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Do you dress funny?

“Stunningly professional. Great first impression. Looks like just what we are seeking.”

Would you say this about a candidate or vendor who was in faded jeans, flip-flops and a T-shirt? Uh, yeah. Right.

Casual dress, “dress down Fridays”, “jeans day” – we’ve all visited or worked at companies on those days when the workplace dress code is relaxed. And you’ve heard the purported basis for casual workplace attire, which is more casual than “business casual:” It’s a benefit for the employees. It increases productivity. It creates a relaxed atmosphere that increases employee enjoyment.

Once established as a regular weekly occurrence, though, is it truly helping employees? Does productivity measurably improve? Does the company’s performance and reputation increase? Is it possible to maintain a reputation when the workforce looks different than the organization’s brand image? And what is the trend into 2009, with a challenging economy and dim financial forecast?

As reported at, the business casual trend began in California’s Silicon Valley (before the dotcom bubble burst), when young tech and Internet entrepreneurs eschewed business suits for jeans and T-shirts, before spreading to all types of businesses throughout the United States.

Casual business attire revolutionized the American office environment in the 1990s. A survey conducted by Society for Human Resource Management revealed than 95 percent of U.S. companies had some sort of casual day policy in place by 1999.

According to Karin Eldor, fashion correspondent with,

What was supposed to be a more lax environment became so relaxed that one wasn’t sure whether he was in a shopping center or an office. What began as “casual Friday” became “casual Monday to Friday,” as employees took the trend and ran with it. Basically, business casual has spun out of control.

As economic growth cooled in 2001, the shift away from casual wear in the workplace was attributed to the state of the economy. In an article from the San Francisco Business Times, James Ammeen, president of the Men’s Apparel Alliance, indicated “You’re in a tough market, so if you want people to trust you, invest with you, you’d better look like a pretty serious person.”

The Men’s Apparel Alliance commissioned the American Industry Dress Code Survey in 2001, interviewing over 200 c-suite executives nationwide at companies with over $150 million in annual revenues. The reversal of trend was seen clearly, with more than half of corporate America having traditional dress codes in place. Of the companies surveyed with revenues over $500 million, 19 percent had reinstated more formal dress codes by early 2002.

In a USA Today article, the reported number of employers allowing casual dress days every day dropped from 53% in 2002 to a new low of 38% in 2006. Also in the article:

How employees look can affect how they’re perceived: Thirty-six percent of respondents said those who dress casually are perceived as more creative, yet 49% said they run the risk of being taken less seriously, according to a 2006 survey by online job service The survey was conducted in August 2006 and included 2,243 executives.

“The pendulum has swung,” says Jonathan Bloom, CEO of marketing firm McGrath/Power in Santa Clara, California. “We went through a too-casual period. … In the aftermath of the dot-com bubble, we tightened things up a little. When we were very casual, the quality of the work wasn’t as good.”

Part of the challenge, per Karin Eldor and others, is that employees may not understand what their employer’s dress code entails:

According to a survey conducted by Mervyn’s department store, nearly 90% of the participants claimed that they do not know the difference between business attire, business casual and casual. But the workplace dress code that causes the most confusion is “business casual.”

Agrees Brian Anderson of Wearables Business:

Although casual business attire tends to be a popular option among employees, some companies encounter problems implementing casual dress policies. Many problems arise when companies describe their dress codes using vague words like “appropriate,” “professional,” and “businesslike” without spelling out a specific policy. This can create confusion among workers and make people feel uncomfortable trying to interpret the right way to dress for work.

And so, our workforce often does not understand what constitutes appropriate dress for business casual and casual (including “dress down Fridays” and “jeans day”) attire.

Jill Bremer, an expert on professional image development and presentation skills, states,

The expectation that productivity would increase as a result of this more comfortable work environment cannot be proven….What is needed are clear-cut parameters of the different levels of business casual as well as guidelines of when and where each level is appropriate.

In her article, Making Business Casual Work for You, she outlines the basic, standard, and executive elements of appropriate business casual clothing for men and women.

Fashion missteps may not get you fired, but they can prevent you from moving up the corporate ladder. When it comes to dressing for work, impressions really do matter. Employees who think that they will be judged solely on the merits of their work are just fooling themselves. If you want to be taken seriously in the workplace and you want to be perceived as credible, what you wear to work matters Mary Lou Andre, president of Organization By Design Inc. and author of “Ready to Wear: An Expert’s Guide to Choosing and Using Your Wardrobe.”

What about parameters on how to dress for casual Friday? Three considerations from

  • Stay professional even if it’s casual Friday. You don’t want to dress too casual as that isn’t appropriate for most companies. You can wear less formal clothes, but you want to retain a level of professionalism.
  • Bring a change of clothes in your car in case you get called to meet a client or attend a business meeting. If you need to change clothes for whatever other reason, you can be prepared for anything by bringing a suit or other more corporate clothes to change into in an emergency.
  • Read your employee handbook to find out what is and isn’t acceptable attire for casual Friday. Follow the guidelines closely, as you don’t want to risk your reputation or even your job on something as trivial as what you wear.

Dress codes are already becoming more formal in response to the current economic environment. It’s recommended that you “dress ahead” of your peers and competitors to remain authoritative and professional. It’s truly difficult to be too overdressed if you plan carefully. When a client shows up unexpectedly, you’ll make a great first impression. Since first impressions don’t allow for “do-overs,” dressing for success can, ultlimately, close the sale.

My question to you: Employees claim that working in casual attire or jeans makes them more productive. Does this mean they were less productive before the days of casual dress? And does that mean their education, skills, and experience are easily compromised by being required to wear non-jeans fabrics and shirts with buttons?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

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