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I recently started an intern position in a new office, and was told that the dress code is business casual. In theory, it is also the case that there are "dress down Fridays", where jeans are explicitly listed as acceptable attire.

In practice, however, it is the case that most of the office usually dresses somewhere between business casual and casual. Many of my coworkers (and even some in management) will wear jeans every day to work, and t-shirts are not an uncommon sight.

This is a fairly easy going office, so I'm sure that being slightly under/overdressed wouldn't be a big problem to begin with; at a company happy hour, I was actually told by a member of another team that I must be new because "I dressed too nice".

If a dress code exists but is not strictly followed, what should one dress? I'm inclined to observe my coworkers and dress alike, but there is some significant variation in that (some dress more casual and some more formal, which makes that quite a bit harder). Nearly everyone else in the company is more senior than I am - so I have no example to set - but I believe I do have to be concerned about whatever "privileges" someone more senior may have.

This is in the US, and I work at a tech company situated in a more traditional office setting.

edit: I am in software development, and not in a customer facing position.

edit 2: this is not a duplicate of another question. This asks not about whether dressing too formally is a problem (it is), but whether following the official dress code (when it is not followed) can be perceived negatively (e.g., by looking too formal).

  • 13
    I'm pretty sure I have now or I used to have "business casual" in some of my employments. Now I google for it and discover it bans jeans, for example. Which would sound insane to any of the employments. Probably whoever put it there has different idea of what it means. – max630 Feb 6 at 21:42
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    One day a year, we have a "follow the reglementary dress code day" where a photographer and a cameraman are invited to the office to immortalize our working environment. The rest of the year, the coworkers dress like homeless. – Cœur Feb 7 at 6:09
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    Don't you have a direct manager you can ask? – pipe Feb 7 at 10:17
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    @gerrit but then I end up in a meeting with HR wearing my Space Marine armor. – Nat Bowman Feb 7 at 17:21
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    @DouglasHeld I doubt it - we’re both male, and he has a girlfriend. – osuka_ Feb 7 at 17:39

12 Answers 12

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As in intern, you should follow the advice of your direct Manager. It doesn't hurt to clarify the situation.

Their answer is likely to lead you to dress to the prevailing norms or better.

Meaning, while jeans and a t-shirt are common, you stick with jeans and a polo. You don't want to be over dressed, despite the technical rules. That gives the impression you're not really part of the team.

  • 4
    @Pete The asker specifically mentions that they are in the US! – Tashus Feb 7 at 15:00
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    +1. We have a formal dress code here as well, which was addressed by management in informal channels and meetings. So it's on the record it just doesn't apply anymore. I assume the OP is in a similar situation. – xyious Feb 7 at 20:42
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    This. Dress on the upper end of the norm. – javadba Feb 7 at 20:51
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    @AbraCadaver But what do Roman developers do when Jon Skeet is in Rome? – jpmc26 Feb 7 at 23:14
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    @KutuluMike Any business trip to Ancient Rome... Yes, I recommend you get a toga, which correctly presents your status. Pay attention to the exact era you visit, as things change according to the time period. If you have time, and the budget allows, it's best to get one locally once you arrive. – hyde Feb 8 at 9:51
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As an intern you adhere to the rules. Don't worry about what others are doing. If you look more professional than them that's a bonus, not a liability.

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    The only one wearing a suit in an office full of T-shirts is not having a bonus, he is the one disconnected from the team, and thus a liability. – Hans Janssen Feb 7 at 8:48
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    @HansJanssen Wearing is suit is very different from wearing pant-shirt. It sits in between a suit & jeans-tshirt. So choosing a middle ground won't make him "disconnected from the team" – KharoBangdo Feb 8 at 7:10
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    On top of the direct 'not-one-of-us' risk, looking 'more professional' may not be welcomed by people who like being able to wear comfortable, easy to care for clothes at work and would like the current culture to persist. – Alex Hayward Feb 10 at 16:29
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    @KharoBangdo I've seen environments where "business casual" meant a suit without the tie and you're allowed to take the jacket off while seated (but not while leaving your room). I've also seen environments where it meant any clothes that are in good repair and fit reasonably well. – jwenting Feb 11 at 4:40
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    I have to agree with @HansJanssen. In my current workplace a dev who'll wear a shirt is likely to get some snarky remarks (still friendly) and will be asked if they have an interview somewhere else... – fgysin reinstate Monica Feb 12 at 10:14
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I think you've had good advice so far. At the very least, I'd learn more about the company culture and try and understand why the policy isn't being followed before joining the crowd.

An obvious example of needing to understand the culture is that there could be an element of "while the cat's away the mice can play" in how people are dressing down more often and they will all go back to "normal" if they know a particular senior is visiting, or a client demo is arranged or whatever. If you don't know that then you easily could be caught out.

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    +1. My last company had a dress code imposed by headquarters . . . except that headquarters was far away in another state, and everyone in my small office completely ignored the dress code except on the rare occasions that someone from management was visiting. (We did try to warn our interns and new hires about that, but better to ask and be sure.) – ruakh Feb 7 at 3:10
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    Also, there might be more standard rules because of the one slob who wore dirty feet and flip-flops 10 years ago to be introduced to a potential major customer. Or some lawyer?HR consultant told them they should have the rules on paper to keep interns from showing up without shirts. These rules are there so they can point to them and nab any excess, they're not there so they have to be followed literally – user90842 Feb 7 at 23:15
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Johns-305 had a good answer in "dress to the prevailing norms or better", and that's what I would recommend, regardless of what the on-paper dress code says.

However, there's a possible cultural misunderstanding going on. Business casual is an ambiguous term that varies greatly depending on where you live and what industry you work in, and it may mean something different to the company than it does to you. In the western US, and at technology companies in particular (you mention being a software developer), it tends to be much more casual than other places or industries. I work at a software company in Denver, and our "business casual" dress code just means "nice jeans without holes, T-shirts are okay as long as you look clean and not ratty". I don't know the particulars of your office, but it sounds like your coworkers are adhering to the dress code as understood by the company.

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    I would agree with this, except that OP noted that the policy calls out jeans as an explicit part of "dress down Fridays". – Matthew Read Feb 7 at 21:42
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    I'm wondering what the point of the "business" in "business casual" is, because a T-shirt and jeans is just casual. If one calls that business casual, then how could one describe something like slacks and a button up shirt? Not a criticism of you, just the degradation of useful terminology. – nasch Feb 7 at 21:50
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    @MatthewRead Oops, missed that bit. Good point. – Kerry McKean Feb 8 at 16:50
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    @nasch In the main, I share your frustration about the degredation of useful terminology. I think the main worry is that "Casual" might imply that people can just wear whatever they feel like. Ripped jeans, athletic shorts, yoga pants, ratty t-shirts that should be thrown away, sweatpants, outdoor work clothes, etc. Some people don't wear these things anyway, so for them there is no difference. The "business" part is not totally useless, because it tells people who wear gym shorts and sweatshirts at home not to wear that to work. In particular, not all t-shirts/jeans are created equal. – Kerry McKean Feb 8 at 17:06
  • I suppose that's true. You can't count on a common sense of decorum for people not to wear a ripped tank top and gym shorts to work any more. – nasch Feb 8 at 17:21
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It's perfectly fine to stay with business casual if that's what you are most comfortable in. If you wish to wear jeans and t-shirt, just ask your manager/team lead at your next one-on-one meeting if it were okay to do so. Most likely this is a non-issue.

  • This is the correct answer. I guarantee nobody else in this workplace has posted a question on the internet worrying about the discrepancy between the rules and the culture on the topic of dress. They are all just wearing whatever they are comfortable in (which, incidentally, is the best attire to maximize productivity). – Nacht - Reinstate Monica Feb 7 at 23:01
  • I agree with this completely. I have noticed in my workplace it's always the new comer who worries a lot about the dressing (a lot). Our director had to tell them everytime to read the room. See what everyone is doing and make an educated guess. Can't go wrong ever. – User56756 Feb 11 at 3:25
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Regardless of the rules I have always followed this advise given to me in one of my first jobs,

Do not dress for the job you have, dress for the job you want!

Your appearance will often be the first thing people will judge you on (yes, that is shallow, but it is true)

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    "... and now I'm sitting in a disciplinary hearing dressed as Wonder Woman." :-) – fr13d Feb 7 at 8:23
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    This would be improved if it not only stated the principle but applied it to the specific situation. As it is, I'm not sure that it answers the question. – Peter Taylor Feb 7 at 8:24
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    @fr13d there are many people who have jobs as super heros, follw your dreams haha google.com/… – PeterH Feb 7 at 11:15
  • As my dad always told me : "Dress for your boss's job" – JonSG Feb 7 at 20:24
  • Instead of the obligatory xkcd, I'll put in a plug for Dilbert – doneal24 Feb 8 at 23:12
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I too am in software development and I do not have customer 'face to face'. My work is Business Casual. Therefor I wear fitted slacks, a fitted white dress shirt, half-brogue or toe cap oxfords (never full brogue), and I pay attention to detail on leather matching colors... and the occasional tie (usually holidays). Meanwhile my co-worker wears polo shirts and cargo pants. We also have a relaxed friday. I do not change my appearance for this. Instead, since we contract with the military; I wear a custom fitted white shirt that has a red accent inside the collar and cuffs. This gives me more of a relaxed look without me looking like a slob

The mindset of "He must be new" will go away. Stay following the dress attire guidelines, nobody can make fun of you for being more professional and it most certainly will grab attention when they realize you still dress appropriately, even after you are no longer new.

Following your co-works should be done if they "out dress" you, not if they under dress. You want to be the one to move up in the company. Never lower your standards because someone else's standards are low.

Now, I should let you know I typically dress nice even off work. So, it wouldn't make sense for me to dress-down from my typical weekend/off-time attire now would it?

Sounds like whoever is in charge of policy is too lazy to make official changes to the policy. Either that or whoever is in charge of policy isn't there to see the office ignoring it.

  • +1 for apparently being the only person posting about this question that understands what is intended by the term "business casual" when used by people who know what it means (which one would assume if they use this term) when attempting to describe the appropriate dress attire. – Dunk Feb 7 at 19:35
  • +1 - great answer - this should definitely be closer to the top. And on that note, welcome to workplace SE! – osuka_ Feb 8 at 18:06
4

While I was reading your post, I anticipated you are working in software development. Thing is most tech companies provide more comfortable environment and even sometimes the working day starts an hour later than other departments or the companies have flexible working hours. As for attire, the companies understand that the developer should be relaxed enough so he/she can program things the right way. That is exactly why they tend to provide relaxing areas and let developers wear sweatshirts and jeans.

I would suggest to wear similar to other senior developers so you won't look like an outlier in the office. Also you shouldn't worry about the rules that much since you're an intern and in the eyes of company you are a temporary person that can achieve things or not, so you will be judged only by your performance. If your work is appreciated then no one cares about you slightly bending the rules.

3

what should one dress?

It seems your company doesn't enforce dress code. So the answer to this question is the age old:

"dress for the job you want, not the one you have"

Apparently they don't actually care about how you dress, or it would be enforced, but since there is a dress code that's a clear signal they do pay attention to it.

2

Does the company have a customer facing/phone answering department?

This rules usually apply more to the customer facing departments to be fare.

As I worked in the CS department I had to keep to a smart casual dresscode, as soon as I joined the app support team it changed to sweat pants and tshirt.

Talk to your manager and show your concerns, just tell him you don't want to "not fit in" but you also don't want to hamper your chances of staying there permanently by appearing too relaxed.

Try a middle ground, maybe some black jeans and a polo shirt. Comfortable, relaxed and still smart casual.

0

My office dresses like yours (although we don't even have a dress-code, at least not that I'm aware of). Our CEO officially does not wear a tie (and very few others do, unless visiting customers who are known for more up-scale clothing, i.e. banking sector); managers usually wear whatever (including formal business dresses, or the more sporty variants, or even (high-end, well-groomed, not abused) outdoor clothing in bad weather. Superman or Batman T-Shirts have been spotted in management meetings, though it's not the norm).

Wikipedia says that There is no generally agreed definition of "business casual".

One combination that is dead simple and fitting for most anything below the stricter business attires is:

  • Plain business trousers. Very dark gray or black; not jeans; but not striped either.
  • Non-white business shirt. No severe stripes, nor flashy colors; instead something like semi-gray, any tone of blue, or patterned in some not too garish or flashy style. Keep the top-most button open, feel free to grab a button-down collar.
  • Black non-ornamental leather shoes (for example, a classic Derby with no cap) with a fitting belt. If they are not over-polished, they will fit well in almost any context. Chances are, people who know nothing about shoes will not even know they're "good". People who do know about shoes will appreciate the understated good look. Oh, and they keep well over many years, and may be a much cheaper investment than buying new "cheap" shoes all the time.

That combo is both very clean and lets you walk into any customer meeting with no thought about being underdressed; as well as not too bad when everybody else runs around with T-Shirts. The key is the shirt, really; you can do a lot by avoiding the white look.

Also, depending on your climate, you can throw on any kind of coat that fits your surrounding.

My experience is that instead of trying to "downtone" such a look with "almost-business, but not quite" items (i.e., cheaper shoes which try to look like the real thing but don't) doesn't work for me. I would wear either something like those black Derbys, or my agressive neon-green mountain-running shoes. The latter are a statement, not a failed try to imitate anything, and this kind of stuff just works wonders (no, that's not a suggestion to buy those neon-green ones - you have to find what works for you).

The good point about this approach is that you only need to replace the non-white shirt with said white shirt, and the "whatever" coat with a business jacket to get to the strict business suit, cutting down on investment. You can even have your jacket permanently hanging in your office (if you have such a place to hang it easily).

0

The best thing would be just to ask your colleagues. Do any of them - i.e. the ones around your "rank" - obey the dress code? It would be better to get "both sides of the story" just in case.

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