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Wearing the Wrong Thing at Work Can Harm a Career

“You are what you eat” was the popular 1960s catchphrase that urged people to make healthful food choices.

But in the business world these days, “You are what you wear” is more apropos. 

Barbara Pachter, an author and business-etiquette expert, says bosses and employees are often unclear about what is appropriate work attire. Making a clothing mistake, she says, can adversely affect a person’s career. 

Wearing clothes that are too big makes an employee look foolish, as if he or she is playing dress-up with a big brother’s or sister’s clothing, Pachter says. For women, showing cleavage is a big no-no. 

“Low-cut tops that expose cleavage draw attention to this body part and are not appropriate in the office,” says the expert, who often coaches women directly on this topic because many bosses are uncomfortable broaching the subject. 

And just because it’s called a “pool party” doesn’t mean it’s the right place for that itsy-bitsy teeny- weeny bikini. Whether it’s a company barbecue or an award cruise, it’s not appropriate to “expose everything” in front of business associates, Pachter says.

“This applies to both women and men,” she adds.

In addition, wearing skirts that are too short or T-shirts, shirts or ties with inappropriate sayings, pictures or childish designs sends the wrong message, Pachter says. No employee or interview candidate wants to be known as “Suzy Short Skirt” or “That Guy With the Teddy Bear Tie.”

Men should be careful about wearing socks that are too short or ones that slouch when they sit and cross their legs. Showing too much skin or hairy legs is unappealing, as are run-down, dirty or scuffed shoes.

“People notice,” Pachter says.

The executive coach points to a man in one of her seminars who wore bright green pants to the session. When asked her opinion, she told the attendee that his slacks were not “typical corporate clothing” and that he should make color choices that won’t attract negative attention.

Pachter also encourages employees to carefully consider the outfits they wear to business social events. She reminds employees that the company holiday party, conferences or dinner at the boss’s house are still business events, so their clothing should fit the occasion.
Clothes need to be clean and pressed,” she adds. “Do not have chipped nail polish or nose hairs that need to be clipped. They become distractions.”

Barbara Pachter is author of GREET! EAT! TWEET! 52 Business Etiquette Postings to Avoid Pitfalls and Boost Your Career.  For information on seminars or executive coaching, visit

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