How to avoid office fashion faux pas

Office dress codes—especially those that include casual Fridays—often create sartorial confusion for young CPAs.

To advance, learn to sellThe printed pants stood out, but not in a good way. Rachael K. Sarson, CPA, uses them as a reference point when she thinks about what to wear to work.

“A woman who had a pair of leopard [print] pants wore them to the office. It was a casual Friday, so that wasn’t the problem,” said Sarson, with Craighead, Lange and Hough in Michigan City, Ind. “Although they were very fashionable … wearing leopard pants to work was not the best choice.”

People in her office still talk about those pants, Sarson said. “They’re good for the weekend or a night out, but not here,” she added.

Making sartorial sense of the office’s unofficial rules can be a challenge. How casual is casual Friday or business casual? Relaxed dress codes can lead to choices that negatively affect how young CPAs are viewed by peers and clients.

“Accounting is traditionally a very conservative field. Many firms have strict dress codes in place to adhere to, because that’s the norm for the industry,” said Emily Burns Perryman, a digital strategy supervisor at Freed Maxick CPAs in Buffalo, N.Y., who has worked for fashion giants Jones Apparel Group and Christian Dior. “That can force HR decision-makers to feel obligated to spell out their expectations when it comes to professional attire.

“Relaxed dress codes or business casual guidelines can often blur the lines even more,” she added.

Casual doesn’t mean messy

Bobby Schroeder, CPA, a tax manager at Ericksen, Krentel & LaPorte in New Orleans, said his office has dress-down days for special events, such as for the World Cup or Saints game days. Many men ditch their button-downs and wear polo shirts on Fridays. But casual doesn’t mean messy.

“We are a professional office, so we do have some standards to maintain,” he said. Schroeder said those standards include making sure jeans are proper-fitting and have no holes and ensuring shirts are appropriate for a professional environment.

“Generally, you don’t want to attract any unnecessary attention,” he said.

Ben Ellingson, CPA, a partner at Eide Bailly in Mankato, Minn., thinks office dress has gotten more complicated because of the trend toward business casual.

“When I started in public accounting in 1999, it was a suit and tie all the time,” Ellingson said. “Now we have some clients who ask that we don’t wear suits in the field because it intimidates the staff and they see no reason for it.

“They say their whole office has gone business casual and they want us to fit with that,” Ellingson said.

Though he wears a suit and tie most days, he advises young CPAs to dress slightly better than the client, without going overboard. Typically a sport coat and slacks or suit and button-down will do, with or without a tie.

Keep a jacket handy

Sarson navigates this tricky territory by keeping a tailored jacket handy.

Dress standards are always in flux in her office, she said. In the winter months, staffers typically wear professional attire, as they meet with a lot more clients for tax projections. But during the summer, it’s more casual. Yet even in tax season, she said, staffers wear jeans and T-shirts on weekends.

“I wear my best jeans, with no holes, a shirt that’s nice, and flats,” she said. “So I can still put my best foot forward, because it’s casual but still presentable.”

Sarah Langham, CPA, of HoganTaylor LLP in Fayetteville, Ark., has seen young accountants struggle with navigating potential office fashion faux pas. The confusion is natural, she said, when one considers what college students wear: sweats, short shorts, slouchy cargo pants, messy hair, ripped jeans, and pajama pants.

“It’s a seismic shift from what they are used to and what they are expected to wear in an office,” Langham said. “The expectation, even on a casual day at a CPA firm, is more dressy than you would think. It doesn’t mean weekend wear.”

But being too buttoned-up can hurt you, too.

“We have clients who are in jeans on Fridays, and if you show up at their office in a suit, they would give you a hard time,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what your handbook says, if the people you work with and work for dress a certain way, that’s how you should dress.”

The big thing is to avoid the top fashion mistakes, said Lauren A. Rothman, whose book, Style Bible: What to Wear to Work, spells out no-nos, including frayed hems, poor fit, visible bra straps, noisy jewelry, tottering heels, and questionable hygiene.
“No one is ever intimidated by clean nails, groomed hair, and an appropriate-length skirt,” Rothman said. “That will impress anyone, male or female.”

Ellingson thinks location makes a difference, too. He sees more suits and ties when he works in the Twin Cities than he did in his former office in Sioux Falls, S.D. “The biggest hurdle,” he said, “is addressing the definition of business casual.”

Donna Salter, the AICPA’s senior manager of young member initiatives, knows what an important issue dress standards can be for young CPAs.

“Clothing is an important external representation of our self-confidence and subtly conveys presence and stature to others,” she said. “It’s actually an incredible portrayal of our character and—like it or not—expresses something about you without speaking a word.

“Sending the right message is a pivotal and powerful tool in business,” she added.

Sheon Ladson Wilson is a freelance writer based in Durham, N.C.

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