Casual Dress Code – Do’s and Don’ts for Business Casual Dress in the Workplace

If your company has a casual dress code, getting dressed for work can be confusing.

How do you want to be perceived in the workplace? Chances are, whatever your job situation, you want to be perceived as a competent professional. Here are some do’s and don’ts for projecting a professional image on the job.

Do:

1. Recognizer that every organization has a dress code, even if it’s not written down. If you aren’t sure about your company’s dress code, look at the people above you. How does your manager dress? How do the VPs, or owners of the company dress? If you want to be promoted, dress the way they do.

2. Choose clothes that are flattering to your figure, and complement your coloring. Have clothes tailored to fit you -business casual clothes as well. You’ll be surprised at how polished you look.

3. Put some thought into your business casual wardrobe. Many people spend time coordinating their business suits, but consider their business casual wardrobe to be an afterthought. Wrong. You should spend as much time, or more, on your business casual wardrobe, so you look put-together and professional.

4. Build a basic business casual wardrobe, starting with a few pairs of pants/skirts in dark colors that go with everything. Then it’s easy to add color and pattern to personalize your look

Don’t:

1. Don’t believe that permanent press clothes do not need to be ironed. They still need to be pressed lightly.

2. Don’t wear rubber-soled shoes or athletic shoes to the office. This is sports wear, not business casual wear. Wear leather shoes, and make sure they are in good condition.

3. Don’t (women) consider a scrunchie to be an appropriate hair accessory for work.

4. Don’t (men) wear white or athletic socks with dress pants. Wear dress socks that match your pants.

5. Don’t forget to maintain hair coloring. Letting your hair grow to reveal dark or grey roots of one inch or more makes you look like you don’t care about your looks. Head to the hairdresser when your roots start to show.

6. Don’t arrive at work on business casual days without a way to upgrade your look. The simplest way is to have a jacket handy to put over a casual outfit. For men, keep an extra tie available. For women, a necklace or slightly higher heeled shoe can add polish and panache.

7. Don’t dress to match your colleagues. Put your outfit together based on what your managers wear.

Business Casual

Did you know that the whole business casual fashion was started by an oil crisis? It’s true. Back in the 70’s we went through one of the first real shortages of oil and OPEC became a household name. The government in part of its response to the shortage asked all businesses to up the thermostat setting in their air conditioned work spaces to cut down on electrical power and thereby save on oil that fired those electrical power plants.

You probably already know that a suit and tie are not really designed to be worn in an 80 degree environment. So the memo comes down from management basically saying that formal business attire is not required during the national air conditioning crisis and business casual was born as a fashion.

That memo back in the 70’s typically defined business casual by defining what was not acceptable rather than what was. Pantyhose still had to be worn by women. Jeans, T shirts, sandals, shorts and basically anything that management deemed inappropriate was specifically banned. As a result, business casual meant no jacket and no tie for many men and it didn’t mean much more for women.

When the crisis passed so did the business casual dress for everyday. Replacing it was “Casual Friday” a human resources gimmick to make everyone feel good about the company just before the weekend. And then something happened. The fashion industry smelled a new market and started promoting the idea that companies that were cutting edge and hip, like two new hot stocks Microsoft and Apple, understood the value of letting their employees have some freedom in dress rather than conforming to the company uniform.

Today 43% of all businesses have a casual dress code.

While each organization sets its own idea of what casual is, typically their policies include some common ground. The employment counseling office at American University defines business casual as half way between business formal and street wear. They give their graduates looking for a job this guidance on what is and isn’t casual business.

For women it’s a skirt or an informal dress so long as the length is appropriates (no minis). The skirt can be topped with a dress shirt, polo, sweater or sweater set. Pants are OK so long as they are full length and not made of denim. For men it’s a collared shirt, casual slacks, a belt and shoes with socks. The shirt has to be tucked in and the pants can’t be jeans.

Now understand that American University is located near Embassy Row in Washington DC so their idea of casual is just a tad more formal than say businesses in Los Angeles. The bottom line is the company sets the standard but in almost every case, regardless of the restrictions; working in casual dress is just so much more comfortable than a suit. Thank you OPEC.

A Man’s Guide to Dressing in a Business Casual Environment

Many companies began instituting a business casual dress code many years ago with the creation of “Casual Friday.” Over the last ten to fifteen years, casual Friday has turned into everyday for many businesses. If you find yourself in a business casual environment, care should be taken in the choices of work attire. An employee in this environment must remember that casual or not, their appearance makes the first impression, and each employee will, at some point, be the “face” of the company to someone. Gentlemen, business casual means much more than khaki pants and a polo golf shirt. Don’t be afraid to show some personality through your appearance, just be sure to show some restraint. For example, T-shirts, either printed or plain, have no place in a professional workplace. Also, do everyone you work with a favor and do not wear any shoe that exposes your feet. Leave the sandals for the beach and always wear socks to work.

Now that we have looked at two rules that should be considered unbreakable, let’s tackle some options that the business casual man does have.

The Suit

Believe it or not, this is an option in the business casual environment. Today’s suits are designed to be more versatile. Many styles can be worn without a tie or with a crew or mock neck shirt. A sweater can even be added during the colder months.

The main thing to remember is that it is still a suit. It should be worn only after being pressed and cleaned. Also, be sure the pants have a clean and crisp crease. You can dress the suit down, but it still has its place and appeal. The point of the dressed down suit is to look more casual and relaxed, but still look sharp and well put together. In terms of keeping the suit in good shape, try not to have it cleaned any more than four times a year. Dry cleaning too much can compromise the fabric.

The Sportcoat

Today, there are too many options available to touch on each. The important thing to remember about the sportcoat is, much like the suit, look for versatility. Many jackets can be worn in a business casual environment by day and dressed down with a nice pair of jeans by night. Also, be sure to keep it in good condition, just like the suit.

There is a difference between a sportcoat and a Blazer. Really, no man should be without a Navy Blazer in his closet. This is simply one of those items that every man can use at some point, and in this man’s opinion, it is just as necessary as a pair of jeans or khakis. Stick with wool for your Blazer because it just looks and feels better than blended fabrics. The blazer is not as casual as many sportcoats, but, like the suit, it can be dressed down and keep that well put together look.

Shirts

I cannot say this enough, but do not wear t-shirts, printed or solid to work. They simply are not appropriate in a professional environment. The three options here are polo or golf shirts, mock neck shirts, or button-up shirts. Mock neck shirts come in a variety of fabrics and look great under suits and sportcoats. Polo shirts also come in variety of colors and fabrics and are a fairly traditional option for business casual.

More and more men are wearing button-up shirts, normally worn with a tie, with an open collar. The important thing here is to be sure to keep them clean and pressed. Just because the look is less formal doesn’t mean it should be sloppy. There are several different collar choices, from button down, to spread, to pinpoint. There is really no rule here, but my suggestion is to try all styles and choose what you are most comfortable wearing.

Another note about button-up shirts is the French-cuff shirt. It has become far more acceptable to wear a tasteful French-cuff shirt with a nice set of cufflinks, without the tie. It adds a little touch of a classic look without dressing you up too much. Again, this is another one of those personal preference things. My suggestion is to give it a try. If you don’t like it, don’t wear it.

Pants

Don’t wear jeans to work. Now that we have dealt with that, what should you wear? Khaki pants are a very traditional option. Be sure the ones you wear to work are clean with a crisp crease, and that they fit properly. Wearing these everyday can make you seem, well…boring.

Change things up with charcoal, black, or olive. Even a pair of gray pants can work with the right shirt and jacket. We come to another personal preference with pleats versus flat front. Again try both and go with comfort.

Something to be mindful of is how you wear your pants. Many men (most men) in America unfortunately have a bit of a gut (including yours truly). Stop fooling yourself and stop hiking up your pants twenty times a day. If you have a gut, accept it and don’t wear the pants below your true waist line. You may think it looks better, but it doesn’t. Actually, it makes your stomach look bigger because it hangs over the waist of the pants. One option here is to add a pair of bracers. Bracers are becoming much more acceptable for men under 70 years old. In fact, I know many men that can’t stand wearing a belt now that they were willing to take the leap of faith and try a pair of bracers.

Shoes

Do not wear tennis shoes, sandals, or flip flops. This is simply poor taste. Look for a nice dress shoe, either lace up or slip on, and keep them polished. By the way, stick with the basic colors such as black, brown, or burgundy. While your taste may lean towards the indigo dress shoes, they simply are not professional.

There you have it. Business casual done right is really not that difficult, but many men would rather have a root canal than spend much time on how they dress. If you are that guy, and you just can’t get it right, your best bet is to visit your local men’s store. Make sure it s a men’s store, not one of the big anchor retailers in a mall. Any rep at a men’s store worth his salt will be able to give you great advice.