How to crack the business casual code

Here are some guidelines to make sure you dress for success.

How to crack the business casual code

Business casual has become the norm in many industries.

The days of the power suits and business heels are mostly long gone, save for a few industries. For the most part, many companies allow for a business casual dress code that’s intended to be more laid back and comfortable, but still professional. The problem is that business casual can be interpreted differently. For example, jeans might be allowed if paired with a button down shirt and blazer at one company, while at another, denim isn’t part of the business casual code.

For anyone starting a new job with a business casual dress code, you definitely don’t want to make a poor first impression by being too casual. Here are some guidelines to make sure you dress for success.

Get a business casual clue

If there aren’t any explicit rules written down regarding the dress code, there are lots of ways to figure out the boundaries on your own.

Understand the culture

Take a cue from the type of workplace you’re stepping into. Is it a creative environment with an open layout, vibrant décor and local artwork, or is it a more traditional business setting where executives sit at mahogany desks, and meetings take place in a conference room? Also, what type of company is it? Chances are a law or financial services firm might be more business-leaning while a marketing or tech startup is usually more toward the casual end. There are always exceptions, of course, but these are considerations to keep in mind.

Take a look around

During your hiring and onboarding process, observe what other wear on a typical workday. Are most men wearing shirts and ties with leather shoes, or are polos, khakis and loafers a more common look? For the women, do slacks with cardigan sweater sets and flats reign supreme, or do you see a lot of dresses, blazers, and pumps? You don’t necessarily have to copy someone else’s style, but staying in the general fashion vicinity is a smart idea.

When in doubt, dress up

Dressing a little more formally than others in the office won’t get you in trouble, but if you go the other way, it could reflect poorly on you. For the first couple of weeks, err on the side of professional caution if you’re just not sure if a particular outfit is appropriate. If your gut has you questioning whether or not to wear something, then chances are you should probably opt for a different outfit.

Be ready to make adjustments

Even in very casual environments, there might be times when you might be asked to dress more formally, such as if there is an important client visiting. Have at least one extra dressy work outfit in your closet just in case.

Watch the accessories

Individual style is usually celebrated in most workplaces today, but you might want to refrain from getting extra piercings or wearing large, flashy statement jewelry if it will make you stand out too much. For the guys, wacky ties may or may not be acceptable, so use your best judgement.

Neatness counts

No matter what you wear, how you wear it goes a long way. Even the nicest clothing can make you seem disheveled if you pull it straight from the laundry basket. Clothing should be wrinkle- and stain-free, and shoes should be clean and polished.

Fashion pieces that never belong in a business casual wardrobe

There are some types of clothing that even the most casual of dress codes probably won’t work. Here are some wardrobe pieces that you shouldn’t ever wear to the office:

  • Ripped jeans. You might be able to get away with black or dark rinse trouser jeans (look around or just ask first!). If jeans are allowed, though, there definitely shouldn’t be any holes in them.
  • Gym clothes. While some fashion sneakers may look like dress shoes, you definitely want to save your running shoes or basketball high-tops for after work. The same goes for track suits, joggers, or yoga pants.
  • Tank tops. Ladies can look sophisticated in sleeveless tops in a business casual environment, but tanks that have thin spaghetti straps are not work appropriate unless worn under a jacket or sweater.
  • Graphic T-shirts. In some offices, people can sometimes wear a plain t-shirt under a blazer for a polished look. But plain is the operative word. Leave the Motorhead, Star Wars, or sports team gear for the weekend.
  • Nightclub attire. Rule of thumb: If you wouldn’t wear it to brunch with grandma, then it’s probably not business casual.
  • Shorts (unless you work in Bermuda!). Enough said.
  • Flip flops. Some businesses might allow open-toed shoes for women in summer months, but they should be fashionable sandals or wedges, not the flip-flops you wear when you get a pedicure or hit the beach.

Style yourself for success

By taking cues from your colleagues and choosing outfits that reflect your workplace culture, you can stay within the business casual dress code boundaries. Business casual is just one of the many ways the workplace has evolved in recent decades, and you can be sure there's more transformations forthcoming. It's a lot to keep track of. Need some help with that? Join Monster for free today. As a member, you'll get career advice, job search tips, trends, and insights delivered directly to your inbox to keep you ahead of the curve.