What Should I Wear to Work or an Interview? [And Why it Matters]

A man and a woman shake hands outdoorsFirst impressions matter — especially when it comes to landing your dream job. And the amount of time it took you to read that last sentence is all the time you have to make a good first impression.

Less, actually.

Princeton University studies have shown it takes as little as a tenth of a second to make a first impression. It turns out longer exposure to that person doesn’t really change that first impression either, apparently.

So how can you make a good first impression when you show up on your first day of work — or to the interview — for your dream job? How you dress is a good start.

Here at Anderson Trucking Service (ATS), we’ve been hiring people since 1955 in a wide variety of positions. While dress codes have changed quite a bit over the past seven decades, the reason dress codes exist hasn’t.

In this article, we’ll explain why dress codes exist, what the common dress codes are and why it matters that you follow whatever dress code your employer sets.

Why Do Dress Codes Exist?

In many cases, dress codes exist to maintain a “professional appearance,” whatever the company’s leadership determines that is. That can vary wildly depending on the culture and values of the organization. Some organizations may feel it’s important to maintain a business professional appearance, while others think wearing casual clothing every day is perfectly acceptable.

Whether or not your role — or other roles within the company — regularly requires you to meet with customers and prospects can also impact a dress code. What those customers and prospects consider to be professional can also vary wildly, so the safe bet is to lean more towards business professional — business casual at a minimum.

Remember the first impressions thing? It’s pretty difficult to make a conscious decision on what you think of someone in a fraction of a second. So, while your manager may not be making a conscious decision to promote your well-dressed counterpart over you, there’s a chance it could be playing a part — even if they’re genuinely not trying to use that in their decision-making process.

If everyone is put on a “level playing field” from a wardrobe standpoint, those subconscious decisions don’t come into play when deciding who to promote.

Speaking of a level playing field, the great thing about us humans is we all come from different backgrounds. So what each of us considers acceptable for a workplace will differ based on our backgrounds. If the company sets a dress code, nobody has to worry about dressing “improperly.” The guidelines have been set. Follow the rules and you’ll be just fine.

What are the Most Common Dress Codes?

While the names may vary slightly, the most common dress codes are business formal, business professional, business casual and casual. And, like the names, what’s acceptable to wear in each category can vary by company. We’ll highlight the common understanding of what’s acceptable to wear by category.

What is Business Formal?

While you may find cases where business professional and business formal are used interchangeably, business formal can also be used to describe attire you’d wear when attending a formal event, like award ceremonies and special dinners or benefits.

Clothing you’d expect to see in a business formal setting is a dark suit — likely black — and tie, paired with a light button-down shirt. You’ll also likely see skirt suits or suit dresses, all the way up to a long evening dress.

Group dressed in business professional attire surrounding a laptop computer

What is Business Professional?

This is the category you likely think of when you see people wearing suits and ties around the office. While it’s not always the case, a business professional dress code is common in finance, banking, law and government (think politicians).

In a business professional setting, properly fitted suits — often tailored — are paired with a button-up shirt and tie. Blouses and blazers are also a common pairing in a business professional environment.

Group dressed in business casual attire meeting in the hallway

What is Business Casual?

The goal of business casual attire is to keep a professional look, but allow employees to be a bit more comfortable. It’s quickly becoming the most common dress code across businesses — at least what employers most commonly say their dress code is. It’s also where dress codes tend to get a bit more relaxed on what’s okay and what’s not — which is probably why it varies so much between companies.

You’ll still find button-down shirts in this category, but they won’t necessarily be paired with a jacket or a tie. You’ll also find other collared shirts, like polos and blouses, but they may be paired with a sweater — although some still prefer a blazer and sport coat.

Bottoms might be where this category varies the most. Traditionally, business casual still means wearing dress pants, slacks, khakis or pencil skirts paired with flats, heels, loafers, boots or Oxfords. Today, though, many companies are allowing jeans — without holes — and other “lifestyle shoes” (still no tennis shoes).

You may have noticed we didn’t mention yoga pants, leggings or other “trendy” pieces of clothing. No, we didn’t forget to call them out as acceptable. In fact, even on casual days (more on that in a bit), those pieces of clothing aren’t considered acceptable by many companies. 

Unfortunately, what’s trendy may not always be appropriate for the workplace.Group collaborating in casual work attire

What is Casual?

Casual day means you can wear whatever you pull out of your closet that day, right? Not so fast.

Just because you’d wear it to run some errands or to the gym doesn’t mean it’s okay to wear to work. And those sweats you were wearing while watching the latest episode of "The Bachelorette" last night won’t fly either.

So what exactly is casual attire?

That sweatshirt you had on while finding out if Jeff was going to get a rose might be okay… as long as there aren’t any holes or red wine stains.

A nice t-shirt or sweatshirt is a safe bet — again without holes or stains. You’ll also want to make sure there isn’t any offensive imagery on your clothing. Like some business casual settings, stick to jeans without holes in them, khakis and capris. Shorts are almost always a no-no.

You’ll notice, once again, that we didn’t mention yoga pants and leggings as acceptable attire. Think of those pieces of clothing like sweatpants. You wouldn’t wear those to work, so don’t wear yoga pants or leggings to work.

Why Should I Care About My Company’s Dress Code?

First of all, your company created a dress code in the first place because they felt it was important. Just like it’s important that you follow other rules of the company (showing up to work on time, getting your work done on time, etc.), you should follow these rules.

If you don’t follow the dress code, who’s to say you won’t break other rules? Don’t give that impression. It can also be perceived as selfish behavior by others that do follow the rules put in place — whether or not they like your ensemble that day. 

Are you in it for yourself or the greater good of the organization? Don’t give the impression that you have a lack of respect for the organization that’s providing you with your paycheck.

Once again, we’ll bring up first impressions. The way you’re dressed can be associated with your quality of work. Show you’re ready to do the job assigned to you by dressing for it.

What Should I Wear to an Interview (or My First Day of Work)?

Depending on where you’re at in the recruiting process, that’s something the talent acquisition team member should mention to you during your phone screening. If they don’t, there’s no harm in asking what the company’s policy is. That way, you can show up to the in-person interview dressed according to the company’s policy.

If you’re already past that point and set up for an in-person interview, first of all, you can always reach out to the person that did your phone screening. They should have provided you with their contact information for any follow-up questions you may have had. Otherwise, call the company’s main phone number and ask the receptionist. Or visit the company’s website to look at pictures of what employees are wearing.

If none of those options work out for you, the safe bet is to “overdress” rather than “underdress.”

It’s highly unlikely that you'll fall out of consideration for a position if you show up in a suit and tie. But, if you show up in shorts and a t-shirt for an office job, that’s not going to look good for you.

Another good idea is to look around when you’re at the office for the interview. See what others are wearing. Pay attention to what the person interviewing you is wearing. That, obviously, won’t help you for your first interview, but if you get a second interview or — better yet — offered the job, you’ll have a good idea of what’s appropriate. If everyone is wearing a suit, you should probably do the same.

Another — and very important — thing to consider is to wear clothing that fits. It should cover the areas that need to be covered in the workplace. Stomachs should stay in your shirt and rear ends should stay in your pants.

Person with tattoos working at a laptop

What About Tattoos, Piercings and Hair Color?

Things have definitely changed over the years when it comes to acceptance of tattoos, piercings and unnatural hair colors. You can certainly use a company’s dress code policy as a gauge for what’s acceptable — in some cases, it may be a documented part of the dress code — but if it’s something you’re concerned about, it doesn’t hurt to ask.

In the past, people have been known to wear long sleeve shirts to an interview to cover up tattoos or to take out jewelry. That’s certainly an option if you feel more comfortable with that. But, unless you want to do that every day you go to work, is it worth it?

You are who you are. You chose to get that tattoo or piercing for a reason. You shouldn’t feel like you need to hide it from your employer. If you feel like you’d be risking your job — or not getting it in the first place — because of those things, is that even the right job for you anyway? 

You should be comfortable in your workplace and enjoy showing up every day, not hiding your true self so you can earn a paycheck — as long as your profession allows it.

So How Should I Dress for Work?

If you’re prepping for an interview or your first day of work, consult the resources available to you — whether it’s your recruiter, hiring manager or employee new hire paperwork — to figure out what the employee dress code is.

The company you’re interviewing with or working for created that dress code for a reason. It may simply be to keep what they consider a “professional appearance” while meeting with prospective clients or even just around the workplace. Maybe they just want to remove any opportunity for unconscious bias to impact any decisions. Or, maybe it’s just to make sure everyone is on the same page when it comes to generally acceptable work attire.

They’ll probably use one of the most common dress codes, which include business formal, business professional, business casual and casual.

Either way, stick to the rules they set for you. You don’t want to give the impression that you don’t care about other rules the company has set. Even worse, don’t make them think that you only care about yourself and not the greater good of your team and the overall organization. Dress like you’re ready to do the job at hand — and do it well.

In the end, dress in a way that makes you feel comfortable for who you are — as long as it fits the rules the company put in place.

Find a place to work that fits you. You’ll be much happier in the end.

If an employer that’s growing and provides opportunities for you to grow in your career makes you happy, we’d love to chat

We’re ready to provide you with the tools you need to succeed in an industry that impacts the lives of you and everyone you know.

Jaci Olson

Written by Jaci Olson

With more than 25 years of progressive experience in human resources (HR), Jaci has served in multiple roles across various industries — including manufacturing, litigation law firm and transportation. With ATS since 2015, Jaci is the employee relations manager, where she serves as a proactive, internal HR consultant/advisor to managers and employees on employee relations issues, engagement strategies and leveraging of talent management systems to support strategy and achieve goals. She also leads cross-functional teams in the development of manager and training programs and oversees the successful application of this training within ATS.

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