How do you define ‘business casual’?

The western world is certainly becoming a more casual place. We rarely address each other formally, even when meeting for the first time, and we’re certainly dressing more casually–especially at work.

With more casual dress and attitudes, there’s also the need for guidelines. I once worked with a woman who wore spandex bike shorts and a sports bra to work. She justified this by saying she was going to the gym right after work. As outrageous as this attire seems, it’s becoming more commonplace for men and women to show up in clothes better suited for yard work than corporate work.

“Dressing down” started in the ’80s in the casual high-tech, flex-time companies. It crept into the mainstream business culture in the early ’90s when “business casual” went from being a privilege to becoming an employee benefit.

Jeff Hickman, Community Bank President of Republic Bank in Traverse City, sees casual dress as a positive change.

“One of the reasons Republic Bank earned high ranking in Fortune Magazine’s ‘Top 100 Companies to Work For’ is its approach to employee comfort,” he said. “Business casual dress can and does make a very positive, fresh impression on our customers, and that effect is not lost on our staff.”

But that doesn’t mean employees dress however they please.

“We provide a line of Republic Bank shirts with logos that are smart and casual, and allow us to maintain the professional environment that our customers expect when they visit,” Hickman said.

The Traverse City Republic Bank staff dresses casual every Friday, as well as during the summer, during Cherry Festival week, and the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Larger corporations, including Coca-Cola and Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, are even dressing down year-round. In a 1999 survey prepared by the Society for Human Resource Management, of the 750 corporations with 5,000 or more workers surveyed, 51 percent of those companies sport casual dress five days a week.

Casual dress policies may ignite touchy legal issues like discrimination, sexual harassment, and whether or not a dress code can be legally enforced. Developing a dress code policy, whether written or understood, adds the responsibility of dealing with violations in the dress code. If long hair and flashy jewelry is permitted for women, is it also permitted for men?

Discrimination can be cited if dress code rules apply only to one gender, or if rules aren’t enforced consistently. Some grooming and dress code requirements can unfairly affect members of certain races, religions, age groups, disabled workers, as well as morale.

According to the Business Owners Toolkit, an on-line service for small business owners, issues to consider when establishing a dress code policy should include:

· Preventing areas of conflict (race, religion, gender, age, etc.) likely to occur in your business

· Emphasizing promoting a positive image through casual dress

· Identifying exceptions (there will always be exceptions)

· Setting a future date to review the dress code policy, leaving room for changes or discontinuation of the dress code.

Never assume every person who works for you shares your definition of terms such as “casual” or “appropriate.”

Ilene Amiel, consultant, trainer, and co-author of the book “Business Casual Made Easy,” says the biggest mistake companies make is having vague definitions or inconsistent rules.

The biggest mistake professionals make, Amiel adds, is that they don’t pay attention to details.

“Men don’t hem their pants, don’t press their clothing, or wear the wrong shoes. Women choose clothing that is too revealing, too tight, or not appropriate for the work environment. Wearing inappropriate clothing, especially on casual dress days, can be distracting and can lead to legal issues,” she said.

In light of legal issues, when asked about the styles of clothing portrayed on such television shows as Ally McBeal and Melrose Place, Amiel said, “These shows are sending a very bad message to younger women. Gen-X women who have no frame of reference don’t understand that those styles of clothing are not appropriate. They watch those shows and think, ‘that’s what successful lawyers or business owners wear.’ We might think it’s just a TV show, but women are taking cues from what they see on television, and it’s causing very real problems.”

Amiel suggests people consider the following criteria when selecting clothes for business casual days:

· Daily responsibilities

· Interaction with colleagues, clients

· Meetings: location, attendees, and subject matter

· Your audience, including colleagues, supervisors, and clients

· Your desired perception: powerful, credible, professional, accessible or creative.

For more information on casual business dress, check out these detailed sites: www.toolkit.cch.com, www.businesscasualdress.com, and www.womenswire.com.

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