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Why Violating the Dress Code Helped My Career

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Confession: I may or may not pride myself in being a bit of an office fashionista.

While my work environment boasts quite the laid-back dress code (think jeans, sneakers, even the occasional hoodie!), I sport dress pieces that make me feel confident, powerful, and as if my salary could double at any moment. The first step to the next big promotion is looking the part, right? Tailored blazers, trendy heels, pencil skirts and statement necklaces? Yes, please!

Needless to say, I was shocked, appalled, and utterly humiliated the day it was brought to my attention that I, Queen of the Day Dress/Cardigan combo, had been violating the office dress code.

(Truth be told, I’m still somewhat in denial about the entire thing.)

A co-worker, who also happens to be a very close friend, tentatively approached my desk on Friday afternoon to deliver the news.

“Katrina,” she calmly inquired, “Are you familiar with our company’s policy on leggings?”

I slowly gulped, feeling my face flush with chagrin. My pulse quickened as I glanced down at my casual Friday attire: a jacket and tasteful tunic (long enough to cover my butt, of course), paired with my new Tory Burch flats and favorite pair of—gulp—black leggings.

My co-worker delicately explained that leggings were only office acceptable when paired with a dress—even on casual Friday. She proceeded to show me the official dress code on our organization’s internal website, so I could check back for future reference if I ever had questions. She was clearly going out of her way to ensure her words were kind, gentle, and judgement-free. Still, my style ego had been seriously bruised—the realization that I was even having such a conversation was… well… shameful.

“Has anyone said anything?” I asked, not entirely sure I wanted to know the answer.

At that moment, my worst fears were confirmed. Apparently, a couple of team members had made comments regarding my inappropriate leg wear. All the J. Crew separates in the world couldn’t erase the fact that I, the self-proclaimed style maven, had officially become “that girl.”

While I desperately wish I could take back the ill-conceived leggings, my run-in with the fashion police did teach me a few valuable lessons about dressing for the workplace.

1. Always review your company’s dress code.

Never in a million years did I imagine myself dense enough to blatantly break rules regarding office attire. While several of my co-workers sport jeans and track jackets, I’m the one dressed head to toe in Ann Taylor! Certainly my stylish intuition would know better than to lead me astray!

(Clearly, I was mistaken.)

I don’t care if you have a PhD in business casual, it never hurts to review your workplace’s policy for business attire. It certainly would have saved my pride, not to mention my reputation.

2. There is no grey area.

My organization’s dress code states that leggings are only appropriate when paired with a dress. I’m assuming this is to keep the halls free of lycra-covered posteriors, which I think we all can appreciate. While the long shirts and tunics I paired with my leggings definitely covered my behind, they technically aren’t dresses, and thus, a direct violation of my company’s guidelines.

The moral? When dealing with a professional dress code, it’s always best to err on the side of caution. Rules are rules, and they aren’t created to be broken. (Not even bent ever-so-slightly.)

3. Speak up if you see something.

While the legging intervention staged by my co-worker was about as comfortable as a six-inch pair of Louboutins, it was highly preferable when compared to the alternative—an official meeting with my supervisor or the HR department. I truly believe that most dress code violations are unintentional—who actually wants to be the person with the too-short skirt everyone whispers about in the bathroom? If you witness a dress code misdemeanor first-hand, it’s best to discretely say something. Such a delicate subject requires tact (possibly even courage), but more often than not, the offending colleague will appreciate a discreet, diplomatic reminder.

What dress code rule do you wish you could break? Tell us in the comments!

Ask Joanna Bloor, VP of Sales Operations and Advertising Operations at Pandora, about office fashions (or her amazing collection of shoe art)!


Fashion #Professional Attire Career Advice
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Nina Sidney
Nina Sidney

This made me knit my eyebrows and feel more than a tad defensive. How can it be more appropriate to wear a hoody and sneakers than a tasteful, butt covering pair of leggings? I feel like the lesson we can learn from this isn't about reviewing the dress code but rather about how silly some of these rules are. You sound like, leggings or not, you were dressed a lot more professionally than many of your peers are on a daily basis.

n s
n s

Ah so glad you had a friend coworker to chat with you. Nina - I hear what you are saying too. For example, I worked with a charity organization in Colorado who had the rule that women wore dresses/skirts unless it was under 35degrees. I respected the rule, of course, but it was funny that technically "fitting" dress code, a lady could wear an old courdoroy skirt with keds and fit the dress code, yet I couldn't wear a tailored pantsuit from The Limited (which would be breaking dress code). It's all in the execution, I think. That said, I think the rule that Katrina talks about for leggings is in place for a reason. I'm sure somewhere along the lines a lady or ladies felt it was easier to roll out of bed, throw on leggings (that may or may not still be in the best of shape -- see through?? and may or may not still be the right size -- do these still fit??) and colleagues were subject to the front toe, the backside being seethru, or a number of sins inbetween. So, in that case I can understand a track jacket over problematic leggings. It's just too distracting in a workplace for guys (looking) and gals (talking). But again I see your point in terms of how dressed up a person is. I feel that way about jeans, oftentimes, my jeans are more expensive and tailored than the 'pants' others are wearing that do fit dress code.

This is great advice - thanks for sharing!

I agree Nina, but I think the overarching point is that it doesn't matter when it's your company dress code. Silly or not, you must make sure you follow it, no matter what.

I'm curious to hear from others how bare legs do or don't fit into the dress code. Nylons in the height of summer? What do you do?

Katrina, this is something that I am guessing most of us don't really think of doing. I mean, really reading the dress code and looking at details. Thanks.

Nina Sidney
Nina Sidney

Some rules should maybe be challenged then. It isn't always helpful to simply follow the rules. Yes, some are there to be followed, but if something isn't serving its purpose (in this case: ensuring everyone is dressed work appropriately)then surely it's time to make some changes.
I definitely agree that it's important to inform yourself about the dress code, but find myself bristling at the idea of following anything "no matter what."

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