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The First Day - What to Wear?

By Sheila Horne Mason

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The first day of a temp assignment is an excellent opportunity to make a good first impression.  One of the best ways to make this impression is to dress appropriately.  However, what is considered appropriate business attire varies from company to company these days.  Unless you are given specific instructions by your Account Executive, it can be quite confusing to know what is the best thing to wear.  You may be told that the dress code is “Corporate Casual” or “Business Casual.”   But these terms can just add to the confusion, since even industry experts have differing ideas about what they mean.
It is better to err on the side of prudence until you become familiar with the company’s dress policy.  For women, a suit, a blazer and a skirt (or slacks), or a dress in a muted color are all good choices.  Keep makeup and jewelry on the conservative side, and wear pantyhose with closed-in shoes.  Although some firms allow sandals in the warmer months, others frown on this footwear, especially without hosiery.
For men, either a suit or a blazer and dress slacks are good options.  Although many businesses no longer require ties, it is a good idea to wear one on the first day.   Khaki pants and polo type shirts are often seen in offices, but these should also be avoided on the first day.
For both men and women, the following should be avoided at all costs when you report to work on the first day (and usually thereafter):

  • Tee shirts (especially those with pictures or logos)
  • Flip Flops, or other extremely casual sandals
  • Tennis, running, or any other type of athletic shoe
  • Spandex, denim jeans, shorts, sweat suits or other athletic clothing
  • Tight, low-cut, or otherwise revealing outfits

Although these guidelines might seem restrictive, remember that you can always adjust your way of dressing later. Even if you feel a bit overdressed the first day, it is preferable to being underdressed for your environment.  If you have on a tie, and no one else in the office is wearing one, you can always remove it.  But if you find yourself in an office where you are not properly dressed, you may unwittingly give the impression that you are less than professional in your work habits.
It is always a good idea to ask your supervisor if the company has a written dress code.  If they don’t, the supervisor can tell you what is acceptable attire.  Looking at co-workers can give you some idea of what is appropriate, but it isn’t a foolproof method.   Often, people will push the limits of what is acceptable.  Sometimes staff members have been warned or written up for violating the dress code, but you’d have no way of knowing that. 
Also, appropriate dress can vary within departments of the same company.  Although you may see someone who wears jeans regularly, that person may have a legitimate reason to wear them (visiting a construction site, for example) when others in the office do not.  You may also be working in a very visible position like receptionist, where you are expected to wear more conservative clothing than the rest of the office.
Even beyond the first day of an assignment, it is smart to keep your clothing as professional as possible within the accepted range.  Many companies have “Casual Fridays” or “Dress Down Days.”  Most of the time, jeans, khakis, sandals and athletic shoes are acceptable on those days.  But it is not an excuse to let it all hang out and wear just any old thing.  Torn, patched or worn out jeans are not viewed favorably in most business settings, even on casual days.  Miniskirts, tube tops and other revealing clothing are best saved for your personal time.  You don’t want to garner unwanted negative attention at work.  In the movie Erin Brockovich, the lead character (who was based on a real person) turned out to be an outstanding investigator.  However, her mode of dress was highly inappropriate for the law office where she worked.  She was lucky she got the opportunity to show her intelligence and resourcefulness, because more often than not someone who dressed like that would be denied such an opportunity.
Just keep in mind that people will often judge you, sometimes unfairly, based upon your appearance.  Look at the first day as a job interview of sorts.  Even if you’re only assigned there for a couple of days or a week, the company might be a place where you would like to work on a permanent basis in the future.  Although the quality of your work is ultimately the most important factor in having a successful assignment, a professional appearance can give you an edge in many ways.

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