Over the past few decades, fashion statements that belonged to rebels became part of mainstream attire. Piercings in your eyebrow, nose and tongue started showing up on your Average Joe and Jane. Tattoos no longer belonged to bikers — your typical college student might be sporting ink somewhere on his or her body. Even Mohawks and brightly dyed hair worked their way into suburbia. As a result, younger generations entering the work force have brought their sense of style with them and are complicating the old dress codes.
Know your audience
Now that business casual is the new suit-and-tie, how much liberty can you take with your appearance before you’re not seen as professional? Depends on the industry, says Brad Penman, chief operating officer at The Marketing Arm, a promotions agency.
“Obviously the dress code and the acceptable ‘look’ should match your organization’s culture,” Penman says. “What’s OK for a creative agency like ours may not be right for a bank, investment firm or attorney’s office.”
Workers should keep in mind that the company culture has two components: the boss and the client.
“[The company’s dress code] should match the expectations of your clients. Your clients pay the bills, so it’s important to respect what makes them comfortable,” Penman explains. “And, by the way, it’s OK to ask your clients that question. If [they] expect you to be creative and understand that a little irreverence can spur exceptional ideas, they’re likely to be OK with a different look around the office.”
Etiquette consultant Mary Harris agrees that context is everything.
“Your judgment really does have to come into play here. If you’re a software developer or graphic designer, most likely the atmosphere is more relaxed in your work environment and an outward creative expression of your personality would not be frowned upon,” Harris says. “If you are in investment banking or work in the sales department of a large firm then pink hair, visible tattoos and tongue piercings would not be recommended if you are hoping to land or keep a job. Even subtle piercings like nose rings, which younger workers feel are very tame, are considered inappropriate to their older superiors.”
When you’re already employed, you probably know what’s acceptable and what’s forbidden in terms of personal style. At least you’re already employed, so if you have a question you can ask your boss or refer to the handbook. When you’re looking for a job, though, how do you deal with your unique appearance?
The interview dilemma
Janet Flewelling, director of human resource operations at HR-services company Administaff, suggests job seekers exercise caution during the interview.
“One of the primary goals of an interview is to leave a lasting and positive impression,” Flewelling says. “When interviewing for any position, most employers are seeking candidates who display professionalism. In many cases, the first impression a prospective employee will make on an employer is often based on appearance.”
If a cautious presentation isn’t in your best interest, at least recognize what you’re risking with 11-inch hair spikes or a tattoo of your daughter’s name on your forearm.
“If a candidate were to arrive at an interview with an uncovered tattoo and the organization is one that prohibits its employees from having exposed tattoos, the chances of that individual landing the job can be reduced,” she says.
Of course, you could be your own tattooed Trojan horse and play it safe for the interview, only to arrive for your first day with your pink hair and inked arms exposed to the world. But that could be just as bad. Flewelling cautions job seekers that the company could have an explicit policy about visible body modifications, and if you do an about-face, the boss might perceive your conservative interview appearance as dishonesty.
One way to prevent the awkwardness of revealing your true, expressive fashionista is to discuss the matter prior to accepting the job — just don’t sound presumptuous with your questions. The last thing you want is to sound like you know you’re getting the job, thereby turning off the hiring manger.
“One way to approach the subject of the company dress code, without potentially sending a red flag, is to ask about the policy as part of a list of general questions. Try asking the question in an open-ended manner,” Flewelling suggests. “For example, instead of saying ‘Do you have a dress code?’ or ‘Can I wear a nose ring?’ phrase questions in a manner that leads to a discussion. ‘Are there any dress code specifications relevant to this position I should be aware of?’ or ‘Are there any particular types of dress required for the job?'”
The ongoing debate
Even after you’re hired and have established yourself as part of the company, you can find yourself grappling with work-appropriate appearances as your style changes or career advances. Maybe one morning you wake up and think the Dorothy Hamill haircut you’ve been sporting since 1976 isn’t contemporary enough. Or maybe you get promoted and worry that an edgy look doesn’t belong in a senior position.
In both cases, Flewelling puts the responsibility to personal judgment.
“The best way to proceed in this regard is to look and learn. There is rarely a one-size-fits-all or right and wrong in these matters,” she says. Your best bet is to take cues from the people around you to see how they dress and are perceived, she says.
“I’d say that company owners and top management need to change their thinking about how people should ‘look’ in the workplace and instead think about how people ‘can look.’ One of the most important benefits to staff is freedom of appearance at work. It’s a benefit to feel comfortable,” Penman says. When you’re looking at potential employers, ask yourself if you’ll be comfortable going to work every day dressed how they want you to look.
Anthony Balderrama is a writer and blogger for CareerBuilder.com and its job blog, The Work Buzz. He researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues.