photo of dress shirts
"I would imagine that dressing a certain way helps people engage a certain mindset," said civil engineer Christopher Seigel.

Photo courtesy of Nimble Made

Civil engineering is a particularly tough profession on which to hang a standard dress code. Expectations vary from office to office. Roles vary from engineer to engineer.

And as professionals in the United States return to the office this year after different degrees of COVID-19-necessitated remote-work setups, the question of dress code is even more complicated than ever.

Here are some highlights from a recent ASCE Collaborate discussion addressing how civil engineers should “dress the part” upon returning to the office (and be sure to log in and contribute your own memories):

Christopher Seigel, P.E., M.ASCE

Woodbury, New Jersey

“I would imagine that dressing a certain way helps people engage a certain mindset. I assume that for some people, a buttoned-down shirt and suit helps them feel ‘on,’ and for other people, comfort helps them focus better. Of course, if you are comfortable in more dressy clothes, then it sounds like you win both ways!

“As someone who went to a school requiring a uniform from kindergarten through high school, I am comfortable in business casual but relish the chance to dress more casually, especially in the summer. It takes me back to my college days, when I got to work on tons of projects with fellow classmates who had many different styles of dress. I always felt that most of them always brought their ‘A’ game to what they were working on, regardless of if they were in a suit or coming to class or lab straight from a sport they played. …

“At the end of the day, I try to focus on the work habits of myself and those around me and pay no more than a passing thought to whether or not their shirt has a collar.”

Heidi C. Wallace, P.E., M.ASCE

Tulsa, Oklahoma

“I find that as a woman it is even more complicated to hit the desired ‘business casual’ look. I’ve yet to find a good alternative to the khakis and polo look. Women's tops tend to be dressier than a polo, and most women's cut polos don't come across as sharp as a polo does on a guy.

“There also aren’t many options for women’s pants that are along the lines of chinos. So I either feel over- or underdressed when told ‘business casual’ and hardly ever right on the money.

“In college we had a company come talk to us, and they require borderline business professional because the founder says something along the lines of ‘dress professional, act professional.’ The company I work for is the opposite. Our dress code is essentially, ‘If you’d wear it to the lake, don’t wear it to work,’ which basically means no shorts for anyone and no sandals or sleeveless shirts for guys.

“The reasoning I was given was that ‘comfortable engineers are happy engineers, and happy engineers do good work.’ The caveat with our dress code is that if you are meeting with clients, you should match their expectations. With some clients I wear jeans and a top with a cardigan. With some clients I wear a nice dress and flats. I would love to wear a dress or skirt most days since they are comfortable and more easily look like the female equivalent of dressy to what the guys wear, but it just isn't practical – I get cold easily in the office, and I can’t go to site visits dressed that way.

“I usually dress on a daily basis in a way that on short notice I can visit a construction site of a project without having to change anything but my shoes. I once had to literally run to my apartment to change into jeans because a contractor had an emergency, and I was in a skirt. My construction-site-visit clothes had been taken home for a wash and not been brought back.”

Gail Hayes, Ph.D., EIT, A.M.ASCE

Rockingham, Virginia

“I felt Heidi’s sentence of ‘I’ve yet to find a good alternative to the khakis and polo look’ in my soul!

“When I started my new position in December, I was told that the office dress code was ‘jeans and a polo’ and, like she said, polos on women typically send a different message than polos on men. Long story short, I found that cable-knit sweaters are an acceptable alternative for cold months and short-sleeve shirts with cardigans work well for warmer months. This is for my particular office, though, which is fairly casual.

“… I don't think there's anything wrong with trendy clothes per se, but when I'm regularly at construction sites, I need practicality above all else. There are some clothing companies that are paying attention to the needs of women in positions like this (e.g., Duluth for some items), but we need more. I don't consider myself a fashion-conscious individual and I dress modestly by today's standards, but choosing my clothing for work can be surprisingly exhausting.”

Timothy Lang, EI, A.M.ASCE

Elkhart, Indiana

“At my office, our business casual is a nice pair of chinos and polos, unless you are doing out-of-office travel/inspections; then you can wear jeans in place of the chinos. Also, on Fridays we have a dress-down day, so jeans and polos or plain T-shirts.”

Join the conversation on ASCE Collaborate.