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Business Casual Demystified – Dress Down without Bottoming Out

John, a Kingston businessman, called a potential client in Toronto to talk about a lucrative contract. After making the appointment for the next Friday, he was informed that the office dressed in business casual attire on Fridays.

John headed for Toronto wearing his best jeans and a new t-shirt. When he was ushered into his host’s elegant office, he was shocked to see him in trousers, a dress shirt, tie and sports coat.

John burst out, “I thought your office dressed in business casual on Fridays!”

“We do,” said his host. “The rest of the week, we’re in dark suits and white shirts.”

Due to the cool reception he experienced, it was difficult for John to concentrate on the remainder of the meeting. Because there are so many different interpretations of business casual attire based on industry and geographical location, when his host first mentioned it, he should have asked for details.

There are 5 factors that affect how far you are up or down on what I call “The Ladder of Formality”:  layers, colour, fabric, tailoring and accessories.  Thinking about these, business casual attire can be classified into the following three categories.  Remember, that there are no hard and fast rules, and that context and office culture will greatly influence your wardrobe management decisions.

  1. a) Tailored Business Casual: This is typically worn by people in larger urban centers in the financial industries (and sometimes only when seeing a client). It always includes a structured jacket that is paired with cotton pants, polo shirts, and printed skirts or dresses. Things to avoid include anything worn without a jacket, such as a polo shirt, turtleneck, or shirt and tie with a pant. Women should also avoid wearing a dress (unless it is very tailored with longer sleeves), two-piece dress, shirt, blouse, sweater, and pant or skirt without a jacket.
  2. b) Smart Business Casual: This level is the one that most companies currently expect for business casual attire. The goal is to ensure that the whole outfit has a polished look and often dressing monochromatically will make you have a higher look of quality when dressing down. For a man, it always includes a collared shirt, turtleneck or polo shirt, but women can also wear collarless tops. Items to leave for weekends are fleece, t-shirts, low tops, tight leggings, exercise wear, running shoes, shorts, open sandals and any colour of denim (unless the company allows it). Sleeveless garments and capris have become popular, especially with cutting back on air conditioning, but some companies still ask employees to wear them on weekends.
  3. c) Relaxed Business Casual: This level is common in the information technology and artistic fields. It includes items that are not acceptable in the first two categories: denim, t-shirts and fleece (without slogans), sleeveless garments, capris, running shoes, strappy sandals, shorts, and tank tops. It is still important to avoid skimpy, revealing garments, tight spandex, leisure/active wear, bathing suits, t-shirts, sweats with logos and slogans (unless they are company-related), boxer shorts, tank tops, muscle shirts and anything that is ripped, torn, soiled or worn out.

As the mercury soars, peeling off layers of clothing brings more challenges. Also, you’ll notice the absence from the three lists above any piece of clothing that can be worn to go clubbing, work in the garden, or relax at the beach. Flip-flops and mules have disturbed more than one workplace, not only because they have fellow coworkers pining for the boardwalk and beach, but also because of the smacking noises created by wearers moving through the halls!

My research shows many firms are struggling with the impressions that employees are making with clients, even when working behind the scenes. “What if a potential client happens to come here and sees our office staff dressing in sweats?” asked the manager of a medical supply company. “What are they going to think about our company? We’re either going to have you come in to show them how to dress casually, or we’re going to put them back into professional attire.” They chose to do the latter.

If you are a manager who is up for the challenge, having a well-defined dress code policy is the first step in raising the standard. Saying that you want your staff “to look professional” when dressing down, leaves it wide open to interpretation. Listing the clothing items that you don’t wish to see, along with descriptive suggestions of what you would consider acceptable, will create better results. If you introduce this new dress code at a meeting with visual examples of proper attire, you’ll convey the message that dress is an important issue that impacts the company’s brand and bottom line.

When in doubt, it is always better to dress up one level, instead of bottoming out with your business casual clothing choices.