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5 Common and Very Avoidable ‘Business Casual’ Mistakes

guy in sneakers working at desk
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Business casual: the dress code that makes you happy you don’t have to wear a tie or pantyhose, but otherwise confuses the khaki out of you.

Whether it’s your first job, a new company, or you just aren’t sure what’s best at the office you’ve worked for years, “business casual” is a phrase that means different things to different people in different offices and can really affect your standing with management and clients.

Even if your company’s overall dress policy is business casual, or you have casual Fridays, that doesn’t give you license to show up looking like you just got out of bed for your Lit 101 class. There are a lot of common business casual pitfalls that await you in the workplace, but they’re all very avoidable.

Of course, the biggest mistake you can make when it comes to your company’s business casual policy is to not know what it is. Most often, when an organization calls for business casual, they only mean a step down from formal business attire. Make sure you read your employee handbook and have a firm idea of what is and isn’t acceptable to wear to work. And if you have questions, ask someone. Don’t let it turn into something that becomes a disciplinary issue.

But you should be dressing beyond the dress code. If you dress better, you’ll do better work and you’ll stand out more on your team. Business casual doesn’t have to be confusing or cost you promotions, sales or pay raises—as long as you don’t make these five basic mistakes:

No Business, All Casual

There are two words in the phrase “business casual.” What you need to remember is that you should focus on the “business” part of your wardrobe more than the “casual” part. Casual work clothes are not the same as casual social clothes. The things you wear when you’re out with your friends are most likely not the things you should wear to your job.

For example, if your company allows you to wear jeans—which many don’t, except on special casual days—you still have to choose the right kind of jeans. The jeans you wear to work shouldn’t have rips or holes, they shouldn’t be faded or worn (especially in awkward places), and they shouldn’t be jeans you picked up off your floor or from the bottom of the hamper. You should stick to clean, dark jeans that look dressier than the casual jeans you wear at home. And if you’re wearing jeans, you still need to leave the T-shirt at home. Wearing T-shirts with logos (other than your company’s) or wacky messages is a very common business casual mistake.

Day Job but Night Club

Another business casual trap a lot of people fall into is dressing too sexy for work. Women seem to struggle with this more than men, but the rule applies to all. There are only a few jobs where dressing with sex appeal in mind is actually helpful, and you probably don’t have one. Ladies, you shouldn’t be wearing mini skirts or blouses that show a lot of cleavage. You don’t have to show up to work looking like a nun, but you should keep on the conservative side of the line. Watch the hemlines of your skirts and necklines of your blouses.

Men need to watch their necklines, too. Showing off chest hair isn’t the way to make an impression at work. And both men and women need to make sure their business casual work clothes aren’t too tight. The workplace is not the proper arena for showing off how toned you are. Dressing too sexy at work sends absolutely the wrong message. You want to be respected for your contributions, not your ability to pose for a calendar.

Slob With a Job

A very easy business casual mistake for anyone is to show up to work looking sloppy. Just because you’re allowed to wear jeans on a Friday doesn’t mean those jeans should be wrinkled and/or stained. If you want to be someone who’s considered an asset to the organization, you need to dress like you care about how you look and how the company looks. You also need to show that you can pay attention to details. Wear a belt and make sure it matches. Add some jewelry, but nothing showy or distracting. Iron your clothes. If you look like you’ve been sleeping, your boss will assume that’s what you do on the job.

Right Desk, Wrong Shoes

They’re down by the floor, but don’t be fooled into thinking no one notices your shoes. Shoes are a big part of dressing appropriately for work, and they are often something that trip people up when trying to abide by a business casual dress code. First of all, leave the old, worn (and probably super-comfy) shoes at home. If your loafers have turned to peep-toes, they aren’t appropriate for work. Athletic shoes are not appropriate unless you’re a nurse or a delivery person. Even if it’s a jeans day, those cross-trainers aren’t work shoes.

On the other hand, stiletto heels don’t work for work either. (See our advice on dressing too sexy for work above.) Besides, working in stilettos is nearly impossible. Stick to a less showy, lower and wider heel. And, finally, if you’re wearing flip-flops to work and your job doesn’t take place in a surf shack, you’re doing it wrong. Wearing flip-flops to work is not at all appropriate for men or women.

Taking a Grooming Vacation

Even if you work in a casual environment, that doesn’t mean you can take a break from good grooming. The primary violators of this rule are men and their facial hair, but it applies to both genders. Men, if you’ve got a beard or mustache, you don’t get to send your razor on vacation. If you aren’t a professional mountaineer, you need to keep your facial hair groomed. This goes for everyone. If you don’t take care of yourself, the people you work with aren’t going to have confidence that you can take care of clients or anything else you’re responsible for. If you look professional, everyone you work with will think you’re a professional and treat you that way.

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