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I recently got a new job, with a business casual dress code. They were great at outlining what clothes and shoes were appropriate, but then I got to wondering about other things.

I really like painting my nails. It's soothing, I have a bajillion colours, and it is a great way to be a little creative without going to crazy. As I was painting my nails tonight (a brilliant shiny blue) knowing I don't work all weekend, I started to think about colour choices.

Is there any sort of rule, implied or otherwise, about nail polish when you are rocking a business casual dress code? Should I stick to neutral or less in your face colours? Or is it kinda up to me?

  • It's best that you ask/consult the HR of your company. It's impossible for us to tell you what's acceptable and what's not without being exposed to your company's culture. For example, nails with garish colors might be totally acceptable if you work at a fashion magazine that appeals to a young, hip customer base but would not pass muster at a Swiss bank. And even within the same industry, the same country, employers may differ on the latitude they give you. And the same employer may have policies that vary from department to department, depending on whether it is say customer facing. – Vietnhi Phuvan Oct 25 '14 at 10:41
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    Business casual is definitely supposed to be a little bland and not so "in your face," so is stick with milder colors like a darker blue. Black can also definitely be taken the wrong way. I tend to keep my nail polish on until it's chipped away, but in the business world your nails should be either painted or not painted. Once they start to significantly break down, take the polish off (and possibly reapply). – raptortech97 Oct 25 '14 at 16:42
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Here's what I would suggest:

For the first week, wear neutral colours on your fingers and keep your toes covered. Observe carefully what others do around nail polish, whether they have the same job as you or not. You are likely to observe that technical women don't paint their nails at all, executive women have professional manicures in neutral tones that change once a week at most, and admin assistants have relatively bright colours that are considered normal for nails (so red, pink, copper, but not purple, neon green, black, or a different colour on every nail.) In an office environment you may not see any extended, jewelled, or multicoloured nails at all.

Once you've made your observations, you will be able to sort your nail choices into four buckets:

  • those that make you blend in with women who have the same job as you. Always a safe choice.
  • those that emulate women "above" you. Usually a good choice ("dress for the job you want") but may clash with the rest of your image or target you for teasing from your peers, like a male software developer who wears a three piece suit. Proceed with caution.
  • those that emulate women "below" you. If there's already an issue with people assuming you're not technical because you have long hair or wear a skirt, don't give them another visual clue to put you in the wrong bucket. It's unfair and wrong, but just don't do it.
  • those that are nothing like anyone else in the office ever wears. If you're fine with being the oddity, a "free spirit", and someone known for having odd nails, then go ahead with these. If you're looking to blend in, then steer clear.

A chef I know can never wear nail polish or fake nails at work, and must keep her real nails short. She celebrates even short sections of time off (say, 3 days) with nail work and the rest of the time accepts that she has to find another way to express herself.

  • The third is a hard reality. In the work place when it when it was effectively men only. Wearing nail polish, having anything but a short simple haircut, and short nails was considered "unprofessional" (exceptions apply) as things have improved for woman in the working world toward equality these became new issues employers had to tackle. Unacceptable was no longer appropriate in many cases... Some employers have very strict rules about cosmetics like nails, hair, and make up, others if it's not like REALLY extreme it's fine. You almost have to play it safe the first week to see what's okay. – RualStorge Oct 30 '14 at 21:36
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Nail polish isn't something I've had to worry about, but I'd say this as a general rule:

If they have actually spelled out what is appropriate, I would hazard that you need to reflect that in other things (like nails), it won't be "anything goes".

It's not obvious whether you've actually started the job yet. I would keep things toned down for the first few weeks until you've settled in, and take a look at what the others do (and look at what your supervisor does, dress for the job you want, not the one you have as they say).

Don't take a chance, you'd be surprised how a wrong choice can mark you out, maybe not by your boss, but by their boss, and that can be a long term problem.

-Update

To take some of the comments below, it's worth taking some time to see what others do before unleashing your look. Business casual is a wide ranging thing, can be t-shirts and combats, can just be tie-less.

I ran a team for an insurance company, business casual meant t-shirts EXCEPT a few days a month when VIPs would visit, so what was ok 3 weeks would be a major issue on week 4, so better to know the landscape first

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    And yes, the last person I advised to dress for the job they wanted ended up in a disciplinary hearing in a Batman costume but we won't go there... – The Wandering Dev Manager Oct 25 '14 at 6:55
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    Yes but you can still judge it. If a male co worker is wearing loud Hawaiian shirts, multi coloured nails are probably ok, if everyone is in khaki chinos and open neck business shirts, probably not a good idea and so on. – The Wandering Dev Manager Oct 25 '14 at 17:07
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    I've seen business casual where Dead Kennedy t-shirts and baseball boots were ok, others where it was "take your tie off, it's dress down Friday!" – The Wandering Dev Manager Oct 25 '14 at 17:10
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    It all depends on how far you are from clients/customers. The closer the more formal, but if you spend most of your time in a server room, you can get away with more – The Wandering Dev Manager Oct 25 '14 at 17:15
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    yup, even had a job where they said during the interviews "we are a casual company" and all that meant was that you were allowed to take the jacket from your 3 piece suit off when sitting down (not joking). – jwenting Oct 27 '14 at 12:57

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