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The Ins and Outs of Business Casual

The Ins and Outs of Business Casual

By Diana Pemberton-Sikes |

Business casual: What does it really mean? On a bright spring day several years ago, when the sky was bright blue, the tulips were in full bloom, and I was considering playing hooky as I walked into work, one of my accounting clerks sped by me in a flesh. Or was that flash? I still don’t know. All I remember is that seeing that much skin in an accounting office on someone under my direction was more than my brain could handle before eight o’clock in the morning. It was also a very rude awakening to the pitfalls of business casual.

I was new to the department and still “learning the ropes.” The atmosphere was very casual; while I’d come to accept that dressing professionally wasn’t a high priority here, I refused to abandon all sense of propriety.

Casual Friday or not, the shorts, flip-flops, and tank top had to go. I tried to think of the best way to tell this woman to go home and change. I was heading straight for her cubicle when I was stopped by one of the most senior department accountants, who was dressed pretty much the same way as the clerk. Since this person outranked me, I knew that my protest would be in vain. Regardless of my feelings on the matter, the company norm had been set.

So…just how confusing is business casual? With more than 70% of all American companies adopting some sort of casual dress policy, you’d think there’d be some clear-cut rules. But there really aren’t. The relaxed attitude that began invading corporate America in the early 1990’s has seen a decade of bewildered business people trying to follow the trend, yet still maintain their professional credibility. What’s more, with current trends favoring a return to traditional business wear, it’s easy to see why so many people get confused.

One of the biggest reasons why there’s so much uncertainty is that few companies have established dress code policies. While the office fuddy-duddy may think business casual means losing the tie, someone else may assume it means a T-shirt and jeans. Without a written policy, employees tend to “push the envelope” to see how much they can get away with. That was certainly the case with the accounting clerk.

If you’re in a position to influence the dress code-or have the ear of somebody who is -there are a few things you should consider about the pros and cons of business casual.


• Casual wear makes you appear more friendly and relatable than traditional business dress.
• Employees are more relaxed in comfortable clothes and tend to be more at ease with their coworkers.
• Casual days boost employee morale by demonstrating that even though you’re business, you’re not JUST business.

Many creative types-like those in computer jobs and dot com companies-prefer to wear casual clothes and put the dress code right up there with salary and benefits as a reason to accept or decline an offer. A business casual code may mean the very difference between hiring talent and losing them to the competition.


According to Dr. Jeffrey Magee, a consulting research psychologist who, in 1997 and 1998, surveyed 500 firms ranging from small businesses (100+ employees) to Fortune 500 companies, businesses that adopted business casual dress codes reported:

• Relaxed attitudes lead to relaxed performance.
• An increase in tardiness, absenteeism, and early departures.
• An increase in foul language and inappropriate conversation.
• An increase in provocative actions, which lead to more complaints to HR, and consequently, to more litigation.
• A decrease in polite, mannerly behavior.
• A decrease in productivity and overall quality of work.
• A decrease in commitment and company loyalty.

Countless studies have shown that there’s a direct correlation between how one dresses and how one thinks, feels, and acts or behaves, and how others react or respond. These results certainly attest to that fact, and are the biggest reason why many companies are returning to a more formal dress code.

Still, casual clothing CAN work in the workplace, but only if the environment is structured with appropriate limits, including a written dress code policy.

Remember: it’s easier to set policy from the beginning rather than to try and change things after the fact.

Here are some business casual guidelines to consider:

• 1. Decide what you want the dress code to say about your business.

• 2. Talk to your customers. Ask how they expect to see your employees dress.

• 3. Talk to your employees. Ask them what they consider appropriate.

• 4. Be flexible. Recognize that what is appropriate dress on the loading dock may not be appropriate for an outside sales person.

• 5. Be realistic. Your stock person is not going to come to work in a suit and tie.

• 6. Publish a draft to your employees. The draft should say what the business purpose of the dress code is and lay out the rules.

• 7. Ask for employee feedback and listen to it.

• 8. Revise the dress code based on their feedback and then publish it.

• 9. Always list consequences for non-compliance, including written reprimands, suspensions, or whatever’s appropriate for your business.

• 10. Try it and see how it works. Adjust as necessary. Err on the conservative. It’s easier to relax a dress code than to tighten it.

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