Dress Code for Out of Office Events
As we emerge from two years of Covid and a very different work environment, where working at home became the norm (for some), and working in the office or at your workplace was the exception (for some), thinking about dress codes again is worthy of our time.
When working in a professional environment, showing up day after day, all workers quickly come to learn and see what others are wearing to work and learn what is acceptable.
However, at some point in your white-collar career, and especially post-Covid, you will be invited to an employer event, supplier event, or customer event that takes place away from the office. This could be at a golf course, at a resort, at a hotel, at a winery, at a restaurant, or some other location. Typically, the invitation will include some sort of statement about the dress code, but if not, you should always ask someone from the inviting organization what the dress code might be.
Many times, you will hear terms such as ‘business casual’ or ‘semi-formal’ or ‘casual.’ And what I have learned over the years is that these terms are basically meaningless unless you ask for a bit more detail.
The most important thing of all is that you arrive and you feel comfortable with your appearance relative to what others are wearing. There is NOTHING worse than showing up to an event and being underdressed. Perhaps nobody else will notice, but the entire time, you will feel uncomfortable and think that others are observing you and talking about you. This will do nothing but distract you from possibly a very productive event and opportunity to learn and build relationships with others.
I recall several times in my career when I heard that the dress code was business casual, and so I showed up in slacks and a dress shirt, only to see all the other guys wearing a sport coat and some even wearing ties! I have heard similar stories from women friends who arrived in clothing much different than the other ladies.
The other thing to understand is that if you are travelling outside of your normal living area, say out of state or out of the country, dress code terms can take on very different meanings, so never assume that a dress code phrase at home is equal to a dress code phrase in another location.
As an example, later in my career, we held a customer event in Italy at a villa in the countryside. I was actually the senior executive there from our company. After having a nice lunch at the villa in business casual clothing (sport coats, dress shirts, slacks for the guys, skirts/dresses for the women), we were to convene later in the afternoon for a ‘truffle hunt’ in the countryside with the hunting being done by a ‘truffle dog,’ while our group would follow the dog and its handlers to observe. This was designed as a good teambuilding event and a way to get to know customers better.
I asked about the dress code, and was told by our organizer from Italy that the dress code was ‘very casual’ and that we should wear comfortable shoes because we would be walking through the woods for several miles. I had a vision of the dog digging in the dirt, and all of us on our knees digging for truffles alongside the dog, getting dirty, sweating in the afternoon sun, etc.
Since it was a very warm afternoon, I decided that I would wear tennis shoes, a pair of workout shorts, and a logo’d T-shirt. That seemed to fit ‘very casual’ to me. To my dismay, when I arrived, most of the men had casual shoes on, not dress shoes, but not tennis shoes either. What was worse, most had dress slacks on with dress shirts and a sweater tied around their necks. Then, a photographer was there to take photos of the entire event. What should have been a very enjoyable afternoon was muddled a bit because I did not feel comfortable with my clothing. There was not time to head back to the room to change clothes. I will forever have these photos on file of me interacting with customers in what appears to be gym clothing, while they look like they just walked out of a nice restaurant.
So, the simple lesson is to always lean toward overdressing for any business event, no matter how casual, and think about ways you can ‘dress down’ once at the event if others are dressed less formally. As an example, I always found that wearing a dark blue sport coat over either a polo shirt or dress shirt was a very flexible way to attend any event where the dress code was in doubt. If everyone else there was without a sport coat, you could always remove your sport coat and carry it folded over your arm. Another good option is to wear a nice sweater over a shirt, and similarly, you can remove the sweater later if others are dressed less formally, and tie it around your neck with the sweater draped over your back.
Another ‘flexible’ option if you are wearing a sport coat is to fold a tie in your pocket in case a tie might be needed later. I am sure that similar options exist for women, where flexible options for ‘dressing down’ (or up) are available. It just takes some thought and planning.
It is always more comfortable being over-dressed versus being under-dressed!
Another negative after-effect of showing up to an event underdressed is that you may be plagued, like I have been, with dreams the rest of your life where you show up for school or work having only underwear on. In those dreams, I obviously feel embarrassed that I did not wear more clothes! These are bad dreams, and I can only surmise that they stem from some of those occasions where I felt underdressed! Save yourself from bad dreams later in life, and pay close attention to what you wear to these occasions.