Thoughts After the Fact–Dressing for Success

My professional mentor D2 suggested that I revisit previous posts from this blog to add thoughts after the fact. Today I’ll be reviewing a couple of older posts from Heroic Technical Writing, adding or refining my thoughts since they were first written. This could go well or be a complete mess. Welcome to the wacky world of twice-weekly blog writing!

Dressing for Success, Take Two

In 2015, I wrote a blog suggesting how male technical writers should “dress for success” at interviews or in the workplace overall. Three years later, I was willing to attempt the same editorial for women, but cheated by incorporating the inputs of women I knew and respected as smart dressers. When it came time to write the book, my editor suggested I just write my own take on attire.* This would save me the aggravation of trying to obtain the permissions of all the people I quoted when I wrote the 2018 post. The final result is much briefer but still conveys my philosophy on dressing, which amounts to: “Blend in with your professional surroundings.”

(* Yes, this is written from a “binary” man/woman point of view because that’s still how most clothes and corporate dress codes are made.)

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Whether we like it or not, people judge us by the clothing we wear. While I tend to wear a Hawaiian shirt, jeans or shorts, and gym shoes when I work from home or on my days off, I make an effort to dress more formally if I’m entering a professional office environment. Sometimes I’ve learned the hard way by not dressing appropriately, so maybe you can learn from my mistakes. If you’re not a conformist, this section isn’t for you. However, this is advice I wish I’d paid attention to when I was younger.

Interviewing

This is where you wear your best business attire to make a solid first impression: a jacket, tie, matching or complementary-colored trousers, leather dress shoes, conservatively colored shirt for men; a similar suit-type look for women with (potentially) a conservative, knee-length or longer dress or skirt and conservative flat or low-heeled dress shoes. Other details that work for both men and women would include minimal or no perfume or cologne; orderly, conservative, single-color or natural-looking hair; and minimal, unobtrusive jewelry.

Yes, there are exceptions. If you’re going into an artsy, fashion-focused, or “dramatic” environment where people expect you to stand out, feel free to wear the wild colors or eye-catching attire. However, in most businesses that hire technical communicators, the focus is on you, your accomplishments and resume, and your brain, not your fashion sense. Sensible business attire ensures that you look the part.

On the Job

This will vary with the job. If you’re in an environment where you’re always in an office that doesn’t see a lot of customers and the dress code is a bit more relaxed, you might get away with a golf shirt, blue jeans, and sneakers or flip flops. If you’re in a high-visibility administrative area, suits or dresses might be the order of the day. If you work in an environment where you have to be on a factory or shop floor, you’ll be wearing close-toed, steel-toe shoes; functional clothing; and a short haircut that you won’t snag on machinery or won’t mind getting oil or grease on; and possibly even safety glasses or goggles.

Social Events

Social occasions in the U.S. workplace can range from office outings at the movie theater to in-office “pot luck” lunches to formal banquets. The clothing could range anywhere from the aforementioned jeans and flip flops to tuxedos and dresses. Often, event invitations will include guidance on attire.

Bottom line: if you’re uncertain, ask! I once showed up at a NASA flight readiness review in a golf shirt and khaki pants only to discover everyone else in jackets and ties or dresses. I’d have known to pack the right outfit if I’d thought to ask.

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Extra Thoughts Regarding Attire in the Pandemic

The book section above was very much a product of life before the COVID-19 pandemic, when most people worked in the office were expected to conform to the clothing of the people seen around them. Now a lot of us are working from home and if I am to believe the internet, are not wearing pants. Personally, I can’t think clearly if I’m unshowered, unkempt, and walking around in pajamas. But that’s me.

I have two primary clients right now. One team handles everything by email and telephone. The other team has weekly or bi-weekly Skype calls that might or might not require a video appearance. As far as they’re concerned, I could show up for calls in a state of slovenly dishevelment and they’d be no wiser. However, some of you might need to face your leaders, peers, subordinates, or customers on the camera or in person more often. That means as workplaces start bringing people back to the office or expecting more “face time” we have to get back to professional attire standards.

If you’re in a profession or organization where everyone is still working from home, you might get away with a “50 percent solution,” where you wash your face, wash and comb your hair, and put on a good shirt or top…and still wear your pajama bottoms. I’ve seen pictures of people doing this and wearing shorts below a shirt and tie. If you can get away with it, fine. Just consider the following pointers:

  • Keep only your top visible in the computer’s camera. Test your appearance before the call so you can see what others will see.
  • Don’t walk away from the computer so the person(s) on the other end can see that you’re only half dressed.
  • If you’re leaving your home later, you might want to check yourself in the mirror so that the top and bottom halves of your outfit match…oh, and don’t forget to wear a mask.

Stay classy, all. I’ll do more of these blog revisits in the future. Let me know if you have favorite posts you’d like me to update in the future!

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About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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