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What To Wear at Work: Does It Matter?

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A few years ago a graduate student who reported to me asked me whether she could wear her nose ring in the office.

I had to think before answering because I wasn’t sure if I had any legal footing to tell her I wasn’t sure it was a good idea.

“Spend some time looking around the office to see if there are other people wearing a nose ring,” I said.

“Decide whether you would be uncomfortable if you are the only person in the room wearing one.”

On another occasion, I told an intern, who came to work wearing designer jeans, that she should dress in professional clothes. She surprised me when she asked me what I meant.

“How do your parents dress for work?”

“They work from home,” she told me. “They wear sweatpants.”

We talked about what it means to dress for the office and for a few days, she turned up in professional outfits. But soon she was back to wearing jeans. On one of those days, my boss walked by my office early in the morning to let me know we would not be able to take the intern with us to a high-level meeting with an ambassador at a foreign embassy because the student was not dressed appropriately.

What a shame that an otherwise bright individual would miss out on observing diplomacy in action because of a poor wardrobe choice.

I told Sonia J. Crisp, the Bureau of Consular Affairs’ director of human resources, about my experience with the intern in jeans. Then I asked her about the role of dress in the workplace. The challenge, we agreed, is welcoming the cultural diversity of your workforce and seeking to maintain freedom for personal expression without sacrificing the professional image essential to the performance of an agency’s mission. Here’s an excerpt of our conversation.

Carolee Walker: In 2015, why does it matter what we wear to work? Especially when many of us in government rarely see our customers in person?

Sonia Crisp: Just because we do not see our customers every day does not mean we do not show up looking professional. We work in a professional environment and our dress should reflect that.

CW: Aren’t there cultural differences that affect what professional attire looks like?

SC: Yes, absolutely. For example, wearing a nose ring to work in Seattle, Washington, might be completely appropriate, but here in Washington, D.C., it might not. New employees should observe the culture in their office carefully; what worked at another agency office even in Washington might be very different from what is acceptable at our agency. It’s easier for men, I think, and for women in doubt about what to wear, they should look to the female leadership in their office to see what is acceptable.

CW: What role does management have in establishing or enforcing a dress code?

SC: The first conversation a manager has with a new employee should include a discussion of dress code. Even if they are coming from another federal agency, it is important to reiterate what are the culture and dress of this particular office. It is also good to define what business casual or business attire is. People may have different definitions of this, so it is good to lay out exactly what is meant by these terms.

CW: Are there any legal issues in enforcing a dress code?

SC: There is no legal or concrete answer for dealing with how to come dressed to work. A good question to ask is, “Will people take me seriously?” Don’t give people a reason to look anywhere else than your face. Professional clothing does not need to be expensive and it does not always mean a suit. In my first job when I was a GS7 raising two children I came to work professional looking every day and I wasn’t shopping at designer stores. I just would not want any opportunity closed to me because of what I was wearing.

CW: What about religious garb?

SC: Religious wear is perfectly acceptable at work as long as it does not distract employees from doing their jobs or the work that is going on in the office. For additional information, see the federal code of regulations that addresses reasonable accommodation because of religious practices. Some agencies have collective bargaining agreements that permit employees to wear casual clothing, such as a t-shirt with the agency’s logo, so managers need to be aware of these issues as well.

CW: Are there specific dress code guidelines for individuals who identify as a gender different from the one they were born with? Such as a male who identifies as a woman and chooses to wear women’s clothing in the workplace?

SC: Those who identify as transgender can dress in what they feel comfortable in as long as it is within the Department’s policy on dress and as long as it adheres to the office’s guidelines on dress code.

CW: What about issues of hygiene? Can managers address cleanliness as well?

SC: Supervisors and managers have the responsibility to counsel employees whose hygiene, grooming, or dress is inappropriate or results in disruption in the workplace.

Wrapping up our conversation, Sonia and I found it hard to imagine that any work environment would not expect its employees to follow basic requirements for safety and comfort and be neat and businesslike in appearance.

So if you are tempted to wear sneakers or snow boots at work or that really cute halter top your sister gave you for your birthday, it’s important to remember that your office requires you to project competence and professionalism, so your appearance too needs to be professional. And in a way that conveys respect for colleagues, customers, and the work environment, and that does not pose a safety or health hazard or distraction from work.

The views expressed here are those of Ms. Walker and not those of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. government.

Carolee Walker is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Profile Photo Hannah Moss

Interesting post, Carolee. This comes up all the time- especially in offices where the dress code is relaxed. The line between casual and business casual is a blurry one! Thanks for the tips.

Profile Photo Terra Milles

As someone who lives and works in Seattle, Washington, – yes a nose-ring might be completely appropriate (depending on the industry)! I currently have purple hair and my boss doesn’t mind but it may be an issue if I were in a different department.

Toni Messina

I appreciate this. I have worked around a lot of leaders, so there is an expectation that dress and behavior are professional. Always good to keep in my, however, is respect for the customer, your colleagues and yourself.