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Business Professional vs. Business Casual: What's the Difference?

Professional man in an office smiling at the camera
Though many of today’s workplaces have relaxed their dress codes, appropriate dress is no less important than it was in the past.

“First impressions matter,” says Aerotek’s Professional Recruiter Lead Jackie Ross. “It’s imperative that your attire shows your interviewer or new employer that you are taking the job seriously.”

Senior Professional Recruiter Matt Wiehe echoes Ross’ sentiments. “Professional dress can set you apart from other candidates with the same qualifications.”

While Aerotek’s recruiter panelists agree that your attire should match the norms of your industry, they also agree that it isn’t always clear what those norms may be. For example, what’s the difference between business professional and business casual? We asked members of our recruiter panel to provide general and industry-specific guidelines for candidates in a variety of workplace situations. Here’s what we learned:

What does business professional mean?
Industries such as finance and accounting have remained more formal than others, and employees are frequently expected to adhere to business professional dress codes. According to Senior Professional Account Recruiting Manager Kate Keller, business professional dress for men and women almost always calls for a suit. “For men, that means wearing a jacket and tie,” says Keller.

Counselors in Princeton University’s Career Services office confirm Keller’s advice. Princeton also recommends that men stick with “solid-colored dress shirts” and advise both men and women to wear “neutral colors and conservative footwear.”

What is business casual?
Often recruiters, including Aerotek’s Claire Krieger, suggest that male candidates in the engineering industry dress in “khakis and a button-down or polo shirt,” while Princeton’s career counselors advise women candidates in business casual workplaces to wear “skirts and dresses no shorter than 1-2 inches above the knee and tailored pants and blouses.”

Keller says “clinical research candidates who visit hospitals and meet with doctors, nurses and other health professionals should wear business casual or business professional attire,” depending upon the dress code of their company or institution.

For interviews, Senior Professional Account Recruiting Manager Dana Sheehan recommends dressing “one step up” from the way that most employees at the company dress on a daily basis. “In other words, if the dress code at your new workplace is business casual, consider dressing in business professional attire for the interview,” Sheehan says.

Can you be overdressed?
While being under-dressed is a more common faux pas, in some settings, over-dressing is also a practice that should be avoided.

“It is possible to over-dress for an interview,” says Sheehan. In fields like the skilled trades or construction, Sheehan says “dressing in business professional attire could actually harm your chances of being hired.” Sheehan recommends candidates interviewing for positions as solar installers, construction supervisors and field service technicians dress in “jeans, work shoes and a collared shirt.” For those seeking work in engineering, project management and design, “business casual pants and a collared shirt should suffice.”

Check it out
While dress codes may seem self-explanatory, making assumptions about what is appropriate for interviewing is never a safe bet. For example, in the aviation industry, “some companies require interviewees or new hires to wear business professional attire, others prefer business casual and still others may require uniforms and safety gear such as steel toe boots and glasses,” says Senior Professional Account Recruiting Manager Julie Lewis.

When in doubt, ask your recruiter and peers for guidance. Your recruiter can call the company’s hiring manager before your interview or first day of work, so that you show up looking sharp.

Be on the safe side
When it comes to a job interview or the start of a new position, don’t be a trendsetter. In fact, when you’re the newbie in the office, you may want to play it safe and leave your tattoos covered and the Converse in the closet, even if your co-workers are dressed more comfortably.

“Err on the side of formal,” suggests Susannah Snider, personal finance editor at U.S. News & World Report Careers. “You can always remove a blazer or tie if you feel overdressed.” Patience is a virtue.

Aerotek recruiter panelists, Kate Keller, Claire Krieger, Julie Lewis, Jackie Ross, Dana Sheehan and Matthew Wiehe contributed to this article.

Have an interview and unsure how to dress? Ask our recruiters by visiting us on Facebook and Twitter. Job-hunting? Visit our job board.

Want more interview tips? Check out our Tools & Resources pages.