Grooming and Appearance

by Jill Bremer, AICI, CIP
©2002 Jill Bremer

(from Rude Awakenings: Overcoming the Civility Crisis in the Workplace
by Giovinella Gonthier, Dearborn Trade, 2002)

You check your hair and makeup in the rearview mirror before leaving your car for what sounds like a promising interview. You look good and feel ready to make a good impression. Much to your dismay, your first encounter inside the organization is with an indifferent receptionist sporting teased hair, long purple fingernails, and a tight T-shirt, who lets you cool your heels while she finishes a personal phone conversation. Eventually having captured her attention, you manage to garner cursory directions that propel you towards the human resources department. As you navigate the corporate maze by trial and error, you seek help from a young man in ripped blue jeans with greasy hair and a nose ring. Finally reaching your destination, you meet your interviewer, a middle-aged woman done up in a tailored suit with a plunging neckline and arms weighted down with gold baubles that jangle with every expressive gesture. Perhaps this is not the ideal situation after all.

From bad breath to plunging necklines, slurping soup to presentation paralysis, I’ve seen it all. Since 1986, I have worked with individuals and organizations on their professional image, etiquette, and communication skills—often as the “outside expert” brought in by corporations to deal with indelicate issues, change old habits, and groom employees for success. My company offers workshops and coaching in the “soft skills,” often missing from the in-house training repertoire, that are so vital to creating and succeeding in a work environment characterized by civility.

While appearance codes can often be helpful in outlining proper dress and grooming for employees, they are often vague and lacking in acknowledgement of cultural diversity. Employees feel left in the dark, and immigrants new to the U.S. feel confused or offended at the lack of sensitivity to their habits and values.

Having been born and raised in the United States and having worked primarily on U.S. soil, it would be easy to fall into the trap of writing only for a U.S. audience or with a skew towards U.S. corporate values. We U.S. Americans all too frequently forget that people from other cultures have different values; what we find important may not be important to them. The result is miscommunication and misunderstanding.

Here I address some of the most common appearance and grooming challenges faced in today’s workplace. Solutions are suggested to provide guidance to the manager or supervisor so that the problem can be resolved and no longer a cause of tension or incivility between workers. I also point out cultural, ethnic, or religious differences that should be taken into consideration before crafting corporate policy or passing judgment.

A specific appearance code is the best first step for any organization. While most people are familiar with dress codes, appearance codes go a step further by including guidelines for grooming (hair, makeup, nails, tattoos, fragrance, etc.). If an employee continues to push the limits regarding appropriate appearance and grooming, a private meeting with the individual may solve the problem. If the problem persists, an image coach is the answer. We can address the problem in a non-threatening manner and provide solutions and guidance for the employee. In my work, I have found that a vast majority of people welcome the suggestions and adjustments are made very quickly.

Casual Dress: A Recipe for Confusion

Problem: No clear guidelines for how to dress “business casual”.

Solution: It used to be easy to get dressed for work. Put on a suit, add a shirt and tie or blouse and jewelry, and you were ready to go. Not so today. The introduction of “business casual” has been a mixed blessing, adding more comfort and creativity, but also confusion and chaos. And don’t think that business casual dress is limited to the United States; it is becoming acceptable in many other countries. An associate in India recently told me that young people in the computer industries there are now being encouraged to adopt the “Silicon Valley” attire of jeans, T-shirts, and sneakers. The challenge of dressing business casual is to not become too casual in other areas of work. Just as I believe, “you are what you eat,” so “you are what you wear.” Recent studies have indicated that employee morale and productivity are, in fact, no better because of a dress-down policy. In fact, many of my clients have told me they are revising their dress codes back to traditional business dress.

The problem with business casual is that we were never taught how to dress that way. There is a wealth of information available on traditional business dress, but very little on how to dress both casually and professionally. In my seminars, I teach three different levels of business casual dress—each may be appropriate depending on the situation, objective, and industry.

The rule of thumb is: the more you deal with a client’s money, future or family, the more conservative a role you should present. Industries such as finance, law, accounting, health care and insurance should project a conservative, traditional image to the public. Here business casual may be limited to Fridays only. More relaxed industries, such as computer, high-tech, real estate, travel, manufacturing, publishing and education, can present a more casual image and usually wear some level of business casual on a daily basis. Those in creative industries, such as advertising, public relations and entertainment should choose clothes that reflect the latest trends. This may be a blend of traditional with business casual, but should always have a fashion-forward look.

The first step to getting properly dressed is to determine your activities and responsibilities for that particular day, always keeping in mind your industry, your company’s written (or unwritten) dress code and your position within the organization. You can then choose one of three levels of business casual dress. Of course, traditional business ensembles of suits for men and skirted suits for women may also be the choice for given days or activities. The bottom line is that dressing for work has become situational and you need a bit of everything in your closet these days.

Questions To Ask Yourself Before You Choose the Day’s Mode of Dress:

  • What are my goals for the day?
  • With whom will I be interacting?
  • Where will I be meeting them?
  • What will my clients be wearing?
  • What will my superiors be wearing?
  • What will my coworkers be wearing?

The Three Levels of Business Casual

1. Basic Business Casual: Most Informal, for “Backstage” Days

Basic Business Casual, the most casual style of business casual dress, is the level of choice for those days in the office when you’ll be working without client contact. It may also be appropriate for some informal off-site training sessions, retreats or company-sponsored sporting events. This relaxed level of dressing may be appropriate on a daily basis for less traditional industries; it depends on the guidelines of the particular organization. This mode consists of ensembles made up of only two pieces—a top and a bottom. No jacket is necessary, nor is wearing a collar of any kind. Men or women can choose casual pants (jeans would depend on your corporate culture) and add a short or long-sleeve shirt, high-quality T-shirt, knit top, or sweater. Women also have the option of choosing a casual skirt and top, a casual dress, or a jumper.

2. Standard Business Casual: Middle Ground for Casual Meetings and Workshops

When people hear the term “business casual”, they most often visualize the middle level of Standard Business Casual, which consists of a top and bottom teamed with a third piece. This mode of dress, worn on a daily basis for less-formal industries and Casual Fridays in some traditional industries, is appropriate for meetings within the company when you know others will be similarly dressed or for off-site workshops and conferences. Standard Business Casual features styling more tailored than Basic Business Casual in fabrics such as wools, wool blends, silk blends, microfiber, and twills. The additional layer, which can be in the form of a casual, unstructured jacket, cardigan or pullover sweater, tie, scarf, or vest, adds a professional touch to tailored pants or skirts teamed with a casual shirt, knit top or fine-gauge sweater. For men, a collar is always included in these ensembles; if not in the shirt beneath, then in a jacket on top.

3. Executive Business Casual: Tailored, but a Bit Less Formal than Traditional

Executive Business Casual, the most formal mode of business casual dress, is very close to traditional business dress. It features luxurious fabrics, such as wools, cashmere, silks, and linens, expert tailoring, and a contemporary flair that conveys influence. It can be worn when meeting with business casual clients, making a presentation, or leading a meeting. Those in conservative fields will choose this level for Casual Fridays if they have any client contact or are in a leadership position. This level requires a structured jacket at all times, but not necessarily a tie. Men may choose sport coats or blazers, pants in wool, silk, linen, or blends, solid or patterned shirts or fine-gauge knit, cashmere, or silk sweaters. Women should select matched or unmatched pantsuits in wool, linen, silk, or blends. Skirts may be teamed with separate jackets. Appropriate tops include fine-gauge knits, cotton, linen, silk, and cashmere.

A word of warning: Never make the mistake of dressing too casually for any business situation. Dressing down too far can cost you customers, jobs, promotions, and opportunities. Better to exceed expectations and “dress for where you’re going, not for where you’re at.” Traditional business dress will always be the best choice for communicating leadership and authority.

Inappropriate Clothing for the Workplace

One medical firm told me about an employee who rode his bike to work and then proceeded to wear his padded biking shorts and skin-tight shirt for the rest of day. A private conversation with that individual solved the problem. To save your employees from this type of embarrassment, here is my list of business casual don’ts:

  • sweatshirts
  • T-shirts bearing slogans
  • sleeveless tops for men
  • midriff-baring tops and halter tops
  • spaghetti-strap tops
  • blue jeans*
  • sweatpants
  • leggings/stirrup pants
  • shorts
  • mini-skirts
  • athletic shoes
  • thong or athletic sandals
  • work boots
  • bare legs*
  • zip-front hooded sweatshirt jackets
  • team jackets, jean jackets
  • overalls
  • biking shorts
  • see-through tops.

* The wearing of jeans, sandals or bare legs to work can be controversial; consider your corporate culture and position carefully before choosing these. They may be acceptable for informal industries or for Casual Friday. The best advice for Casual Fridays is to dress only one to two levels below how you normally dress.

The following are other common problems related to appearance that crop up in today’s workplace.

Problem: Wearing wrinkled, stained, or foul-smelling clothes

Solution: Whether you’re wearing traditional business dress or business casual, wrinkled, dirty, or smelly clothing is a sure image-killer.

Many of us don’t clean or launder our clothes nearly often enough. The best way to care for many items of apparel is to routinely have them cleaned and pressed by a dry cleaner you’ve come to trust. Regular cleaning can remove stains and eliminate odors created by perspiration, body oils, and skin cells from fabrics. It also rids your clothes of such atmospheric soils as dust, which can act as abrasives and damage fibers. Don’t have your clothes pressed but not cleaned. There may be stains on the clothing that are invisible to the eye, such as ginger ale and tonic water, which the hot pressing machines will set onto the fabric, making them almost impossible to remove later.

Between cleanings, wool garments should be hung out overnight before being put back in the closet. Wool is a resilient fabric and will return to its natural shape if allowed to breathe.

A laundry service is the best choice for men’s business shirts and cotton pants. A combination of light or medium starch and pressing creates a crisp, professional appearance.

The advent of spray-on wrinkle reducers may be the answer for clothes that need a quick touch-up. My clients report excellent results with these products and recommend them highly to those who travel.

Problem: Wearing suggestive clothing in the workplace.

Solution: This is a more of a problem for females than males in the United States. Men have set the standards of business dress in the U.S. for more than a century, making any choice a woman makes “marked”. Too conservative, too trendy, too drab, too colorful, too loose, too tight—whichever she chooses can be seen as a negative by someone else.

In the 1970’s and 1980’s, U.S. women were encouraged to wear ensembles that mimicked their male counterparts. Today those same women feel freer to dress in a style that reflects their femaleness, but in doing so they also run the risk of having their choices misunderstood. What is not considered suggestive by the wearer may well be by someone else in the office.

My answer to this dilemma has to do with skin. The sight of bare skin can be evocative to others. It suggests intimacy and is more appropriately revealed in our personal lives than in our business lives. For the workplace, choose long sleeves over sleeveless, knee-length skirts over minis, shoes over sandals, hose over bare legs, one button undone rather than two or three. Sheer, see-through clothing should be avoided, unless one wishes to be talked about over the water fountain for months to come. Bare midriffs may be gaining popularity, but should never be worn to work, no matter your generation.

A woman’s professional image can easily be damaged at after-hours events. One of my law firm clients told me they once had a female partner whose everyday dress was classic conservative, but who arrived for a gala in a tight, low-cut evening gown. Her credibility and integrity suddenly came into question. The same can happen to the bikini-wearing executive at the company picnic. Never forget that these events are official functions of the organization—dress accordingly. Tasteful choices that leave something to the imagination are best.

With that said, consider professional attire in countries other than the U.S. Carol Jungman of Cendant Intercultural, The Bennett Group, who is a cross-cultural training consultant, says, “In many European countries, individuality is expressed through dress and females enjoy a broader range of fashion for the workplace. What they see as individual flair or a feminine touch, U.S. companies view as too sexy.”

Jungman also points out that in some parts of Europe, clothes are not considered to be as significant or as important to one’s acceptance or success. For instance, it’s not unusual for workers to wear the same outfit two or three days in a row with no ill effect. And in countries where citizens don’t have a comparable level of disposable income or conveniences, dress habits might reflect that reality (i.e., mismatched outfits, out-of-style clothing, socks instead of hose). She suggests U.S. companies overseas define as specifically as possible the acceptable guidelines for dress in their place of business. Whatever is left unsaid will surely be worn to work.

Problem: Wearing an item of clothing that bears a slogan or message inappropriate for the workplace

Solution: Shirts with slogans are only appropriate at work when that slogan communicates the marketing message or logo of the company—and then only when that organization has deemed it permissible. Any other slogan runs the risk of being offensive to someone else. Those who feel a need to express their personal views on their clothing should save it, and be instructed to save it, for non-business hours. They may argue that the sayings are expressions of free speech, but just as with tattoos, U.S. courts rarely uphold those arguments. Appearance codes must offer specific guidelines for the wearing of slogans in the workplace.

Problem: Wearing unsuitable clothing for on-camera situations

Solution: Dressing for a videoconference presents special challenges. The camera is sensitive to color, pattern, and reflection. Care must be taken to select clothing and accessories that play well to the camera and audience. To look wrinkle-free, choose wool, silk, knit, or cashmere garments. Solid color suits with moderate shaping and padding are the best choices. Any shade of blue works well on-camera; other good colors include dark reds, teal, dark greens, deep purples, and rich browns. Avoid bright red, bright yellow, lime green, pure white, and black.

Shirts and blouses should be off-white or pastel. Plaids, stripes, dots, and checks are not camera-friendly; they take on a life of their own. Buttons and jewelry should be brushed metal or non-reflective. Women should avoid large jewelry and dangling earrings. Select ties and scarves with small prints. The rule for dressing for any camera is to keep it solid and simple.

Problem: Wearing too much jewelry to work

Solution: Consider jewelry to be the final, subtle touch that completes a professional wardrobe. Multiple rings, bracelets, and necklaces can get in the way of your work and project an image of being ostentatious or extreme. Too many rings become painful in a handshake. Too many bracelets hinder computer and telephone work. Too many necklaces can be noisy and catch on a desk.

I advise my clients to wear only one ring per hand. A single bracelet or a few thin ones are best. One necklace or a few strands together look professional. Post earrings are preferred over drop styles.

Tie tacks and tie bars are currently out of fashion for men; keep neckties secure by tucking the narrow end through the label on the underside of the wide end. Cuff links are always in style for French shirt cuffs. Choose small, conservative styles in metal or silk rope.

Watches for both men and women should be the highest quality one can afford. Thin styles are preferred over heavier styles, sport watches, or novelty watches.

I advise recent college graduates to put away all college jewelry so as not to remind interviewers and employers that they are new to the workforce.

Problem: Vague guidelines for head coverings in the workplace

Solution: Many religions, such as Islam, Judaism, and Sikhism, as well as the Amish and Mennonites, incorporate head coverings as a sign of deference and devotion. Head coverings indicate that those who wear them are ambassadors of their beliefs and accountable for their actions. Orthodox and conservative groups often require they be worn at all times; most reformed religions require head coverings only for worship services or religious holidays.

Dress codes I have seen issued by U.S. businesses rarely mention head coverings. If the topic is referred to at all, it lists only “hats and caps” as unacceptable for the workplace. Employers should review their appearance codes and amend them if necessary. Policies need to address the issue of head coverings in detail, taking into consideration that some are worn for religious reasons and cannot be excluded from the workplace. Coworkers and employers should never stare at or joke about someone’s head covering. Sensitivity and a tolerance toward another’s beliefs must be shown.

Problem: Exposed tattoos and piercings

Solution: Tattoos and body piercings may be a sign of self-expression, but they can hurt one’s chances for employment and career advancement. Recent surveys show that those in a position to hire are less likely to employ someone with visible tattoos or piercings. Survey findings also reveal that many managers hold lower opinions of someone based on his or her body art or non-ear piercings. In my work with organizations in conservative industries, managers have shared that they question the judgment of someone who knowingly “rocks the boat” by exposing their piercings or tattoos at work. They feel these mixed messages are disconcerting to customers and not commensurate with the overall organizational image.

Unless one is part of a creative industry, such as entertainment, music, or the arts, tattoos and body piercings trigger negative first impressions and erode confidence in the abilities of the individual. Perceived as a sign of rebellion, many also associate tattoos with criminals; in fact, most gang members imprint themselves with signs of affiliation, violent images, or inflammatory words.

In conservative industries, women with multiple ear piercings should limit earrings to one per ear and men should remove all earrings. If one has tattoos or non-ear piercings, my recommendation is to keep them out of sight while at work. There are too many risks involved with having them visible—denied business opportunities, hassles from supervisors, exclusion from special events, even being fired or not getting hired in the first place. Rulings by U.S. American courts have traditionally been in favor of the employer, even when the employee says he’s being singled out or claims body art or piercings as an expression of free speech.

I advise employers in conservative industries to include in their appearance code a recommendation that tattoos and body piercings be hidden at work, or at least when interacting with customers. The code should include the business reasons for the position: safety, hygiene, and corporate image. Keep in mind that if there are religious or ethnic reasons for the body art, discrimination on these grounds is illegal. Freedom of expression is encouraged, however, in creative industries. Toleration, even celebration, of tattoos and body art is usually part of these corporate cultures.

Problem: Unpleasant body odors

Solution: With the popularity of physical exercise during work hours, body odor can be a very real problem among co-workers. Bathing is a necessity after any workout, even a lunchtime jog, and employees may need to be reminded to “hit the showers”. One might not think it would be necessary to belabor the point, but complaints are on the rise in the workplace about inadequate personal hygiene and resultant body odor.

Differing perceptions and tolerance of body smells may also be a mark of cultural or religious distinctions. For instance, some conservative and orthodox religions observe holidays that dictate no bathing. On the other hand, Islam places a great emphasis on cleanliness. Muslims are required to bathe some or all of their body before each of the five daily prayers. Supervisors, coworkers, and policies alike must be sensitive to these differences. Many Europeans believe U.S. Americans have absurd attitudes about cleanliness and that we are “hyperclean.” In some cultures, a little body odor is considered natural and does not offend.

When immigrants come to the United States their sense of cleanliness might not match that of U.S. Americans. U.S. employers should be sensitive to this cultural difference and create specific appearance codes with explicit guidelines for cleanliness, or simply encourage a tolerant climate in which people are comfortable with others’ grooming habits.

And for the employee who likes to remove his or her shoes during the workday, foot odor can be quite offensive to fellow workers. Dealing with personal odors can be a touchy subject. Managers should talk privately with the individual and approach these situations with sensitivity, empathy and directness. Like the person who wears too much cologne, people are often not aware of the extent of the problem. While they may at first be shocked or offended, more often than not they appreciate the “heads up” and will quickly make the necessary adjustments.

Problem: Offensive breath

Solution: There’s little worse than having a conversation with someone who has foul-smelling breath. Bad breath, or halitosis, happens to everyone at some point. The familiar mouthwashes only mask bad breath for a short time and, because of the alcohol they contain, actually dry out mouth tissues even more, which brings it back with a vengeance. Sprays, mints, and gum contain sugar, which can also exacerbate the problem.

A breath problem in the workplace is an issue best discussed in private, but I suggest to clients that they keep a toothbrush and toothpaste in their desk at work in order to brush after eating, a suggestion that can also be included in a company’s appearance code.

Problem: Wearing too much makeup

Solution: A woman with overdone makeup is unattractive at any age. Makeup application is an art and, unfortunately, most women fall victim to products and styles not suitable for their coloring, age, or skill level. Practice makes perfect, along with some professional input whenever possible. A professional color analysis consultation is the first step to knowing the most flattering makeup colors to wear. Some women prefer not to wear makeup; however, they should look to their corporate culture before doing without makeup at work.

Problem: Fingernails that are too long or are unkempt

Solution: Hands and fingernails are noticed by others and contribute to one’s professional image. No matter the industry or position, fingernails must be cared for on a regular basis, either by the individual or a nail care professional. In general, men’s nails should be short, clean, and filed smooth with no ragged cuticles. Women’s cuticles should be smooth and nails should match in length; if they choose to wear polish, it must be maintained or removed as soon as it chips.

In conservative industries, women’s nails usually extend no longer than about 1/4” beyond the fingertip. Colors can be light or dark in the traditional shades of pink, red, rose, peach, and coral. Avoid trendy colors at work, as well as artistic designs and appliqués. A pedicure is a must for any professional woman who wishes to wear sandals or open-toe shoes to the office. In more informal or liberal industries, longer lengths are usually acceptable along with trendy colors, designs, and appliques.

Problem: Wearing too much fragrance

Solution: Working and interacting in close quarters can cause tension among workers, which can be easily aggravated by smells. Perfumes, colognes, hair products, as well as food and body odors bring an assortment of aromas into the office.

U.S. Americans are sensitive to fragrance in the workplace. To people of French, Italian, and Arab descent, though, fragrance is very important; many don’t feel completely dressed without adding perfume. Employers need to be aware of these cultural differences.

My advice has always been to not wear fragrance in business settings, certainly never for “first impression” situations. I feel there are too many risks associated with scent. As fragrance is more noticeable to others than it is to the wearer, it can easily overpower or offend another person. In fact, I know of one person who lost a job opportunity because her choice of perfume reminded the interviewer of his ex-wife!

As with so many elements of grooming and appearance in the office, less is more. If you must wear fragrance, do so lightly. Consider a scented skin lotion instead of perfume or cologne.

If you are allergic to fragrance yourself, you must make coworkers, clients, and vendors aware of this fact.

© 2002 Jill Bremer