No shirt, no shoes – no service? Dress codes and the IT contractor

Some people have it easy.  Their dress code is pretty much set for them before they even turn up for work.  This doesn’t just cover the uniformed professions, either.  Wizards, for example, are expected to look like wizards.  Gamekeepers need a waxed jacket and a shotgun: bike leathers and a mop won’t do.

The same standards don’t apply to office workers, and in particular to IT professionals.  While there’s a basic understanding of what constitutes ‘smart’ or ‘smart casual’ dress – no sports gear, absence of branding or logos, nods to formality such as collared shirts and blouses, ‘proper’ footwear – the exact boundary between acceptable and unacceptable dress will vary between companies, and sometimes even between departments within companies.  Other factors also play their part – seniority, degree of customer-facing responsibility, and the culture of the role itself all help to make selecting work attire a bit of a minefield.

Working in IT is a further complicating factor.  Historically, IT staff have a poor reputation for dress sense and style – the stereotypical jeans, trainers and rock band tour t-shirts (the older the better) are as much a part of the mental picture of an IT professional as the pizza and coffee diet and online gaming subscription.

The problem is magnified for contractors.  Permanent staff attend the same workplace every day and have ample opportunities to learn the ropes.  Contractors, in addition to managing the variables listed above, have to address the issue of being in the workplace but not of it, gauging the expectations that their client has of its contractors and deciding how far and how best to attempt to satisfy them.  They are not permanent staff, are not part of the company, and to a greater or lesser degree will generally feel that everything they do, including how they dress, should acknowledge this.  Like IT staff, contractors suffer under a stereotype – sharp suit, flash car, clear evidence of being paid more than the hardworking salaried masses.

As with so much else in the contracting universe, opinions vary.  Some contractors may feel that their dress should reflect their independence, and select their attire without reference to the client’s in-house standards (or even in deliberate contrast to them).  Others take the view that the quickest and most practical way to fit in is to look and act as much like a permanent employee as possible.

While there is no ‘right’ answer, there are some principles that can help to take some of the strain out of selecting a look. 

Respect convention: it may feel like a surrender to outdated attitudes, but it’s a fact that the people you will be working for and with will judge you on your attire before they have any opportunity of assessing your work or skills.  Going smart, especially in the early days of your working relationship, will pay dividends later.  Note that this does not necessarily mean the full suit & boots – some people simply aren’t comfortable in a three-piece – but should at least be made up of items that have evidently been selected and maintained with some degree of care.  Shoes that require cleaning are a good example – just make sure they actually are clean!

Respect yourself: this may seem contradictory to point 1, but while smartness and first impressions are important, confidence and self assurance mustn’t be neglected.  Try to identify a dress style that suits and complements your personality and that does not distract you from the job at hand.

Your face is your fortune: perhaps not literally, but never lose sight of the fact that you are selling yourself the whole time you are in contact with the client.  Think about the things you look for in a person you need to do business with: what makes you take someone seriously; what are the red flags that would indicate to you that you are not on the same wavelength?  Now try to put yourself in your client’s position and repeat the exercise: what will they look for, either positive or negative, in you?  They are paying significant fees for your services; what can your choice of clothes do to help persuade them that they are getting their money’s worth?

Spy out the ground: it is always worth taking some time to gauge the client’s culture before even entering the offices.  Important clues can be gained from the company website, or any printed material you may be supplied with.  It is also worth being upfront and asking your initial contact about dress codes – they are unlikely to view the question as silly or trivial, even if the company operates an ‘anything goes’ policy.

Who’s watching you?  Knowing who you will be dealing with on a daily basis is important.  If you will generally be working with senior staff, or your client’s customers, err towards the smarter.  If your role will be embedded within a team of others working at the same level, then be guided by those around you, as far as is compatible with the previous points.

In short; pick clothes that convey a few simple messages – that you take yourself seriously (though not too seriously); that you also take your client seriously and care about their perception of you; that you have taken the time and trouble to assess the culture of the workplace and the responsibilities of your role and to dress accordingly; and that the client can expect an appropriate level of maturity and sensitivity, evidenced by your choice of attire, to be applied to every part of your working relationship.

Doug Brett-Matthewson

Tuesday 11th October 2011