A reader writes:
After 6 months of job searching, three offers, an two, yes two, offers falling through, I have finally secured a job: was given an offer, accepted the offer, new hire paperwork, background checks, and start date set. The position is a senior admin role for my department in a high-profile fundraising foundation in NYC.
As much as I am over the moon for this position, there is a slight unease at the back of my mind. When I went for my final round interview, I actually got to see the whole office and met some coworkers from other departments. During the walk-through, I noticed many of the employees’ clothing and accessories; Louie Vuitton bags, diamond earrings, perfect/expensive make up, Burberry scarfs and coats, really beautiful dresses and tops and expensive shoes. I met all levels of employees, including the Executive Director who as stunning and highly accessorized as the other employees. I asked after the tour about the dress code, and was told “oh, just wear whatever everyone else is wearing.”
From this, I have a feeling at least a third of my paycheck may have to be put towards the dress code. It is also important to note that the office is all female, which I find awesome but feel contributes to my unease a bit towards emulating the other employees because I don’t want to stand out that far from the crowd if I don’t buy the Christian Louboutin heels like everyone else and go for some nice but inexpensive non-name-brand shoes .
How important is keeping up with this type of unwritten dress code? Does a dress code matter, when it comes to brands? Is it okay to dress a bit different in an office environment, as long as it looks professional?
Totally depends on the office. I would love to tell you that you’ll be fine as long as you look professional, but the reality is that there are some offices where this stuff matters. But I have no idea if you’re in one or not.
If you hadn’t already accepted the job, I’d tell you to ask about this directly before accepting. It’s unlikely that you’d ever hear, “Yes, we expect everyone to wear expensive designer clothing,” but you might get an answer like, “We all love fashion and stay on top of it,” which I might interpret as “Yes, you’ll stand out if you don’t do it too.” It would be better to hear, “Oh, that’s just the fundraisers. As long as everyone else looks professional, no one will even notice.” Whatever the response, you at least would have had a bit more information about the culture to help inform your decision.
But since you’ve already accepted the job and are about to start working there, at this point the better answer might be to simply watch and wait. See if people are really dressed like that all the time, or if it’s only occasional. See if it’s really at all levels, or if people in roles similar to yours aren’t really so designer-clad. (It really might just be the fundraisers and people with higher-profile jobs.) And once you know people a little better, pick someone you feel comfortable with and ask them for a candid answer on how this stuff is perceived.
If it does turn out that this look is part of the job, then you’ll need to decide if (a) you’re willing to play along, (b) it’s not for you and it’s something you’d leave over, or (c) it’s not for you, but you’re willing to stay and deal with being judged for not dressing the way they do (or whatever the fall-out is for not dressing like they do — and there might actually not be any, so that’s important to figure out too).
Whatever you do, though, don’t go out now and buy a bunch of expensive clothing. Wait and see how this plays out.