in a move many Wall Street firms have made in recent years. In an internal memo, the iconic investment bank suggested a more “flexible” dress code in which suits and ties aren’t required.

It’s a sign of the more-informal times, but don’t mistake it as the end of business attire as we have long known it. The business suit is still very relevant, says Rachel Loock, a career and leadership coach in the Office of Career Services at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.

“We still strongly recommend dressing business professional for interviews, even an interview with Goldman Sachs,” says Loock. “Better to be overdressed for an interview than underdressed.”

And it’s not just the job interview. Loock says her office recommends wearing a business suit at any event that has you engaging with employers – for example, a career fair or networking event – unless other dress code guidance has been provided in advance.

That doesn’t mean you need a closet full of suits, however. Depending on the office culture where you work or intend to work, you might need just one suit in your wardrobe.

Goldman’s memo didn’t come as a surprise to Loock. She sees it as a reflection of society becoming more casual and more informal.

“Even in the 11 years that I’ve been at the Smith School, the standards have loosened around business dress,” she says. “For example, we used to recommend that women always wear pantyhose, but that’s not the case now.”

The necktie is becoming scarcer and scarcer in the workplace as well, she says. However, she still recommends one for an interview.

Once you’re employed in a workplace, let the office culture determine how you dress, Loock says. A lot depends on the industry and even your particular department within a company. For example, the tech industry and creative fields are usually very informal, as is the IT department at many firms. Take cues from your bosses and colleagues.

Goldman executives called on employees to use their discretion on what to wear when meeting with clients and “exercise good judgment” when dressing casually. Loock agrees. “We still advise students to wear clothes that are tailored, that fit well, nothing revealing. You don’t want to look like you’re going to a party or a club. It hasn’t veered that far,” she says.

You also don’t want to overdress or underdress for your client, she says. So if you’re selling financial products and you think your client might show up in a suit, your should wear one, too. “You want to mirror that. But if your clients are in another industry – say, construction – where the dress is more casual, you’d want to mirror that, too,” she says.

Navigating more casual dress can be more complicated for women than for men, who often are choosing whether they need a tie and suit or just a nice pair of pants and a shirt. She recommends women wear tailored pants or a skirt and a jacket or a tailored blouse until they can gauge the workplace environment to know whether jeans are appropriate.

Using discretion really is the key, says Loock. While you may not be able to wear jeans every day, there may be some days when you can get away with it. It really comes down to dressing appropriately for what’s on your calendar, while being ready for that pop-up meeting where everybody else in the room might have a suit or tie on. To avoid looking out of place, Loock says, it is wise to keep a tie in your desk drawer and a jacket hanging over the back of the chair. “You have to be able to improvise.”

In general, Loock says the loosening dress code is a good thing.

“It allows people to embrace their individuality and be more comfortable. I think people think less about the way others dress and are less likely to make that snap judgment on appearance. I think younger generations don’t see success as hampered by the way you dress, and that’s a good thing.”

As long as it doesn’t go too far: “Hopefully we’re not getting to the point where people wear their pajama bottoms to work,” she laughs. “That would be scary.”

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