Q&A: How to make your wardrobe work appropriate

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Dressing appropriately in the workplace is something that students and recent grads struggle with, whether it’s for part-time jobs or full-time employment. Although there is a general understanding of what dressing business casual means, dressing appropriately in a casual workplace can be difficult.

I recently spoke to John McGowan, the business manager of the McMaster Student’s Union (MSU), about how students and new grads can make their wardrobes work appropriate.

John manages the day-to-day operations of the organization and helps develop the long term direction of the organization on behalf of the board of directors (the student-elected government that runs the MSU). The MSU has about 250 employees from full-time non-student staff to students who work part-time.

Q. Can you provide some examples of what appropriate clothing is for the casual business environment?

A. In the office environment, a collar is a must for men, with the only exception being a tasteful sweater and/or blazer. For ladies, blouses are an appropriate replacement for collared shirts. In both cases, clothes should be ironed, no wrinkles or tears and, while this may seem obvious, clean. Regarding footwear, tasteful sandals are fine when weather permits, but flip-flops are only okay for a beach.

Q. How have some of your employees dressed inappropriately and why you think it happens?

A. I have spoken to staff regarding ripped jeans, taking shoes off and track pants. I think when one becomes comfortable in the workplace, the workplace and personal space blur. So ones dress and conduct tend be become much similar. Sometimes team members need to be reminded that a distinction must be made.

Q. How can we avoid committing clothing faux pas even in a casual workplace? Also, what do you suggest the course of action should be if a faux pas has been committed?

A. I think it is imperative all future employees have an understanding of the workplace they are joining. This includes things like the direction of the organization, compensation, benefits and, of course, organization culture. I believe dress helps define the culture. Be perceptive of things like the dress, cleanliness and demeanor (i.e. happy, loud, whispering, etc.) of the office when you are visiting for an interview or follow-up discussion with HR. You may be working there for years to come.

My advice would be it is always better to be 15 minutes early, stay 15 minutes late and be slightly overdressed during the first two weeks rather than the opposite. The first impression will stick with your co-workers, and supervisors.

To help with your awkward moments in the first month while you are getting to know everyone, bring another outfit and leave it in your car. It doesn’t have to be great but just needs to fill in, if the coffee gets spilled or the pant seam decides to give. I have seen both more than once.

If a faux pas has been committed and you were not aware of it at the time, acknowledge it once it is brought to your attention and discuss with immediate peers and supervisors who have been made aware of it. Own up to the matter, discuss the reason why, and confirm it won’t happen again. The workplace talks and they will pass along your understanding of the error when the issue pops up at the water cooler when you are not there.

Q. Do you have any other comments/advice for students working in a casual environment?

A. It’s better to have a varied wardrobe that is above average than a few fabulous items that seem mundane once you have worn them 10 times in a month and you have no means to vary based on season.

You will probably find many stresses in your first few months and your clothes should not be one of them. Have fun with it…and unless you play for the Blue Jays, hats should not even cross your mind.

Photo credit: Danielle Lorenz

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