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What Is a Business Casual Policy?

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bernardbodo / Getty Images
  • Business casual attire has become the norm in many industries; it is meant to give employees the freedom to wear comfortable – albeit work-appropriate – clothing so they can focus on work performance instead of office attire.
  • Common business casual clothing for men can include a sport coat or casual blazer, a collared shirt, a casual button-down shirt, casual slacks (like khakis or chinos), a belt, dress shoes, loafers, or nice boots with socks.
  • Common business casual clothing for women can include a collared or non-collared blouse, dress or skirt (at or below the knee), slacks, high heels, dress boots, flats, and modest jewelry and accessories.

Gone are the days when professional dress codes were the norm. In their place are business casual offices (and hoodie-ridden fintech companies). As businesses and employees transition to a more casual work environment, some are left wondering, what exactly is business casual attire?

You've probably heard the phrases "dress for the job you want, not the job you have" and "look good, feel good." Cliche as these are, a recent study by ScienceDirect has proven that the clothes you wear can, in fact, influence your psychological processes. This phenomenon is known as enclothed cognition.

Since an employee's performance can be linked to how they feel about their appearance, employers are giving their staff more freedom to wear what they want. As a result, "casual dress" has become commonplace in many businesses. In a 2018 Employee Benefits Report, 88% of businesses surveyed allowed employees to wear casual dress at least one day a week, with 50% allowing casual dress every day.

In addition to the increase in employee performance, a business casual dress code tends to be less expensive for employees and grants them more freedom to express themselves, said Yvonne Cowser Yancy, CEO of YSquare Advisors and certified Senior Professional in Human Resources.

"In today's workplace, business causal policies are more of an expectation than a perk," Yancy told Business News Daily. "Organizations from tech companies to financial services are making this policy change, resulting in a benefit that costs the company nothing while being greatly valued by employees."

Yancy said that an employee dress code can impact the type of culture a company wants to promote. For example, when General Motors changed its dress code in 2009, it condensed a 10-page policy into two words: "Dress appropriately."

Yancy said this dress code transition reflected the culture change that now-CEO Mary Barra (who served as the global head of human resources at the time) wanted to make.

"She wanted to empower her employees and stop making assumptions about what they could and could not do," said Yancy. "Changing the dress code from a bureaucratic treatise to two words was a perfect metaphor for the transition she wanted not just for her employees but for the future of the company."

Does your workplace emphasize tradition and high structure, or does it celebrate change, personal expression and innovation? [Read related article: Dress Codes: What Your Business Can Legally Regulate]

A business professional dress code is relatively simple to define: a suit and tie for men, and a pantsuit or a professional dress or skirt for women. Business casual attire can be trickier to define and can vary by company, industry or even region.

Although today's standard business attire is moving toward a casual style in general, Valerie Rice, personal stylist and trend analyst in Silicon Valley, explained the differences by industry and company. She said that creative agencies, tech startups, and fashion and film industries always lean toward a more relaxed and creative style, whereas industries such as legal and finance tend to be more traditional in attire. However, she said that even the traditional industries are loosening up.

"A major nationwide bank just announced that employees can wear jeans in the corporate offices every day, not just on the traditional Casual Friday," said Rice. "The exception is if employees are client-facing – then chinos, not jeans." 

Employers and employees should understand that there can be regional differences in what it means to be business casual. For example, Rice said that on the West Coast, chinos and a bomber jacket may count as business casual attire, but the East Coast tends to be more conservative. 

Regardless of the specific clothing permitted, a business casual dress code is meant to give employees the freedom to wear comfortable – albeit work-appropriate – clothing so they can focus on work performance instead of business attire.

"A business casual dress code leaves room for an employee's personal taste while maintaining a professional forefront," said Wendy Webster, finance and HR manager at Ramblers Walking Holidays. "This allows for things like a paisley blazer, a quirky blouse or something completely different. The need for ties and pantsuits doesn't exist, but the outfit shouldn't look out of place in the boardroom."

What constitutes business casual attire may differ slightly across industries and regions. However, after consulting with several business owners, stylists and HR professionals, we created a list of men's clothing that is generally considered business casual.

  • Sport coat or casual blazer (optional)
  • Collared shirt or casual button-down
  • Tie (optional)
  • Casual slacks like khakis or chinos
  • Belt
  • Dress shoes, loafers or nice boots with socks (high-end athletic shoes are becoming acceptable in some areas as well)

"In the colder months, a classic business casual look is to wear a dress shirt under a plain sweater or cardigan," said Webster. "This makes a man look friendly and approachable while still maintaining a professional look."

Women's clothing tends to be more complicated than men's, so appropriate business casual attire can be a large gray area. However, after speaking with several business owners, stylists and HR professionals, we created a list of women's clothing that is generally acceptable in business casual environments.

  • Collared or non-collared blouse
  • Slacks (at least three-quarters length)
  • Dress or skirt (at or below the knee)
  • High heels, dress boots or flats (open-toed shoes are becoming acceptable in the summer months)
  • Modest jewelry
  • Accessories such as printed scarves

"Business casual for women is a good way to add some extra color to an outfit," said Webster. "For example, tastefully patterned blouses and tops are ideal for achieving a business casual look, as are silk scarves and throws."

Unacceptable business casual clothing can be another gray area. What is acceptable at your workplace may depend on your industry, region, company or role.

"Unacceptable business casual attire is anything that may be seen as inappropriate attire determined by the specific employer," said Rice. "Depending on if you are a junior staff or seasoned manager, attire may mean different things."

When choosing your clothing, err on the side of caution. It is always better to be overdressed than underdressed. Yancy said that unacceptable clothing generally consists of any outfits you would wear to a picnic, beach, camping trip, yoga class, gym or nightclub. After consulting with her and several other business owners, HR professionals, and stylists, we created a general list of clothing to avoid in any workplace.

  • Tank tops
  • Cold-shoulder tops
  • Low-cut tops
  • Ripped or frayed clothing
  • Shorts, skirts or dresses with a high hemline
  • Flip-flops
  • Distracting or noisy jewelry

"You need to remember that business casual attire is not dressing up your everyday clothes; it's dressing down your work clothes," said Webster. "For this reason, you should never come in wearing trainers or casual-style boots. Even if you wear these for the walk to work, keep another pair of shoes at work to change into when you get to the office."

One of the most common questions you might have when putting together a business casual outfit is, "Can I wear jeans?" The answer depends on who you ask. When speaking with experts, we received mixed answers to this question.

As with the rest of your attire, this will depend on the specific company you work for. For example, if you work in a professional, client-facing role, it is unlikely that your employer will want you wearing jeans to work. However, if you work in a fintech startup company where the culture is more relaxed, a pair of well-fitted blue jeans may be appropriate. Identify what is appropriate at your workplace and match your wardrobe to its level of professionalism.

"If you look around your workplace and are not at all resembling your workplace's level of dress (not style), you may want to think again," said Rice.

Skye Schooley

Skye Schooley is an Arizona native, based in New York City. After receiving a business communication degree from Arizona State University, she spent nearly three years living in four states and backpacking through 16 countries. During her travels, Skye began her blog, which you can find at www.skyeschooley.com. She finally settled down in the Northeast, writing for business.com and Business News Daily. She primarily contributes articles about business technology and the workplace, and reviews remote PC access software and collection agencies.