Walk into almost any office and you'll see dress code violations--a woman wearing sheer black hose (too sexy), or a man sporting Docker khakis and a T-shirt when everyone else is wearing a tie (slacker). Our office attire speaks volumes about us. We want to look professional, well put together, and confident. Can clothes do this for us? Yes! But they can send unwanted messages too.
Here are some examples of dressing styles and the messages they send.
Eccentric clothing. We all know him--the guy who only wears plaid shirts and bow-ties, or the woman who favors flapper-style dresses with shimmery hose. The message? Generating stares and conversation with your "look" will also generate thoughts such as, "Can I trust him to meet with our biggest client?" or "Why does she feel the need to express herself this way?" The best way to play the power game is to blend in. You can do it with style and originality, but try to draw your self-image inside the lines of what's generally acceptable.
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Ostentatious jewelry. If you love to be dripping in gold and diamonds, great. But keep this look for your weekend and night life. The message? Sporting too much bling says you're out of touch and makes coworkers wonder why you're even working. One expensive item--a gold watch, for example, or a pair of emerald earrings--can dazzle and enhance work wear. Too much, however, makes people suspicious, envious, or confused.
Comfort wear. Examples of attire that's too comfort-oriented are Birkenstock sandals, hiking boots, flannel shirts, floppy knit caps, or faux pajama bottoms. The message? Whether you mean to or not, you're telling coworkers that you're super chill, and maybe even a bit flaky. Will they be able to count on you to put in long hours, to make your sales quota, and to sacrifice for the good of the team? Even for casual Fridays, items such as blue jeans may not be appropriate. Find out what "casual" means, and then dress a little nicer than required.
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Runway fashion. Are you drawn to the latest cutting-edge designers? Their clothes may be too fashion forward for the office. The message? Clothes that are super trendy may scare away colleagues and clients alike, making them feel intimidated by your aggressive style. One way to finesse this, if you really love a bit of flare, is to choose a single item--a shirt with an interesting cut, or a pair of ridiculously amazing shoes--and keep the rest of your outfit more mainstream.
The "uniform." Male or female, if you have a good, classic dark suit and pair it with a light-colored shirt--I call this "the uniform"--you've made a safe choice that may be appropriate in many different settings, depending on how you accessorize. The message? Wearing the uniform pegs you as conservative, a tag that can either help or hurt your image, depending on your company and industry. But this combo tends to read "polished" if the suit is well-fitted and the shirt pressed and crisp. When in doubt, the uniform won't usually steer you wrong. If your colleagues are more casual, remove the jacket.
Vicky Oliver is a leading career development expert and the multi-best-selling author of five career books, including her newest, Live Like a Millionaire (Without Having to Be One) (Skyhorse, 2015). She is a sought-after speaker and seminar presenter and a popular media source, having made over 700 appearances in broadcast, print, and online outlets. For more information, visit vickyoliver.com.