How should a consultant dress when they are on client site? While at a top level this appears to be a pretty intuitive question to answer, when you get into the weeds of it there is a lot more to it than there would appear to be. The initial thoughts on dress code for consultants summarizes to: “An IT consultant should dress professionally when on client site”, but let’s break that down a little further and go into more detail about what that means.
When considering this, we need to understand:
- Dress code on client sites
- Dress code defined by the consulting organization
- In-the-trenches consulting perspectives
Dress code on client sites
Each client location will most likely have their own dress code defined. Unfortunately exactly what this policy actually is defined is often not known until the first day on client site. Generally however, these break into the following categories:
Business Formal: For men this is suit and tie, or sport coat and tie. This used to be the industry standard but over the last decade the percentage of client sites which have this level of dress code has decreased significantly.
Business Casual: For men this indicates a nice shirt (dress shirt, or semi-dress shirt) and slacks. In my experiences this has become the standard for dress code for most IT organizations.
Casual: This dress code allows jeans, and less formal shirts (in some cases this even extends into t-shirts). Some organizations will even take this to the level of shorts and a t-shirt and flip-flips are acceptable. It varies depending upon the organization’s definition.
Casual Fridays: This is most often a hybrid of business casual and casual where the dress code is business casual during the week and casual on Fridays.
Consulting organization dress code
Consulting organizations also have their own dress codes which vary from organization to organization. In general, the goal is to focus on professional judgment in how to dress. As an IT geek I summarize this to: N+1. This means that when you are on a client site it is expected that you will dress a step higher than is actually the dress code which is enforced for the organization. So if the client has a casual dress code, you should dress to a business casual level. If they are business casual you should dress to a business formal level. The good news is that I don’t believe that anyone expects that if you are on a client where they are business formal that you are required to rent a tux to go to work daily.
I’m more of a fan of the N+.5 concept (or a half step higher). This means that if a client dress code is casual, I tend to wear slacks and a nice (though not a button down) shirt. In general, my theory and goal is to match the dress code of the organization to establish a better rapport with the client.
In the trenches
What’s the concept? Consultants need to have a “sharp” image. A consultant should not be wearing flip-flops and jeans on client site. The first though to occur in someone’s mind when they see you should be “sharp” as opposed to “sloppy”. Part of this is wearing clothes that are appropriate, cleaned and not in need of mending. Consultants do not need to be fashion models, but a truly professional consultant knows how to look the part.
We have two dress codes so which one wins? So as a consultant your are inherently under two different dress code requirements so which one wins? My perspective is that the most restrictive wins. So if your client is casual, and your consulting organization says that you are not allowed to dress at less than a business casual level it’s time to stock up on some slacks and shirts.
What about the first day? Consulting companies will have a required dress code and client sites will have their own required dress code. I have been in multiple organizations where these two codes conflict. For interviews or the first day on a client site if the dress code is unknown it is best to aim to be slightly over-dressed. As a general rule, if the dress code is unknown defer to what would be the more professional option to choose. The first impression on client site is extremely important.
What about N+1? In most client engagements after the first week or so I am not a fan of the N+1 approach. I recommend more of an N+.5. While I understand that we are professionals, and our clients expect professionalism from us there are situations where dressing to N+1 will actually ostracize your client. If you client sees someone walking around in slacks every day and the rest of the team is walking around in jeans they auto-classify them as either a consultant or as someone trying to make their way up the ladder. Many of the best consultants I have worked with dress very intentionally to the level of those around them on client site to better build rapport with their clients – and many of them have extended into extremely long engagements (which may or not be related to how they dress, but I believe it’s a factor). That’s a long-winded way of saying that dressing one step higher in my opinion isn’t always the best option. I prefer to dress to the level of the client or just slightly higher to better blend in with the organization.
Summary: Dress professionally – balancing dress codes for the client and consulting organizations with the need to not stand out as over (or under) dressed while working on a client engagement.