Things you should never wear at work

The way we work is changing, which in turn means the way we dress for work is changing, too. Nowadays, statistically speaking, we're more likely to dress casually for work than ever before. Earlier this year, The Atlantic went all out declaring the end of the strict office dress code thanks, in large part, to Silicon Valley where the techies are frequently spotted in jeans-and-tee combos.

All this talk of dressing down for work can be confusing, particularly if you're still working a day job (while simultaneously trying to make your dreams come true), or even paying your dues on the way up in the corporate world. How casual is too casual? Will it ever be okay to rock up to the office in sneakers? And, in this world of high-end athleisure wear, dress jeans, and everything in between, is there anything that's totally off limits? According to the following experts, absolutely. 

Too much perfume

Smelling nice is an important part of being a good employee (and, er, human being in general). Nobody wants to be around someone 9-5 who reeks like they haven't showered in a week. And it certainly doesn't make for the easiest, or most productive, working environment. However, there is such a thing as overdoing it in trying too hard to smell good, or even out of fear of stinking the place up. We need to be careful not to be smelled before we're seen as this can be particularly off-putting in a work environment.

Bruce A. Hurwitz, executive recruiter and career counselor of Hurwitz Strategic Staffing, Ltd. advises to "never wear perfume" because it can be so distracting, both to co-workers and potential clients, especially in a corporate setting. Obviously, take this advice with a pinch of salt, as a hint of perfume is usually okay (unless you happen to work in a perfumeries, in which case don't wear your competitors' brand and you should be fine). 

Hurwitz elaborated, "You can't do your job if your colleagues, clients/customers, prospects and vendors literally are nauseated to be in your presence." Feel free to spritz your fave perfume on each morning, but if you're reapplying it multiple times throughout the day, it's likely you're suffocating everyone around you, too.

Flip-flops or sandals

Although more and more offices are instituting less strict dress codes than ever before, along with the usual Casual Fridays, there are still certain items of clothing that will never be considered acceptable for work. Open-toed shoes can be super cute, but flip flops or casual sandals (as opposed to heels) aren't going to give the right impression. That is, unless you work in a beach bar, in which case go right ahead.

As Brad Stulz, HR coordinator for Totally Promotional, explained, "Casual dress attire can still be appealing and professional if done correctly, but flip-flops and cut-off shorts may not set the 'take me seriously' tone that most employees should strive for." There are very few places flip-flops are considered appropriate, so this shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. 

Steve Pritchard, HR consultant for giffgaff, goes even further with his assessment. "One item I believe nobody should ever wear to work, regardless of how laid-back the culture is, is flip flops. Wearing flip flops or any other type of sandals to work shows a far too relaxed approach to the job and denotes a distinct lack of professionalism." Save them for your next holiday to the sun, but keep 'em out of the office.

Sloppy clothing

No office, regardless of how laid-back it is, will ever accept somebody showing up to work looking as though they just rolled out of bed. As author and entrepreneur Richie Frieman (whose self-help book Reply All… And Other Ways to Tank Your Career covered this topic at length) explained, "Even if it's a jeans and t-shirt environment, this doesn't give you the right to dress like a college kid during orientation." We should always aim to "dress with class [in a] clean, ironed shirt" to ensure our best foot is put forward.

Christina Austin, founder of ExecBrands LLC elaborated further, "One should avoid clothing that is ripped as well as items that have holes." It seems like common sense, but a casual dress code can be difficult to interpret. It may even imply less effort is required, but this is rarely going to be the case in a place of business. 

If you're ever unsure, Stulz advised, "Casual dress attire can still be appealing and professional if done correctly. A pair of good jeans, a t-shirt, and a blazer can set a professional, yet relaxed tone." So, relaxed is fine, but just rolled out of bed is not.

Tracksuits or workout gear

Workout clothing is so in right now, with more and more of us wearing our gym gear out and about to run errands, instead of solely while running on the treadmill at the gym. However, it's worth keeping in mind that there's still a level of professionalism expected at work and even the fanciest leggings likely won't cut it (unless you're stationed in Lululemon corporate HQ — maybe).

"Tracksuits are a no-go in the workplace, regardless of how informal the place may be. You're going to work, not the gym," Pritchard advised. As for footwear, keep in mind that "many workplaces still frown on their employees wearing sneakers." 

As tempting as it might be, comfort isn't everything and, although it might save you some time legging it to Pilates class at lunch, it's not worth annoying your superiors. Or making yourself out to be a slave to trends rather than a dedicated employee. 

Tight or revealing clothing

It can be tough, particularly in an office setting, to know where the line is. Arguably one of the most fashionable choices of office wear for women is a tight, form-fitting pencil skirt. However, there are some absolutes, and wearing anything too skimpy or revealing is still most definitely a no-no. "You never want to wear clothing that shows too much skin or distracts others," explains Brandi Britton, district president of staffing at Office Team.

If the weather is warmer, she suggests wearing layers as "you can take off a suit jacket or cardigan if it's warm and still have the option to put it on if you have an unexpected meeting with your boss." 

Austin agreed, saying, "Low-rise or low-cut clothing should be avoided in a professional environment." Again, it seems like common sense, but always bear in mind that showing a lot of skin, even in summertime, may give off the wrong impression about what kind of staff member you are.

More casual dress than your colleagues

The best and easiest way to figure out what's okay to wear in your job, regardless of what field or the kind of environment, is to refer to your colleagues' clothing. Pritchard suggests we "Iook around and see what the dress code is at the place you may be working" if ever unsure of how casual or strict the setting.

Monica Hickey, board member of Madison Magnet and director of Ideas That Evoke, goes further. "The important thing is that to many of your co-workers/superiors the way you dress is their impression of who you present yourself as," she said. So, if you're concerned or even looking to impress those above you, dress either "on the same level or slightly more formal than your direct supervisor." 

Even simpler, Michelle Petrazzuolo, founder and CEO of Level Up Prep, says to "dress for the culture of your firm" whatever that may be. So, if everyone is in a suit, it's probably best not to show up in a tracksuit. Easy. 

Distracting or dangling jewellery

Most of us will likely work service jobs at least once in our lives, and it's important to remember that if you're dealing with members of the public face to face, you need to be mindful of what's hanging off you. Hurwitz stated emphatically, "Don't wear dangling jewelry or anything sharp" in case something might get caught on a client, risking injury. This applies to hairdressers and makeup artists just as much as waitresses.

Britton suggests taking a simple approach to accessories in general, whether office-based or otherwise, because anything too out there can be distracting to colleagues and clients alike. The same rule applies across the board; you want to be known for your skills and good attitude, not for being the employee with the big earrings or a loud necklace. Humans are simple creatures. Often we can't focus on two things at once so make sure one of those isn't your massive accessory. 

Clothing that "rebels" against the dress code

Dress codes may seem cruel, they may even seem like a tool for The Man to stomp out your individuality, but in reality, dress codes exist and are implemented for a reason, particularly in an office environment. Do not flout the dress code. It will only make you feel stupid and embarrassed, rather than an empowered free spirit. 

Frieman is emphatic about not jeopardizing your career in service of your own personal style. "The corporate world is not your chance to 'push the envelope' or 'just be yourself'. Bottom line, you have to follow the rules, regardless of what you think of them." 

Just remember: you are still you in a uniform, in formal clothing, in workout gear, and completely naked, too. Your clothes do not define you and your bosses more than likely aren't trying to personally attack your awesome sense of style with a mandatory dress code. Rather, they're trying to keep everybody on equal footing and preserve the face of the company. As Frieman stated plainly, "If you have a problem with the dress code, don't work there." 

Times are changing, but some things never will

The workplace is changing rapidly. As Britton told me, "according to a Robert Half Finance and Accounting survey, 74 percent of CFOs said their accounting and finance employees have a somewhat or very casual dress code. Nearly one-quarter (23 percent) reported they've relaxed their attire guidelines over the last five years." These are some of the most formal working environments in the entire world and even they've acquiesced to less stringent guidelines for their employees. 

It can be challenging to know what's classified as casual, but a good rule of thumb is to always dress well. Ensure you're wearing clean clothing that is well put together overall and that you are well-groomed at all times. Many of the old rules about workplace attire are being torn to shreds, but that doesn't mean it's ever going to be acceptable to look sloppy or like you couldn't care less. If you're ever in doubt, check this list and make sure you're not considering anything on it. Then you (probably) can't go wrong.