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Business Etiquette and Corporate Style Tips - Businessweek

Image consultants offer advice on dressing and acting like a professional (updated with a new tip every week)

Q: Can I wear the same suit to different job interviews at the same company?

A: Absolutely. A suit is the best choice for an interview, hands down. And if you have only one, you should definitely wear it again, no matter if you are interviewing with the same company or even the same individual. As an image consultant, I teach my clients how to create a multitude of outfits from a few key pieces. You can easily create a new look by wearing your basic suit with a different blouse or shirt color and mixing up the accessories. Ladies, try wearing a different necklace or adding a colorful scarf. Men can choose a tie with a different pattern or add a smart-looking pocket square to their ensemble. Unless your suit is a conspicuous color or print, no one will remember it was the same one you wore before. Most important to interviewers—and what they will remember—are your confidence and communication skills. Once you land the job, you can celebrate by buying a new suit.

—Kelly Machbitz, owner,, Clearwater, Fla.

Q: No matter how carefully I pack, my clothes always get wrinkled. Any advice?

A: If you find an article of clothing is wrinkled when you arrive at your hotel, run a hot shower and hang the item close by. The steam from the shower will naturally press your garment. Wrinkle-resistant sprays are also helpful and convenient, as they are small enough to stash in a purse or briefcase. If all else fails, try asking the concierge. Some hotels offer pressing services, while others supply the room with an iron and board.

—Carol Davidson, StyleWorks of Union Square

Q: What's a polite way to escape from a nonstop talker at a reception or cocktail function?

A: When you want to break away from a conversation, be friendly but firm.Simply extend your hand for a handshake and say, "Mary, I have to speak to a colleague now.It was a pleasure meeting and talking with you."You can now take your leave without having offended anyone. If you feel you may want to reconnect with this individual at a later date, you might also suggest exchanging business cards.

—Kelly Machbitz, owner,, Clearwater, Fla.

Q: How can I avoid wrinkles in my clothes when I pack for business trips?

A: Both an overstuffed suitcase and one with too much empty space will lead to wrinkles, so pack lightly but tightly. Place heavy items (shoes, toiletries, etc.) on the bottom so they don't shift, crush, and wrinkle your clothing. Shirts, skirts, and pants can be folded, stacked, and packed in the center of your suitcase. By putting tissue paper in between layers, you will reduce friction and wrinkles. Knits and more casual items (T-shirts, polo shirts, jeans, etc.) as well as pajamas should be rolled and placed around the sides of your suitcase. On top, place face down any items on hangers. Leave them in plastic dry cleaning bags to reduce creases. Look for travel-friendly items (folders, cubes, compressors, etc.) designed to make packing more organized and wrinkle-free.

—Carol Davidson, StyleWorks of Union Square

Q: Is it necessary to say "bless you" when someone sneezes during a meeting?

A: Nowadays, people expect a "bless you," not out of concern for the sneezer's well-being, but simply as an acknowledgment of another's presence. Is it necessary? Probably not. No one says anything when someone coughs, so why do sneezes deserve special treatment? If the sneezer happens to be seated next to you, offer a discreet "bless you," if you like. If, however, the person is at the other end of the room or someone has already given his or her blessing, hold off. At meetings, you want to move past interruptions and distractions quickly and get back to business.

—Kelly Machbitz, owner,, Clearwater, Fla.

Q: Can I wear sleeveless tops to work in the summer?

A: This question comes up nearly every time I give a corporate presentation on image and style. If your company is conservative in general or has a traditional business dress code (i.e., suits, jackets), wearing sleeveless clothing—without a jacket or cardigan—is inappropriate. In a business casual setting, the answer is not so clear-cut. In the absence of a formal dress code, err on the side of caution and ask your manager or HR person. Exposed skin sends a less business-like message, so also consider the nature of your work. Do you have a client-facing role or is your work primarily behind the scenes? If you do decide to go sleeveless, avoid tank tops, halters, and camisoles. Instead, opt for a sleeveless style with more coverage and a modest neckline. Finally, make sure you have a jacket or cardigan at the office, in case you're called into an unexpected meeting.

—Carol Davidson, StyleWorks of Union Square

Q: Is chewing gum ever acceptable in a business situation?

A: As an image consultant and etiquette trainer, I must say it is never acceptable to chew gum in a business situation when interacting with co-workers, clients, or the general public. Gum chewing is a distraction and almost impossible to conceal during conversation, comparable to speaking with your mouth full of food. On occasion, however, I have suggested that a client chew a piece of gum to freshen his or her breath after a pungent meal, when it was impossible to use a toothbrush and paste. The secret is to be discreet: Excuse yourself from the table and chew a stick of peppermint gum in the washroom; then discard it. This way you can enjoy fresh breath and your chewing won't offend others.

—Kelly Machbitz, owner,, Clearwater, Fla.

Q: Can I wear my favorite pair of 4-inch heels to the office?

A: Generally speaking, heels higher than 3 inches are perceived as more suitable for a dance club than an office environment, especially shoes with thin straps that expose more of the foot, as well as shoes with very thin heels. Ditto for footwear in bright colors. If you decide to go higher than a 3-inch heel, opt for a classic, closed-toe pump in a matte leather and neutral color. You might also consider a platform style or wearing pants the same color as your shoes to camouflage the height of the heel.

—Carol Davidson, StyleWorks of Union Square

Q: I have pale skin and I wonder if a spray tan would give me an edge on a job interview. Do you recommend it?

A: Several benefits can come from an artificial tan. For one, a little color may boost your confidence level, which in turn could calm your nerves and help you ace that interview. It may also send the message that you have an active lifestyle and are physically fit—something your potential employer should consider a plus. Just be careful not to overdo it. Straying too far from your natural skin tone could send the message that you are superficial, focused too much on extracurricular activities, and lack strong business ethics. Go only two to three shades darker than your natural skin tone.

—Kelly Machbitz, owner,, Clearwater, Fla.

Q: I love all the bright colors they are showing for spring. Are they office appropriate?

A: No one can deny the merits of neutral-colored business attire, but sometimes we all need a color pick-me-up. This spring, designers are showing citrus shades of orange, yellow, and green as well as coral, pink, and bright blue. Because people perceive brighter hues as bold and playful statements, for a more conservative work environment, less is more. Add brighter colors in small doses by way of a scarf, tie, or handbag. Or you can incorporate more hues in a patterned shirt or blouse and team it with a neutral bottom or jacket. Generally speaking, for business, you will want to avoid wearing bright colors from head to toe.

—Carol Davidson, StyleWorks of Union Square

Q: When a wine glass is placed on a table at a restaurant, how do I signal that I don't want any?

A: Never turn a glass or cup upside down to decline service. If you don't want your wine glass, coffee cup, or water glass filled (or refilled), hold your hand over the glass. If the server fills it before you have a chance to signal no, leave the beverage untouched for removal after the meal.

—Kelly Machbitz, owner,, Clearwater, Fla.

Q: I frequently respond to business e-mails via my mobile device. Must I include a salutation?

A: The type of device you use to send e-mail has little to do with proper e-mail etiquette. Instead, consider your relationship to the recipient, the intended degree of formality, and whether your message is a standalone reply or part of a longer chain of responses. On a first reply when communicating for business, use a salutation that includes the recipient's name, whether it's "Dear Christine," "Hi, Christine," or simply "Christine." While a salutation is unnecessary thereafter, it is considered more formal and appropriate when communicating with a senior associate or an important client.

—Carol Davidson, StyleWorks of Union Square

Q: What is the "silverware-placement code" for telling waitstaff you're done with your plate?

A: Rest your fork, tines up, and knife, blade in, with the handles resting at 5 o'clock and tips pointing to 10 o'clock on your plate. Leave any unused silverware on the table. Another way to signal the waitstaff you have finished your meal is to leave the napkin semi-folded at the left side of the place setting. Don't twist or crumple the napkin or refold it so it looks unused. Never leave the napkin on the chair. Don't push your dishes away from you or stack them for the waiter when you are finished. Leave plates and glasses where they are.

—Kelly Machbitz, owner,, Clearwater, Fla.

Q: I will be attending several upcoming job fairs. What do I wear?

A: Think of a job fair as a series of mini first interviews. Because the dress code of participating companies can vary, it is safest to err on the side of more formal dress. A suit or jacket in dark grey or navy (or black for women) is always an appropriate choice. Wearing a collared, long-sleeve shirt or blouse underneath makes sense because it looks professional enough on its own, should you decide to remove your jacket. Men should opt for a dark-colored, lace-up shoe; for women, a mid-heeled, closed-toe pump or slingback. Clean and pressed clothes and polished shoes are a must. Less is more with accessories, jewelry, and cologne, so keep them at a minimum. These tips, accompanied by a smile, direct eye contact, and a firm handshake, will help you create a positive—and professional—first impression.

—Carol Davidson, StyleWorks of Union Square

Q: What types of sunglasses are in style for a corporate look?

A: Go with quality. Look for metallic, tortoise shell, or black frames with charcoal, dark brown, or black lenses. Avoid sunglasses that are trendy, sporty, or brightly colored as they tend to look inexpensive—even if they aren't. Two classics that will never go out of style are the wayfarer and the aviator.

—Kelly Machbitz, owner,, Clearwater, Fla.

Q: I am uncomfortable attending networking events. Can you help with some conversation starters?

A: To ease your way, arrive with a handful of open-ended questions. A logical place to start is by asking others what they do. Follow up with additional questions such as what they like about their job, current projects they are working on, industry trends they have noticed, or challenges they are facing. Remember, everyone is there for a similar reason. Be sure to ask others about the type of referrals that are useful to them and how you can help. Presumably other networkers will want to know your answers to similar questions, so make sure that you come prepared. Use current events to your advantage. Select one for discussion and ask others to share their thoughts. Avoid controversial subjects such as politics and religion. If you are truly at a loss for words, you can always start with questions such as: "What brings you to this event?" or "What have you heard about the speaker?" Follow up with your new key contacts in a timely manner. Don't forget to mention the event at which you met and what you discussed.

—Carol Davidson, StyleWorks of Union Square

Q: I'm a vegan and don't wear leather. What should I do as far as shoes for a corporate job interview?

A: In addition to pleather (synthetic leather), an assortment of footwear can now be found made from natural and sustainable products such as hemp and bamboo. Here are a few resources:,,, and Just keep the general professional dress code in mind. Men should look for a traditional oxford dress shoe (lace-up or slip-on), and women should opt for a closed-toe pump in a neutral color, with a heel no higher than three inches. Most important, shoes should be clean and well-maintained with no scuff marks or visible signs of wear and tear.

—Kelly Machbitz, owner,, Clearwater, Fla.

Q: I look young and fear that I am not taken seriously at work. What can I do to project a more-seasoned image?

A: Seemingly small changes to your appearance, body language, and speech can make a big difference in how others perceive you. To convey a more mature and credible image, opt for high quality, classic clothing in solid, neutral colors or simple patterns. Depending on your workplace dress code, wearing a formal suit can look as if you're trying too hard. However, the addition of a jacket, cardigan, vest, or other "third piece" to a shirt-skirt or shirt-pants combination will add a visual layer of authority and credibility. Don't overlook your hair and makeup: Aim for subtle and sophisticated. Your body language and speech should be in synch with your visual image and in support of your overall message. Pay attention to your posture and maintain eye contact with others. In addition, speak slowly and with conviction. Demonstrate your maturity and experience with an awareness of industry and current events.

—Carol Davidson, StyleWorks of Union Square

Q: I want to help my daughter sell candy for her school's fundraising effort. Is it okay for me to ask my co-workers to buy some?

A: I'm so glad you asked this question! Haven't we all experienced that awkward moment when one of our co-workers, employers, or friends asks us to help out their kids by purchasing something we really don't want or need? My suggestion: Instead of asking your co-workers face to face or passing around a sign-up sheet where everyone can see who bought (and how much), post a notice in the break room or other high-traffic area in your office announcing the "opportunity" to make a purchase to benefit your child's school or whatever the cause may be. Provide your home and office contact information. This way, no one will feel strong-armed into purchasing—or uncomfortable about choosing not to. You may not make as many sales, but you will preserve valuable relationships.

—Kelly Machbitz, owner,, Clearwater, Fla.

Q: I love big, expressive jewelry. Can I wear it to the office?

A: It depends. While dressing for work should not mean forgoing your own sense of style, yo

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