Do’s and Don’ts for Dress in the Workplace, with 
Karla Miller

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Transcript

Mac Prichard:

Hi, this is Mac from Mac’s List. Before we start the show, I want to let you know about my new book, Land Your Dream Job Anywhere. I’ve been helping job seekers find meaningful, well-paying work since 2001, and now I’ve put all my best advice into one easy-to-use guide.

My book shows you how to make your resume stand out in a stack of applications, where you can find the hidden jobs that never get posted, and what you need to do to ace your next job interview. Get the first chapter now for free. Visit MacsList.org/anywhere.

This is Find Your Dream Job; the podcast that helps you get hired, have the career you want, and make a difference in life. I’m Mac Prichard, your host and publisher of Mac’s List. I’m joined by my co-hosts, Ben Forstag, Becky Thomas, and Jessica Black.

This week we’re talking about the dos and don’ts for dressing in the workplace.

Like it or not, how you dress affects your professional success. It’s especially important during a job search and in your career. Research shows that your appearance shapes how others judge both your intelligence and your suitability for a job or a promotion.

Our guest expert this week is Karla Miller. She’s the career advice columnist for The Washington Post Magazine.

Karla says dress and grooming still matter in the workplace, even in the age of business casual. And it’s the topic of some of the most popular questions she’s received. Karla and I talk later in the show.

Maternity leave is full time job. But what’s the best way to describe it on your LinkedIn profile or your online resume? Ben has found a website that offers a new way to talk about maternity leave. It also offers valuable information for parents and employers. He tells us more shortly.

How can a recent college graduate best describe limited professional experience? That’s our listener question of the week. It comes from Amber Tyus in Chicago, Illinois. Becky shares her advice in moment.

As always, let’s check in first with the Mac’s List team.

Now our topic this week is dress in the workplace, and I’d love to hear from you all. What’s the biggest fashion faux pas you’ve seen so far in your careers, either during a job interview or at work? Who would like to go first? Who wants to be our fashionista this week?

Ben Forstag:

Okay, I’ll go first. So the biggest faux pas I’ve seen in work…a couple of years ago the organization I was working with hosted an event and one of my colleagues came came down for the breakfast at the event, where a bunch of people in business suits were meeting and having continental breakfast in the hotel lobby. She came down wearing her pajama bottoms and like a pajama top, and everyone was looking at her, and she was kind of oblivious to the fact that this was not appropriate. So that was odd. I won’t let myself get off the hook though. I actually, when I was much younger, and stupider, went to an interview in flip flops. So.

Mac Prichard:

Wow, I want to hear more about that.

Ben Forstag: 

Well, it was for the YMCA; it was for a front desk job at the Y. But still, I showed up in flip flops. They offered me the job, but then the hiring manager said, “Just so you know, we only let you wear closed toed shoes if you work here.”

Mac Prichard: 

Okay, so were you thinking you needed to come in camp costume, or was it just summer and you were eighteen?

Ben Forstag:

Yeah, I would say it was eighteen. I wasn’t thinking.

Mac Prichard:

Okay. That’s a good one.

Jessica Black: 

Yeah, mine is kind of along the same lines. I can’t think of anything too outrageous, but just seeing a couple people come to interview at various nonprofits I used to work for, very casually, and just not looking the part. I’m not even that sort of…I don’t want to say snooty, but like I don’t have that high of expectations for people you know, because I give a pass for a lot of folks. But there were some people who weren’t quite in flip flops, but pretty close. And somebody actually wore cut off jeans once. Jean shorts.

Mac Prichard:

 At a job interview?

Jessica Black:

Yeah. Those little things like that that are just not appropriate.

Mac Prichard: 

Okay, for me that’s not a little thing.

Jessica Black:

No that’s a big thing. Obviously they didn’t get the job, but bless their hearts, hopefully they know better now

Mac Prichard:

Yeah.

Jessica Black:

Yeah.

Mac Prichard: 

What about you, Becky?

Becky Thomas:

It’s interesting, I’ve worked in workplaces that vary a lot depending on the dress code, or no dress code; very casual, up to like very formal sort of corporate environments. I remember one of my first marketing jobs, it was in a very corporate space, and we were sort of testing the idea of letting people wear jeans to work. I had to find some stock photos of, “What’s a professional jeans outfit?” Because there was so much concern about, “People are going to wear holy jeans, and baggy jeans” and jeans that just weren’t professional. It’s interesting that people don’t necessarily see how they look or how they’re coming off. I think it’s about self awareness.

Jessica Black: 

Definitely.

Becky Thomas:

That fitting in piece. But yeah, I don’t know, interesting stuff.

Jessica Black:

But also isn’t it nice that they feel so comfortable in their skin that they don’t care what other people think? 

Becky Thomas: 

Yeah, but you have to know how people are seeing you. I know you’re playing devil’s advocate.

Jessica Black: 

A little bit, I’m just…isn’t that nice? But also you need to know, especially, yes, in this scenario, for sure.

Mac Prichard: 

Yeah, I would agree, I think personal style is important, and you want to make choices that you’re comfortable with. I think you touched on this as well, Jessica, I think you need to know where you want to work, and what the culture is, and you need to pay attention to the rules that the culture of that particular organization have set out.

Jessica Black:

Yeah.

Mac Prichard:

Yeah. So my favorite, and I may have mentioned this on an earlier show. The cyclist who came to meet me for an informational interview wearing spandex, and it was sweaty spandex. He actually had the bike shoes on with the toe clips. I think he just loved cycling and it didn’t occur to him that he probably shouldn’t sit down all sweaty in a chair. And I felt like I was being sort of squeezed in during his preparation for a triathlon.

Jessica Black:

Right.

Becky Thomas:

So did he mention it? Was he like, “I’m so sorry, I’m wearing my bike clothes”, or was he just like, “This is me.”

Mac Prichard:

This is me.

Becky Thomas: 

Wow. 

Mac Prichard:

So you know, as Jessica said, “Bless his heart”. It definitely stood out and I’m remembering him almost ten years later but not for all the right reasons.

Jessica Black:

Right, and it’s very distracting when you’re trying to have a conversation. To be able to focus on the task at hand when you’re kind of wondering how long he biked? And what the smell is? Those types of things. Yeah.

Mac Prichard:

Yeah. Well okay, I know we’ll talk more with Karla about this because these are some of the questions that she gets in her column at the The Washington Post Magazineand it’s among her most popular topics.

But Ben, let’s turn to you first, because you’re out there every week, poking around the internet, looking for things our listeners can use. What have you uncovered for us this week?

Ben Forstag:

So this week I want to talk about a resource, called The Pregnancy Pause, and a hat tip to Jen Barth, who is one of our work friends over here at Mac’s List. She’s the one who turned me onto this.

Many women take time off when they’re pregnant or to take care of their young children, and getting back into the workforce after you’ve taken time off for childcare is a challenge for a lot of people. Part of the problem is, very unfairly, employers see that time off with children is almost like a vacation. It’s like you’re not working, not doing anything professional, so you were just kind of lounging around taking care of an infant. Anyone who’s spent any time around an infant or young children knows that it’s not a vacation; it’s probably the toughest job you’ve ever had.

So The Pregnancy Pause is this interesting project that’s being spearheaded by a marketing firm in New York, and their idea is that because maternity leave is a full time job, it’s time to create an official title, and “company” for motherhood. So the concept is really simple here. Under the experience section of your resume on LinkedIn, or just your resume in general, moms can include the time they spent raising children citing The Pregnancy Pause as their employer. On LinkedIn, The Pregnancy Pause is listed as a company and it’s got over one hundred thousand people working for it.

Jessica Black:

Wow, that’s cool.

Ben Forstag:

Yeah, obviously this is not like a real company with a corporate headquarters or anything, but it’s a group of people who have taken time to raise the next generation of human beings which is a great service for all of us. So prospective employers who look on your LinkedIn profile, and see The Pregnancy Pause, if they click that company, that goes to a website that’s all about the benefits and the struggles of women who take time off to raise children, and why it’s worthwhile for employers to go out and hire these folks and not see pregnancy and time off for childcare as being some awful impediment to their careers. There’s even a reference phone number so if an employer wants to call this “company” they get information that way as well.

I thought it was a really clever way to talk about and frame the whole experience around maternity leave. More information is available at thepregnancypause.org. Or if you just go on LinkedIn, and type in pregnancy pause, it will pop up there. A really cool resource.

Jessica Black:

That’s excellent, I really like that.

Mac Prichard:

Yeah, I like that idea too. Kudos again to Jen Barth for suggesting that.

If you’ve got a suggestion of your own for Ben, you can write him, his email address is easy to remember. It’s ben@macslist.org. We’d love to hear from you and share your idea on the show.

Now let’s turn to you, our listeners because Becky is here to answer one of your questions. What’s in the Mac’s List mailbag this week, Becky?

Becky Thomas:

Today’s listener question comes from Amber Tyus. She’s a recent college grad in Chicago, Ill. Amber emailed us to ask about prepping her resume as she transitions into the workforce. So she says:

“I just recently discovered Mac’s List and the podcasts, but I noticed I didn’t see anything to talk about recent graduates who write resumes. I recently graduated from U of I Chicago, and I worked all through school, so I did not get to do any internships. I find that in many of the podcasts, we are told to quantify what we did at work, but how does someone who is a recent graduate with limited experience who worked retail quantify their experiences?

Likewise if we worked at a desk in a residence hall at school and did minor admin work, how can we quantify those experiences in a way that will reflect that we are qualified for a position. I’d appreciate any help I can get! Best, Amber.”

Well first off all, thanks Amber, for sending us a question and congrats on your graduation, that’s awesome. I think the first advice I would give Amber is to not downplay that work experience that it sounds like she has from her email.

It sounds like she’s done retail work as well as admin work at the front desk of her residence hall. That’s all valuable. I think that a lot of times folks who are coming out of college are thinking very structured, and I think that for Amber it’s going to be really helpful to think through the skills that you gained in those positions.

So think about that retail work that you did, that translates to valuable soft skills. That’s really highly valued in today’s workplace, as far as sales and communication. All these things are skills that you gained in your work.

And that admin work that you did translates to organization skills, customer service, problem solving. Employers value this real world experience. So one piece of advice I would tell Amber to consider is to format your resume in a skills based resume. So starting with the skills that you gained in those experiences, really fleshing those out in your resume first so that employers will see what you are able to do. Then listing that experience second. I think it’s going to be a good tactic for you to format your resume.

Do you guys have any other thoughts?

Jessica Black:

Yeah, a lot of what you said is what I was going to say as well. I think that those are really important to highlight the skills that you gained. Because it’s easy to downplay, “I didn’t do anything. I didn’t quantify.” I think she’s focused more on the, “I don’t have anything to quantify. I didn’t improve sales by x amount of percent.” You know, whatever it is that I think a lot of people get stuck on that is expected of them.

But I think that finding those places where you did go above and beyond, even if it’s not improving sales, or whatever it is. There’s probably something that you can pull out of your experience there that you, maybe improved upon, you made something more efficient. Or even something that went outside of your duties. Finding something that was you going above and beyond and that a prospective employer would be really excited to hear, that you’ve done. So kind of that same thing of the soft skills that you’ve learned and gained but also some of the things that you were able to do in that job that will translate to other positions.

Ben Forstag:

 I think it’s really commendable that you worked four years through university, and even if, “even if this was retail work, or working at the front desk of the residence hall,” I think that counts and I think employers, if they read between the lines a little bit are going to be impressed that you weren’t just floating through university, taking a couple classes and partying all night. That you were managing multiple responsibilities, which clearly speaks to an ability to manage your time, manage your resources and so forth. 

Jessica Black:

And take initiative to do that.

Ben Forstag:

And take initiative to do that, and if you need to quantify that, I mean, here’s one big way to quantify it. “I worked four years through university.” That says something.

Mac Prichard:

Yeah I think employers value the soft skills that you talked about, Jessica and Becky. Your point is spot on, Ben, about being able to go to school full time, graduate within four years, when many people need for good reasons, five years to accomplish it.

The other thing I would add is in my other business, Prichard Communications, I was hiring an account manager for a project and I was looking for someone with five or six years of experience. I asked the client as I began to look at resumes, “What should I look for?” Did she have any particular skill or experience she wanted to me to keep an out for, and she said this, “Look for somebody who’s worked in the restaurant business, because somebody who’s been a server knows how to juggle multiple priorities, work well under pressure, and is good at service, and pays attention to what people will need.”

Jessica Black: 

And willing to get in and do the work necessary, get their hands dirty metaphorically and in actuality.

Mac Prichard:

 Yeah, exactly. And what she didn’t say was, “Look for somebody who did an intership at this organization, or went to this selective university, or had this GPA.” And those are all certainly factors in any hiring decision but that was the one thing that she brought to the top of the list and so I think, Amber, your experience in retail is going to serve you well as employers begin to look at your resume.

Becky Thomas:

Yeah totally. I think that employers are recognizing when people are scrappy and when they’re just able to get in there and do the work as you said. I think Amber is going to be just fine.

Jessica Black:

Yes and I agree, and also I want to reiterate what you said at the beginning, not to downplay the experiences that you’ve had.

Becky Thomas:

Yeah, flesh them out.

Jessica Black:

Yeah. Because it’s not “just an admin job or a retail job”, you actually did some great things there and you have some good skills to use, so good luck.

Mac Prichard:

I think everybody around this table has had one or more service jobs.

Jessica Black:

Oh yeah, for sure.

Mac Prichard:

Well thank you, Amber. We all appreciate you sending in that question and thank you, Becky. If you’ve got a question for Becky, send her an email. Her email address is easy to remember as well; it’s becky@macslist.org. You can also call our listener line at 716-JOB-TALK. Or tweet us; Becky manages all of our social account, and is paying attention to Twitter everyday. Our twitter handle is @macs_list.

If we use your question on the show, we’ll send you a copy of Land Your Dream Job Anywhere. We’ll be dropping Amber’s mail in the copy this week.

We’ll be back in a moment. When we return, I’ll talk with this week’s guest expert, Karla Miller about do’s and don’ts for dress in the workplace.

Most people struggle with job hunting. The reason is simple; most of us learns the nuts and bolts of looking for work by trial and error. That’s why I produce this podcast, to help you master the skills you need to find a great job. It’s also why I wrote my new book, Land Your Dream Job Anywhere. For fifteen years at Mac’s List, I’ve helped people in Portland, Oregon find meaningful, well-paying, and rewarding jobs that they love. Now I’ve put all of my job hunting secrets in one book that can help you no matter where you live.

You’ll learn how to get clear about your career goals, find hidden jobs that never get posted, and ace your next job interview. For more information, and to download the first chapter for free, visit MacsList.org/anywhere.

Now let’s turn to this week’s guest expert, Karla Miller.

Since 2011, Karla Miller has offered advice on workplace dramas and traumas as the @Work Advice columnist for The Washington Post Magazine. Billing herself as “the smart-aleck down the hall,” Karla tackles questions on annoying officemates, bullying bosses, and getting by in today’s job market.

Karla also works full time at an accounting firm in Washington, DC. And she volunteers as a wife and mother.

She joins us today from Northern Virginia. Karla, thanks for coming on the show.

Karla Miller:

Thanks so much for having me, Mac.

Mac Prichard:

Yeah, it’s a pleasure. Now Karla, our topic this week is dress in the workplace, and I know this is a popular subject for the questions you get in your column. Why does dress in this age of business casual still matter in a career or a job search?

Karla Miller:

The problem is that we used to have stricter rules about how you dressed. You had your church clothes, or you had your uniform for work, and some jobs still have that and they’re very clear about what exactly they expect you to wear. But now offices are trying to be, I guess, a little less formal, a little more family like, a little friendlier. So they say, “Oh you know, you don’t have to be too formal. You don’t have to do the white collar suit, just business casual.” And trying to make it a more relaxed place to be so that people feel more comfortable and they perform better. In some cases it’s jeans and t shirts. The problem with that is when you don’t have really clear guidelines about what you mean by business casual, or “we’re an informal environment,” you can get all sorts of extremes in how people dress and present themselves. There are all kinds of ways to get into trouble without realizing it.

Mac Prichard:

So guidelines matter. Do you find in the people you hear from in your column that they struggle with figuring out how to determine what the guidelines are?

Karla Miller: 

More often I hear from people who are struggling with other people’s interpretations of the guidelines.

Mac Prichard:

What kind of examples come to mind, Karla?

Karla Miller:

Oh, well for example, someone who says, “I work with these younger workers who I can see the bra straps showing or the collar is cut too low on a woman, or her skirt’s too high and this really bothers me.” Or, the guys will be wearing a t shirt that doesn’t look quite up to snuff instead of a nice, collared shirt. It’s more the people who are used to a different standard and are seeing people who are not adhering to those standards. They’re kind of thrown by it, and they’re concerned about the impact it’s going to have on client interactions, for example.

Mac Prichard:

And so are these peers of the people who are writing in with these concerns, or are they managers or is it a mixture?

Karla Miller:

Generally they are senior workers to the people in question. They might be managing them directly or they don’t manage them directly but they have to work on a team with them. So they’re in sort of a mentorship role but not officially above them in the office hierarchy so it’s a question whether they have standing to say anything about what they’ve observed and what they think the other worker should be wearing.

Mac Prichard:

Well let’s talk about, you mentioned earlier about knowing what the guidelines are, how do you figure that out, Karla. How do you know if the way you dress matters both to your career or to the company that employs you? Because ultimately I think that’s why you would pay attention to the guidelines, wouldn’t it be?

Karla Miller:

Theoretically yes, that’s what you should be doing. The first place you should start is your employer’s dress code. A well written dress code will explain what’s the environment here, what are we going for, what items are specifically not appropriate; for example, spaghetti straps, or shorts, or open toed shoes. Anything like that, and if it’s that explicit about it, stick with those guidelines.

But if you don’t have anything that specific in your dress code, the next thing you need to do is take a look at the people around you, specifically the people who are maybe a level or two above you. The people in the positions that you’d like to be in. Take a look at how they dress. Is it super casual like weekend barbeque? Or are they really well put together. Do they kick it up a notch when they have a client meeting? Is it business formal for client meetings or is it even more relaxed when you’re with clients?

So take your cues from them, see how they dress, and if that’s the person you envision yourself being in a few years, try to sort of follow in their footsteps. But that doesn’t mean you have to adhere to a strict code that makes you feel like you’re not yourself either. I mean once you get those baseline rules in place, then you can add a touch of your own flare, something that makes you comfortable, makes you feel like you.

Mac Prichard:

As you talk I’m reminded of that old advice ‘dress for the job you’d like to have”, and it sounds very similar.

Karla Miller:

And then there’s the meme that ‘I dressed for the job I wanted, and now I’m sitting in a disciplinary meeting dressed as Wonder Woman.’

Mac Prichard:

That’s a good one.

Karla Miller:

So you know, take that advice with a grain of salt, apply a little bit of logic to it.

Mac Prichard:

Okay, well let’s talk about job interviews. As you know, many of our listeners are either thinking about looking for work, or actually doing a search. They probably don’t have access to an employer’s dress code. How should people prepare for job interviews? What should they think about when they’re dressing and getting ready for that meeting?

Karla Miller:

Something I would advise for interviews and really for any situation where how you present yourself matters…imagine you’re a casting director or a show or a movie. You say, “If I had a character in this role of a person coming in to fit this job” that you are interviewing for, “how would that person look? What would that person look like?” If I were trying to pick just sort of a typical straight out central casting character, what would the wardrobe be like? How would they be groomed? What kind of shoes would they be wearing? What kind of accessories might they have on?

If you think of it from that angle you get less tangled up in the, “Yeah but I have to express myself. What really looks like me?” Step outside of that and think of yourself in a role, and then dress to meet that role. I think in most cases, for an interview, that means airing on the formal side, on the conservative side. Not jeans, not necessarily a full on formal suit, but definitely jacket, neat slacks, any accessories you have should be just impeccable. Your shoes are polished, your glasses are clean, your briefcase doesn’t have any snags or tears in it.

Mac Prichard:

And how do you research that? I mean I love the idea of visualizing being a casting director and dressing for the part, but is there a way that you can research what that company is like, or what you should consider besides that mindset?

Karla Miller: 

I’d recommend starting with the company’s website. A stodgy law firm has a very different feel from a tech startup, and even in that extense to their website, how they sort of market themselves there. Pay attention to the language they use in describing their environment. But you can probably take a stab at how formal it’s going to be based on the kind of job you’re going for. I mean from the start there, it’s stodgy law firm versus casual tech startup, and what end of the formality spectrum you’re going to be on. Take a look at their website, maybe go on LinkedIn, find some people, sort of lurk and stalk some people who belong to that company,and see how they look in their pictures. Do they all have really nice formal corporate headshots or is it more casual, “Hey here’s a picture of me canoeing on a lake.” That might sort of give you clues as to what kind of attitude they have and what they might expect from applicants.

But even then I would take it up a notch from what you’re seeing there because you want to make a good impression and look like you really want this job, you really want to be there, and you’re trying to impress them.

Mac Prichard:

What about older job seekers, Karla? Especially baby boomers in their fifties and sixties, who worry about age discrimination? Do you recommend a more casual style for job interviews for boomers?

Karla Miller: 

That’s a tricky one.

Mac Prichard:

It is, isn’t it?

Karla Miller:

Yeah, I would say that if you’ve kept up with trends, that might be helpful. Maybe don’t go for the full, what I would call, “church clothes.” The full dress suit, or if you’re a woman, the dress suit with skirt, flowery bits and a brooch, and a scarf and a hat. Take a look again at the website, and some LinkedIn profiles, and think about taking it down a notch, from full on formal to dressy but relaxed.

For example, neutral color in slacks, and a colored blazer; sort of a simple shape, simple outline, but not a lot of fancy frills or colors in it, just simple color blocks. Neutral shoes, neutral pants, maybe a pop of color in a scarf or a brooch. Just keep it kind of understated because you want the focus to be on you. Nothing to distract from you.

Mac Prichard:

Now let’s switch generations and talk about millennials for people who might be starting out in their career or are early in their career. What advice do you have for them, both in dressing for job interviews and for the workplace?

Karla Miller: 

Well for job interviews, I mean I’m not a fashion guru by any means but I recommend that new workers check out our new grad guide that the Washington Post published back in May, specifically an article by Robin Givhan who is the Post’s fashion expert, and she talks about how to build a wardrobe without spending lots of money. How to put together a good classic work wardrobe that works for interviews and works for the workplace without it being too trendy or again, distracting, because it’s got these features that aren’t really work appropriate. So for the interview, I’d stick with the most formal thing you have. Definitely wear a jacket, but still something that’s comfortable. For the job, the day-to-day job, once you’ve landed the job, again, pay attention to the dress code, pay attention to what people above you are wearing, err on the side of conservative.

Because especially young women, what we wear, what we’re comfortable in, in our casual lives, and what is marketed to us in retail stores, it doesn’t even necessarily go with a casual workplace.

Mac Prichard:

Well let’s talk more about women in the workplace, and in job interviews. Are they held to a different standard, Karla, when it comes to dress?

Karla Miller: 

Well it’s…and I want to preface this by saying that you’re not responsible for what goes through anybody’s head. When they see how you’re dressed, people see different tastes and different standards, and it is not your responsibility to monitor that at all times. So I just want to state that up front.

That said, again, if you’re thinking of yourself as inhabiting a role, there’s a certain look to a professional woman that is a little more buttoned down than what is being marketed to us in stores. I say us, of course including myself as a young woman as well.

But things like, very loose, flimsy shirts; spaghetti straps; very low cut tops; things that fit tightly to emphasize certain assets that are not necessarily what you want to be emphasizing at work. These are all things that you find at clothing stores, and the nice sales people on commision are going to be very helpful. But they don’t necessarily know what’s appropriate for your workplace, and there’s a lot of trial and error. There’s a lot of trying things and having to get them fitted or tailored to make sure that they work.

As far as a different standard for women, I mean, men have it somewhat easier in this respect, that there’s usually sort of a uniform for guys in a workplace. It could be polo shirt and khakis, or maybe it’s a buttoned down shirt and dress slacks, all the way up to tie and jacket. But it’s pretty straightforward and there’s not a lot of room for error. With women, there’s a broader spectrum of what’s considered formal and appropriate. Women’s formal dresses can be sleeveless; they can be sleeveless, they can be straps, they can expose the shoulders and arms, and so we’re used to women in that kind of formal wear. But when it’s workplace formal wear, some people are put off by exposed arms, exposed shoulders.

It’s tricky, I mean, it can either be perfectly acceptable, or it can be shocking depending on what kind of workplace you’re in. There’s so many ways to get it wrong, and there’s such a narrow path that you have a narrow tightrope that you have to walk as a woman between you don’t want to be accused of dressing like a man, but you also don’t want to be accused of looking like you’re flaunting your body at work, and it’s really hard to walk that narrow path.

Mac Prichard:

Well, we’ve got just a few minutes left, Karla, and I know we want to touch on a couple of the most popular columns you’ve had. These are questions you’ve gotten from readers that have prompted a lot of interest. Let’s go through that list quickly. First let’s talk about tattoos. What kinds of questions do you get, Karla, from readers, about tattoos, and what rules should people keep in mind?

Karla Miller:

Well this is a pretty perennial topic, in workplace advice columns. Tattoos, and you know, they become more popular, more mainstream. A lot of people have tattoos that you wouldn’t have expected to before. Some people are carrying notions of what tattoos signify based on their earlier life experiences. Whereas the next generation doesn’t see it as really a big deal, I would say again, with this air on the side of formality unless you know what kind of workplace you’re going into.

I had a column where I had a older worker who had a younger coworker who was very talented, very competent, you know came in and blew everybody away in the interview, did a great job. But then after she started working there, started dressing more casually, and revealed that she had tattoos, you know full body, down to her wrists, and under her ankles, and across her chest, and the person writing me was concerned because they had client meetings coming up and these were with pretty formal military background clients. She was struggling with how to explain to her younger coworker that, “Hey you really need to button it down for these meetings.” And she was concerned that other workers were not viewing the tattoo worker, Lydia, I called her, were not viewing with Lydia with maybe the respect that she deserved because of her tattoos.

Mac Prichard:

And what advice did you give Lydia?

Karla Miller:

 Well I couldn’t advise Lydia, but advising her colleague, I said, “Well she clearly knew enough to dress up for the interview and to conceal her tattoos for that. Somebody, if you’re not in a position to do it, then her managers needs to just explain and actually it should be a company wide policy, “Hey guys, we dress in business formal for client meetings and that means covering any tattoos, removing any extra piercings you may have other than earlobes,” and apply it sort of across the board so that it’s clearly not targeting just one person but make clear what those expectations are for client meetings.

And as for the workplace, I don’t know how to get people to get on board with something that’s become mostly mainstream, but I also assume that Lydia knows what her tattoos look like. She likes them, they’re an extension of herself, and so she’s sort of aware that they may be causing a bit of a stir but she’s also aware that she needs to perform her best so that people overlook that, and focus on, her body of work, not the work on her body.

Mac Prichard:

And another topic I know you get a lot of questions on, are sense and smells. What advice do you have for best practices when it comes to perfume, Karla? And aftershave.

Karla Miller:

 Smells are one of the big ones. Smells and noises are two of the biggest workplace issues, especially in smaller, open workspaces. People are sort of on top of each other. When it comes to yourself, the goal I think, is to smell as neutral as possible. Maintain a certain standard of hygiene but don’t over do it with scented lotions, deodorants, hairsprays. I would just not wear perfume at all, honestly.

Anything that’s billed as a scent, you know, a body spray, men’s body spray, or perfume, or cologne. I would just leave that at home because nine times out of ten, the products you use normally to shampoo and shower are really all you’re going to need to keep you smelling neutral, without overpowering people around you.

Mac Prichard:

Great. Well terrific, Karla, now tell us, what’s next for you?

Karla Miller:

Well my column comes out every week in the Washington Post Magazine, and it’s also on washingtonpost.com. I actually have a column coming up on this topic, on dress codes being unevenly enforced, and that will be appearing in the June 18th magazine, so it’ll come out the Thursday before that.

Mac Prichard:

Well great, well I know people can find your column by visiting washingtonpost.com/workadvice, and you’re also on Twitter. Your Twitter handle is @karlaatwork, and the website for the Washington Post Magazine, is www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/magazine/

Karla, thanks for being on the show today.

Karla Miller:

Thank you so much Mac. I really appreciate it.

Mac Prichard:

Yeah, you’re welcome, it’s been a pleasure.

Alright, we’re back in the studio with Becky, Jessica, and Ben. So what are some of your take always from my conversation with Karla?

Becky Thomas:

I thought it was great. It was funny when she was talking about the differences between men and women and how men have just a few choices. I look around the room and Ben and Mac are in their uniform of like, button down shirt, nice pants, every single day.

Mac Prichard:

No, she nailed us. She had me down.

Becky Thomas: 

Yeah, totally. But it is, it’s something that I think about as far as like, you get dressed for work everyday and you have a lot of options.

Jessica Black:

Yeah, I felt the same way when she was talking about women’s choices in clothing and what is being sold to you in the stores is not necessarily always appropriate. I think for me, the clothes that are traditionally work appropriate, or sort of the business casual style, are much more expensive. So if you have a budget or you’re not able to spend that much, your choices are a lot more limited, or you have to be much more creative or understand how to get around that. Which I thought was interesting, but I liked that conversation of the male versus the female.

Becky Thomas:

Yeah, I really liked what she said about, you’re not responsible for what other people think about your appearance, you can’t control what’s going on in someone else’s head and I think especially for women, we’re thinking about that all the time, “How are men viewing me at work?”

Jessica Black:

Well, because we have comments on our appearance all the time. It’s not that it’s unprecedented. This isn’t coming from nowhere, that we have these thoughts about this. You’re commented on if you’re not dressed buttoned up enough, you’re commented on if you’re buttoned down too much, or all of those things. You’re kind of always being scrutinized.

Becky Thomas:

You can’t win. 

Jessica Black:

You can’t win, and again, men don’t get that, partly because they have a very clear uniform, of “here’s what you wear. The end.” But I know a lot of men who can wear t-shirts, with you know, writing on them, and that’s still acceptable for casual workplaces. You know?

Mac Prichard:

Ben, your thoughts?

Jessica Black:

After that heated conversation, please follow me and Becky.

Mac Prichard:

That’s how I deflect.

Ben Forstag:

No I mean, I agree.

Jessica Black:

Be careful what you say now.

Ben Forstag:

I agree, we have it easy, and I’ll admit I pretty much wear the same uniform on the weekends as I do at the workplace.

Mac Prichard:

Yeah, there’s not much change for me. I’ll put on blue jeans.

Ben Forstag:

Yeah, that’s a reflection both of our internal culture here, but also kind of what I wear. So I agree that it whole lot easier for men.

I liked her point about odors too, and like minimizing the amount of additional, superfluous odors that you apply to yourself. And I understand why people do that, but I’ve found more and more increasingly people are sensitive to smell. Any perfumes or aftershaves, things like that, they generate more negative comments than kind of positives.

Mac Prichard:

Yeah we talk a lot about job hunting, here, but also about career management. I can recall from my days in state government when I worked on a floor of cubicles, big disagreements would break out about scent, and she mentioned in passing, noise as well. When you’re right to somebody in a cubicle, those things can be…become very important in your business day. When you’re interviewing for a job, you want to minimize the distractions as much as possible. You don’t want to be rejected because of scent or grooming, or dress. You want to focus on the employer and what you can do for them and your accomplishments. So it’s equally important in a job search.

Jessica Black:

Yeah, agreed.

Mac Prichard:

Good, well thank you all, and thank you, Karla, for joining us this week, and thank you, our listeners for downloading today’s episode of Find Your Dream Job.

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Until next time, thanks for letting us help you find your dream job!

Business casual means dressing for business, but in a casual way. Wait, is that a trick question? Clothing choices in the workplace can be frighteningly complex.

This week, we tackle the tricky business of business attire.

Karla Miller writes about dress in the workplace for the Washington Post Magazine. In this episode, Karla shares tips for preparing your outfit for an interview or first day of work.

Ask yourself these two questions, then build your outfit:

  • What does the ideal worker at this company look like?
  • What kind of clothes would they be wearing and how would they be groomed?

Baby boomers and millennials may have a different idea of what dressing for work means. Always check out the company guidelines or employee dress code to get a baseline for what you should wear to work. If there are no specifics, look at how the people who are a level or two above you are dressing.

Karla and the Mac’s List team also get into clothing taboos, including gender discrepancies, tattoos, and more.

This Week’s Guest

Since 2011, Karla L. Miller has dispensed advice on workplace dramas and traumas as the Washington Post Magazine’s Work Advice columnist. Karla tackles questions on annoying officemates, bullying bosses, and getting by in the current job market.  You can follow Karla on Twitter @KarlaAtWork.

Resources from this Episode