Christina Tabernig is a published author, specialising in business etiquette and manners. When she’s not writing, she runs korrekt!, a training institute offering courses and seminars on professionalism in the workplace. In light of her experience of working in Sales and Marketing for renowned IT companies, we sat down with her to discuss how to dress to impress for the office.
As a software development company, Lobster works with employees that are generally more IT than lifestyle focussed. Unlike other more customer-facing sectors, our industry isn’t really known for having a particular business dress code. What’s your take on this?
In recent years, dress codes in most industries have either changed or been dropped completely. I have to say that this can have its downsides – for the employees as much as anyone else. It can lead to a sense of uncertainty about one’s appearance, particularly when meeting customers.
Over the last few years, many teams have been working exclusively from home due to Covid. In doing so, they have become accustomed to a certain laid-back way of dressing, which has no business in the workplace (no pun intended). We need to make a distinction between office time and spare time. If you wear business attire – no matter what that means to you – you’ll feel more authoritative and will come across as more competent. If you’re having a stressful phone call, you’ll always feel better when dressed properly. Nobody likes to argue an important point in their sweatpants.
Lobster employs a large cohort of younger team members, many of whom use tattoos and piercings as a form of self-expression. Do you find there are business situations in which these decorative choices are viewed more critically? And how does one deal with that?
The key is to wear smart, well-tailored clothes. Then consider who you’re going to be meeting and what their expectations are likely to be when meeting you for the first time. First impressions are incredibly important. Think of the phrase: “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar”. I might love vinegar – In this case a more polarising personal style – but if my customer doesn’t, then it will be harder for me to make a good first impression. I’ll then have to put more effort into bringing them onside.
If you’re meeting with board members or representatives from conservative industries (such as banking, insurance or pharmaceuticals) for example, it can be a good idea to cover these personal trademarks. In these sectors, too much “personality” can have a negative impact on career progression.
That being said, tattoos and piercings are now much more normalised and seem far less exotic than they once did. Lots of industries are now happy to take people as they are. But the saying “Think before you ink!” still applies.
Please also leave baseball caps at home when meeting someone for the first time. If you do choose to wear a hat, you should always take it off when entering a room and meeting people. And please don’t then put it on the table.
Let’s assume someone who has never worn a suit is invited to a business lunch with a key customer or a big investor. What’s best: stay true to your personal style or wear a suit but be visibly uncomfortable?
The way we dress is not only a sign of the respect we have for the person we’re meeting but also for ourselves. I firmly believe that there’s always a good compromise in situations such as this. Nobody should feel as though they are wearing fancy dress or being forced to wear a suit if it’s not their style. You can see the discomfort a mile off. But there are other options such as a choosing a shirt or polo shirt instead of t-shirt and slacks instead of jeans. These easy swaps are completely doable and won’t feel like fancy dress. If you then add a tailored coat or a blazer – brilliant! And remember: keep the blazer on when you sit down to dinner. Taking it off before you join the table is a no-go.
Although it may be frustrating, women should also think about how sexy their office attire can be. Do you have a rule of thumb for what’s appropriate?
Seduction is completely inappropriate in the workplace. The main culprit here is clothing that leaves little to the imagination. Anything that goes much further than the clavicle, for example, should be reserved for personal use. The same goes for Tank tops, spaghetti straps and bandeau tops. See-through clothing should only be worn with a vest top or a slip dress. And speaking of dresses. Dresses and skirts should be about knee-length, so stick to hemlines that are a hand’s width above the knee or longer. Any shorter is too risqué. High heels are another potential pitfall. Ladies’ business heels should be between 0 and approx. 6 cm tall. Sky-high plateaus or stilettos are completely inappropriate for the workplace. And last but not least: visible underwear. Thongs or briefs that make an appearance when bending over, visible underwear lines or too many unfastened blouse and shirt buttons are clearly oversharing.
Women are, of course, allowed to be feminine. A critical look in the mirror can help decide if that day’s outfit is suitable for the office.
And last but not least, a delicate issue: What are your thoughts on too much perfume, cigarette smells, garlic breath etc. at the office. Should you mention it to colleagues, and if so – how?
Giving feedback on body odours is never easy, but it is appropriate. It’s usually best if the person’s line manager does it, and it should – ideally – be a person of the same gender. You’ll generally need permission before giving feedback of this nature. And it should always be addressed in private: e.g. “I really value you as a colleague but there’s something I’ve noticed recently. Would it be ok if I gave you some feedback?” Or perhaps the following opening would be more appropriate: “I have some feedback that’s of a more personal nature. Would you like to hear it? …. I have recently noticed that…” Maybe offer a solution to the problem or bring up your own personal experience of dealing with a similar issue.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts Christina!
After studying business administration in Munich, Christina Tabernig relocated to the USA to join McKinsey as a business graphic designer. Next she moved into IT, working in Sales and Marketing for companies such as Commerce One, Seven Networks and Exolution GmbH. Now a best-selling author, Christina began training and writing in 2003. She also acts as a consultant to well-known clients such as E.ON, Airplus, Ergo AG, Stryker and T-Systems and has been lecturing at the University of Applied Sciences in Munich and at the universities of Passau, Augsburg and Erlangen since 2006. www.korrekt.de