Reader Request: New Job Style

Kate e-mailed me with this question:

In about three weeks, I’ll be starting a new job, and while my brain is busy getting ready for the new challenges that go along with it, one little part of my brain is wondering “What am I going to wear?”  I ask because I’ve been in my current job for about four years. When I started, I was in my mid-20s, straight out of grad school and I dressed quite conservatively: mostly suit separates with button downs and sweaters and blazers, in an attempt to look a little older and wiser amongst my older coworkers.  As I started getting more comfortable and confident in my job and my work, I started to dress more to show my personality.  I’m by no means outlandish and I still dress within the business casual dress code but now I find myself wearing more brightly colored clothing and I take a few more fashion risks. 

However, I’m wondering if I should dial it back down again when I start this new job?  I’ll be supervising people and definitely taking on more responsibility. Should I put the fun dresses and the colorful belts away and go back to the pants and the more conservative blazers, just for a while?  I should note that I’m currently a children’s librarian and my new job is as the head of the children’s department. 

Well! I firmly believe that it’s best to play it safe and conservative when entering a new work environment, just as I believe you should dial down your sartorial sass for interviews. I know some would disagree and say that you should express your creativity at all times and showcase your style from the start, and that’s certainly one approach. But your first few weeks in a new job will set the tone for your tenure, and I’m in favor of easing in as opposed to making a splash.

When you’re entering a new environment, you want to minimize disruptions as much as possible. People fear change and need time to adjust to the presence and work style of a new coworker. People need even MORE time to adjust to the presence and work style of a new boss. And in my experience, the new employees who adjust best and are most quickly accepted and trusted in established workplaces are the ones who listen, observe, absorb, and discuss for the learning curve period. Dressing in a relatively conservative manner during that period will help your new coworkers focus on your personality, abilities, and goals as you learn more about them and the work you’ll be doing together.

Dressing like a completely different woman isn’t a good plan, either, though. I’d never advise you to wear nothing but neutrals, avoid all skirts, and go jewelry-free for the first month of employment, especially if that’s the polar opposite of your preferred personal style. But I’d certainly advise you to trust your gut. If you throw on a bright printed dress and feel like it might be too much, it probably IS too much and you should go with something else. If a big statement necklace seems too flashy, either swap in something smaller or tone it down with a blazer. Any item that feels distracting to you will likely be distracting to your new coworkers/clients, so be aware of balance. Feel free to incorporate fun pieces, color, and texture, but consider doing one eye-catching piece per outfit for the first little while. Then, once you feel acclimated, start getting more creative with your ensembles.

Now, of course, this will vary depending on the situation. If you’re taking on a new job at a trendy hair salon, art gallery, or graphic design studio, you might want to go creative, funky, even flashy. But for most office, teaching, and executive jobs, dressing quietly for the first few weeks generally ensures an easier transition.

Do you adjust your style at all when entering a new working environment? Are you likely to dress more conservatively for a while before showing your more creative side? Or do you prefer to dress as you prefer to and see how it plays out organically?

Image courtesy J.Crew

  • Miss T

    The objection I always have to an edict to dress “conservatively” is that it feels like I’m being asked to don some anonymously dictated, authoritarian version of “conservative”, something from “out there”, not from me, which is a violation of my own personal clothing ethic. So, my remedy for that has always been to establish different “registers” of clothing within my own wardrobe: to have already established versions of MY conservative, edgy, funky, etc. That way, I already know that what I have is “me”, though may be a different “me” depending on context (work, play, etc.). There is a very large range of appropriate clothing that can be called conservative or business appropriate; I think it’s fine to express oneself uniquely, within that range. I also have found that people tend to admire co-workers and even bosses who do express themselves well within the context of business-appropriate attire. Anyone can buy a suit off the rack and play it safe. Not everyone can put together an interesting, creative outfit that expresses one’s self while remaining “in context”. I say have confidence in your ability to make appropriate choices from the wide range of business attire and go for what makes you feel good.

    • Real Redhead

      I think you make a very good point “registers” of clothing, Miss T!
      (Also, not trying to be snarky, but how does one dress quietly? Slippers and pajamas?)
      Here’s my deal: After several years of working in a creative environment, I lost my job and subsequently was hired to work in a somewhat creative role within the business school of a small, private Southern university. Rather than run out and supplement my well-cultivated wardrobe of funky, classic-edgy pieces with plain, simple and “safe” basics to abide by the uniform of my new conservative workplace, I opted to rock my favorite outfits, business as usual. I wasn’t confrontational, I was just honest–to thine own self be true, right down to my leopard-print heels.

      I’d like to think my sartorial choices paid off. For every “how do you walk in those shoes?” kind of comment, (now THAT’S confrontational!), I got a “I wish I could pull that off as well as you do.” Even my boss, who was a very conservative dresser mostly by necessity and partly by choice, once complimented the way I dressed–and she was a notoriously and universally hard person to impress!
      My point isn’t that I dressed to fish for compliments. But I did dress to impress. In this particular setting, I think my edgy and unexpected personal style indicated a willingness to take risk and be creative, and as a result I was given some really good opportunities to shine with various projects. (It helped that I always stood behind my work and owned up to the occasional professional missteps and backfires). I think in a small sea of dressed-down academics, conservative administrators and homogeneous, supremely casual (and sometimes downright inappropriate!) college students, I stood out for the better. (‘m now back in my former creative environment, where not once has anyone questioned my ability to walk in 3-inch heels.)

      I guess I’m in the camp of if dressing with some creative flair is business as usual, then go for it! You were hired for your qualifications AND your personality! Dress to satisfy and reveal that, and people will respond positively! (Just don’t let your Spanx show, like a certain colleague of mine…)

  • http://iwouldvestolenachillesheart.blogspot.com LNR

    I have to be comfortable in my own clothes when I start a new situation, and I would never be comfortable if I dressed like someone else.

    I’m wondering about this job as childrens’ librarian, though. I can’t help but think in my brain that bright, fun outfits wouldn’t be out of place in a position where one works with ids. Am I wrong here? If I were a kid I would be rather frightened of the woman in neutrals and a pantsuit. But I’m not sure if she would be interacting with kids or be more of a coordinating person in a room somewhere?

  • http://blog.threegoodrats.com threegoodrats

    Librarians are notoriously bad dressers (and I am a librarian myself, so I can say this) but our work environments tend not to be conservative at all. Obviously I can’t speak for Kate’s new library, but business-y attire would be a little out of place at most libraries where I’ve worked. It certainly wouldn’t hurt for a few days if that would make her feel more comfortable, but I’ll bet she will be back to her fun and colorful outfits in no time!

  • Kate K

    This was my question and your answer was unbelievably helpful Sal. (Thank you!) Initially, I skewed on the business side of the business casual. And, most importantly, for a few weeks, I observed my boss’s outfits and the rest of the department heads to give me an idea of what’s “normal” in terms of following the dress code.

    Sadly, I don’t think I’ll get to go back to what felt like my “normal” work style and for a while, that was really tough for me. Now, I’m trying to think of it as a challenge: how can I find pieces I love, mix them with pieces I already have and love, and how can I express myself within the confines of a rather conservative dress environment. I’m still working on it but I try to wear one of the colorful pieces (statement jewelry, shoe or piece of clothing) I normally would wear but then I balance it a pair of conservatively cut dress pants or a blazer. So far, so good–in fact, my coworkers have complimented my outfits!

    Thanks again for the help Sal!

  • Tara

    I do tend to dress more “grown up” and polished when I first start a new job. Once I prove myself through my work, I go back to skulls/pigtails/jeans/whatever I feel like that day, which can sometimes be conservative sometimes very not. Appearance is your first impression so I like to start off with people taking me seriously through my dress/style and move into people taking me seriously through my work/competence.

  • Eden

    I agree that there’s a transition period in a new job. I appreciate your point that dressing too far “out there” can be off-putting to the new coworkers. For me, my personal style is important, but being gainfully employed and having a roof over my head and food for my family trumps being able to wear whatever I like.

  • Gwen

    I don’t know that there’s a right or wrong answer, but as a natural introvert I tend to be reserved when I start a new job or meet anyone new. I listen more than I talk in a new work environment, and the thing I most want to express off the bat is my interest in the organization and my coworkers. My biggest fear is that flashy clothing combined with little to say connotes that I am someone with strong opinions or judgements that I am not expressing, and that this will undermine my coworkers’ trust in me.

    So for the first week, or however long it takes to “feel out” the environment, my outfits are either neutral plus one bold color, or monochromatic. My quirkiness will be revealed in due time!

  • http://www.monkeyobsessions.blogspot alice

    I always appreciate how practical you are Sal, because it is sometimes tricky to balance wearing exactly what you want and wearing what is appropriate for the situation. There are honestly some jobs out there where one would simply never be able to wear casual or funky outfits, and in those cases, I think you could still feel like “you.” So fun to see Kate’s response to how she’s dealing with her situation, very insightful. My work place is the opposite because I work in an academic science environment where people consider it dressing up if there is a graphic on their tshirts. I personally lean toward dressier-than-average (like probably every reader of this blog) and neutrals in my day to day life, which actually ends up being appropriate practically everywhere I go yet allows me to work in perfect comfort. This was a look I transitioned to when I was finishing graduate school and have stuck with ever since. I feel lucky that I don’t need separate work and weekend clothes because I am striving toward a functional but minimalist closet of perfect items.

  • GingerR

    I think laying low and seeing what other women at your level are wearing is a good way to begin.

    I would make an effort to start a new job with a fresh haircut.

  • sara

    One of my first employers was a young woman with heavy gold eyeshadow that I found very ugly and very distracting. She could have used this advice.

  • Nebraskim

    I work in a university PR office. In the past five or six years, four different women have joined the university (all in marketing type jobs but not my unit per se) and none still work here. All dressed in this way that was just extremely off-putting to everyone else …. severe (but not conservative) super expensive fashion-forward suits, either with skirts that were a little too tight and too short, or pencil-leg pants. Extremely high stiletto/pointy-toed shoes. High maintenance hair. High maintenance make up. They looked way too New York and not at all “Nebraska.”

    And they were mocked behind their backs because of their clothing (and a lot of other things such as their take no prisoners management styles and inability to get along with anyone.) One woman was called Cruella DeVille because, well, she dressed like Cruella DeVille.

    They all were exceptionally tone-deaf to their surroundings. I’m sure in some other type of setting (perhaps an ad agency or fashion magazine shop in NYC or Chicago) they would have been appropriate, but clearly not in the university setting. People here dress professionally with a tilt toward business casual (some faculty tend to dress casual with no regard to the idea of business) but if anything, we tend to dress like casual day at a bank or law firm. They were just always inappropriately garbed. If you think it’s appropriate to wear open-toe stiletto heels in an ice storm, well, I question your judgment on so many levels.

    I hate to be judgmental, but these women in some ways sabotaged themselves by dressing so far outside the norm. It wasn’t like they were boho, or edgy. It was like they were mean girls. Not sure where I’m going with this, but perhaps someone catches my drift.

    • Mar

      What you wrote struck a chord with me. I work in a very laid back academic setting in a very laid back part of the country, where the norm appears to be to wear jeans and a sweatshirt or a softshell. For administrative type of folks, replace the sweatshirt with a sweater. I wear dresses, skirts, high heels daily, and sometimes heavy makeup. Not necessarily stiletto shoes or high maintenance hair, and not designer clothes, but still definitely outside the “norm”. I am trying to understand why these women rubbed everyone the wrong way with their clothing as you described. And whether it was really the clothing or their general style of managing and interacting with others (you point out that that was an issue too). I might be wrong, but you seem to be describing an environment that’s pretty laid back in terms of dress code, just like mine, and I don’t quite grasp why it’s fine to show up in jeans and a hoodie/sweater, but as soon as you put on stilettos and an expensive fashion forward suit, it rubs people the wrong way. The university setting as you describe it sounds like an “almost everything goes” type of a casual place (I am here talking based on my experience at my own university), so I don’t really understand why “casual with no regard to the idea of business” is fine (I am thinking sweatshirt plus old jeans), but decidedly fashion forward or “New York” style is not. Aren’t they both the same distance away from the “business casual” norm?

      • Barbra

        This is great. I’ve found people in those ultra-casual (the original poster said the fashion-forward dressers were ‘severe’, so I’ll go ahead and refer to the ultra-casual dressers as ‘dumpy’) environments don’t want the status quo to be threatened. They are afraid of having to leave the sweats and jeans behind for something more professional. And when a person is pulled together, it shows just how great the contrast between the two styles is. It does no favors for the casual dressers (just highlights how their look is lacking) so in retaliation they trash talk the people who look good behind their backs. Really sad.

  • http://www.minnchic.com Rebecca

    As a career coach, I think that it all depends on your work place, and what you want your brand at work to be. If it is important to be able to express yourself through clothing at work, than show off your wardrobe. If you want your brand to be unrelated to your clothing, than I might tone things down. Be conscious of how you want to be perceived, and make choices based on that.

  • Lynne

    Great post Sally. I would think that a position in charge of a childrens department would still give lots of scope for stylish and snappy dressing. I am also a librarian (in a large reference Library in a big city) and try to dress when I can to change those stereotypes many people still have about how we must be introverted, shy and bookish with little interest in our appearance.

  • http://wheelsamsara.blogspot.com LK

    I had this issue going from NY to Chicago. I went from a creative environment where everything goes from jeans and sweatshirt to a cocktail dress. Then I got a job in a manufacturing environment where, even though we worked in the garage, we had to wear toned down conservative business attire. It was SO BORING. I couldnt wear anything too nice because the office was so dirty! Now I work in a creative environment again but soon I’m starting school. Once I do that, its back to business attire for all those observation hours and internships.