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Decoding the workplace dress code

By Sarah LeTrent, CNN
updated 2:54 PM EDT, Wed August 15, 2012
Professional technical writer Jillian Venters is known as the
Professional technical writer Jillian Venters is known as the "Goth at the office." Her style is her calling card.
  • "Mohawk Guy" Bobak Ferdowsi became the face of the Mars rover team
  • President Obama acknowledged Ferdowsi's style in a phone call Monday
  • Ferdowsi's unique hairdo is a form of self-expression not everyone can get away with
  • An expert says style codes have relaxed over the years, depending on the workplace

(CNN) -- Bobak Ferdowsi launched into Internet superstardom last week for helping guide the rover Curiosity in its journey to the surface of Mars.

Well, that and his red-and-black Mohawk.

President Obama even acknowledged Ferdowsi, now commonly referred to as the "Mohawk Guy," in a congratulatory call to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory on Monday.

"It does sound like NASA has come a long way from the white-shirt, black dark-rimmed glasses and the pocket protectors," Obama told the Mars Curiosity team. "You guys are a little cooler than you used to be."

"Mohawk Guy" Bobak Ferdowsi

"I, in the past, thought about getting a Mohawk myself -- but my team keeps on discouraging me," Obama joked.

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NASA's 'Mohawk Guy' celebrates Curiosity

When it comes to personal style in the workplace, there are no hard and fast rules. What is suitable changes with where you work and what you do. Fortunately, some sartorial adventurers are able to reconcile their need to express themselves with their need for a paycheck.

"Dress codes have most certainly relaxed over time, particularly since the introduction of 'jeans Fridays' and dot-com era casual attire," said Judah Kurtz, of BPI group, a human resources consulting firm in Chicago, Illinois. "What is considered 'appropriate' varies by company and culture, as well as what parts of the house are strictly internal versus client/public facing,"

"Dress code policies walk a fine line between portraying a professional image to clients and customers while allowing employees to be comfortable, engaged, and expressive," said Kevin Sheridan, senior vice president of HR optimization at Avatar HR Solutions, also in Chicago.

Jillian Venters, a 43-year-old technical writer from Seattle, Washington, says it's crucial to have some personal branding around -- whether it's funky jewelry, photos of loved ones or favorite movie and music memorabilia -- to keep you sane at work.

"No matter how great your job and co-workers may be, the corporate world can be very stressful and draining. It's all too easy to become devoured by your job and to forget that there are things outside of the cubicle and status reports," she said. "Maintaining your own sense of identity helps you stay grounded, and reminds you that you are more than your job."

Known as the "Goth at the office," Venters might sport a top hat, knee-length lace coat and a full petticoat skirt on an average workday. She attempts to document each day's ensemble on her Tumblr account.

While she has endured her fair share of funny looks and moments when she needed to tone down her appearance, Venters says ultimately her sense of style benefits her career.

"I've walked into interviews and had the hiring manager say, 'Oh right, you're the goth girl. I've heard good things about you and you know all our tools. Can you start on Monday?'" Venters said. "Once I've started on a job and met my co-workers, everyone remembers who I am, which is great for gathering information."

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Kristi Blicharski
Kristi Blicharski

Like Venters, Kristi Blicharski, a Los Angeles-based empowerment coach and business strategist, thinks it's important to encourage the uniqueness of others without judgment because it emboldens both confidence and creativity.

"Studies have shown that when we look good on the outside, we feel good on the inside, and what's important to recognize is that everyone has their own unique feelings about what makes them look and feel their best," she said. "Why try to inhibit that?"

With blue streaks running through her hair, Blicharski said "expressing yourself in a way that makes you feel like your best self is the new power suit."

Mars rover mission's 'Mohawk Guy' inspires Obama

Of course, some people believe corporate dress code policy should remain sacred.

Six Flags theme parks came under fire last month after job applicant MarKeese Warner, an engineering student at Pennsylvania State University, claimed she was denied a summer job because of her dreadlocks hairstyle. Warner started a petition to protest what she claimed were Six Flags' discriminatory policies against people with dreadlocks.

A Six Flags spokeswoman confirmed that the company does not permit employees to wear dreadlocks. "We maintain a grooming code for employees that includes standard uniforms and no visible tattoos, beards, dreadlocks or extreme hairstyles (such as drastic variations in color or partially shaven heads)," said Nancy Krejsa, senior vice president of investor relations and corporate communications.

Many companies have formal dress code policies, including UBS which has a 44-page document with specific stipulations that disallow women from wearing more than seven pieces of jewelry and men from wearing cufflinks.

Franki Brandt-Pethtel, the Director of Operations for Bond Jewelers in the Tampa Bay Area, thinks maintaining a proper dress code shows respect for your employer, clients and yourself.

"Would you purchase an expensive piece of fine jewelry from a woman with a green Mohawk and sleeve full of tats? That's why I wear a suit to work every day. My personal expression can wait until my day off," she said.

While it's ultimately up to each organization's culture to deem what is fit, human resource professionals, like Sheridan and Kurtz, say general dress guidelines are useful as they create some parameters and expectations around what is considered appropriate.

At the same time, allowing some freedom of individual expression can have positive impacts on company culture and employee satisfaction.

"You may be memorable, but make sure you are memorable for the right reasons," said Kurtz.

"Be yourself, but don't let your appearance or behaviors detract from your selling points: your intelligence, accomplishments, strengths and experience."

Do you think there should be corporate dress code policies? How have you worked within the rules to create your personal style? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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