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Too Casual? Dressing for Success in Today's Workplace

Business News Daily Editor
Business News Daily Editor

Most businesses no longer require employees to wear formal attire to the office. However, this more casual environment is causing employees to reconsider what they should wear to work every day.

  • Dress codes for work have changed over time, moving toward a less traditional style of dress.
  • Even in the most relaxed offices, it is possible to be dressed too casually at work.
  • There are four main dress codes employees may be required to follow.

The days of wearing formal suits to the office each morning are a thing of the past for many employers, research shows.

A study from 2017 by Robert Half Finance & Accounting revealed that just one-quarter of organizations require employees to dress formally at work. Specifically, only 4% make employees wear suits and ties, and just 21% require workers to wear dress slacks or skirts with button-down shirts.

Most employers gave employees the chance to wear a little more casual attire. More than 60 % of the organizations surveyed said they allow workers to dress somewhat casually by wearing khakis and polo shirts or sweaters, while 13% said they let employees dress even more casually by wearing jeans and T-shirts.

"Workplaces are evolving, and so are office attire trends," Paul McDonald, senior executive director at Robert Half, said in a statement.

While most employees said they appreciate not having to dress up every day, having a relaxed dress code makes it difficult for some workers to figure out what's appropriate to wear. [Is your office dress code reasonable?]

In a separate study from the staffing firm OfficeTeam, 56% of employees said they prefer more relaxed dress codes. However, more than 40% said they are at least sometimes unsure if a piece of their clothing is appropriate for the office.

Surprisingly, nearly half of the workers surveyed said they wouldn't mind wearing a uniform to work every day so they never had to think about what to wear.

"As work attire skews more casual, the rules about acceptable office wear aren't always clear-cut," said Brandi Britton, a district president for OfficeTeam.

Here are some of the clothing items employees said they were unsure about:

  • An off-the-shoulder ("cold shoulder") top
  • Leggings
  • A Hawaiian shirt
  • Flip-flops
  • A baseball hat
  • Jeans
  • Pajamas
  • Fishnet stockings
  • A tight sweater
  • Capri pants
  • A tracksuit
  • A low-cut top
  • Dressy sandals
  • A hockey jersey
  • Shorts
  • Cargo pants
  • A political T-shirt
  • Colored jeans
  • A tank top
  • Tennis shoes
  • A short skirt
  • A sheer top

"Besides following official company policies, employees should pay attention to the wardrobes of managers and colleagues," Britton said. "If you're uncertain about whether it's OK to wear something to work, it's best to play it safe by skipping it."

Main dress-code types

There are four main workplace dress codes:  

Business formal. Also called boardroom attire, this is considered the highest level of dressing for work. Those in the legal field, or those who routinely meet with executives, dress this way. Men and women dress similarly, in tailored suits in navy, black or gray. Men must wear modest ties. Shoes must be closed-toe in a neutral color. Women must wear tights and conservative accessories. For men and women, hair must be well groomed and a conservative style.

Business professional. While this is a step down from business formal, it is still traditional and neat. This style allows you to be a little freer with colors and patterns.

Men wear suits with conservative colors, but the suits can have patterns. Men can also wear neatly pressed, lighter-colored pants with a sports blazer. All accessories should be high-end, and shirts should be button-up with collars. Shoes should also remain conservative.

Women can wear a suit or a skirt and jacket with neutral colors. They must wear collared, button-up shirts, and shoes must be closed-toe and neutral in color. More noticeable jewelry is accepted, as long as it does not distract and is of high quality. Hair and nails should be well groomed and neat.

Business casual. This is the most common dress code that you will find in a typical office. It tends to mean different things in various offices. You will see more colors and accessories.

Men can wear collared shirts in any color, with or without a tie. Shirts and ties can have patterns. Pullovers and sweaters over the shirt are acceptable. Khakis or dress pants are also allowed, and they can be worn with or without a jacket.

Women can wear business separates instead of a suit. Colored shirts and blouses can be worn with slacks or khakis. Large jewelry may also be worn, along with more comfortable shoes.

Casual. Some offices have taken on a casual dress code. However, you must be careful not to go too casual.

Men can wear casual pants, but not jeans unless they're expressly allowed. Polos, crewneck sweaters and pullovers are allowed in many colors and patterns. Casual accessories and sneakers can be worn, and hair can be casual.

Women can wear tops that are fitted but not too tight. Slacks, skirts and, possibly, jeans are allowed, as are open-toed shoes and casual accessories.

How to dress for success in the office

To help employees navigate dress codes, Robert Half offered four tips for dressing appropriately in today's business environment:

  1. Take a cue from those in charge. When figuring out how to dress every day, take inspiration from your company's leadership. Consider how your boss, and even their boss, dress. It never hurts to dress for the job you want.

  2. Be neat. Even if you can dress as casually as you want, make sure the clothes you choose are clean and wrinkle-free.

  3. Focus on the details. A dress code doesn't just encompass the clothes you wear. Be sure to pay attention to the accessories you choose as well as your grooming.

  4. Think about your schedule. If you are meeting with clients or have an important meeting, you may want to dress a little more formally, even if your company has a casual dress code. In addition, you may want to keep a blazer in your office just in case your day changes unexpectedly.

When interviewing for a job, it's best to play it safe when choosing what to wear. While the company may have a casual dress code, you are better off dressing a little more formally for an interview, as you want to make a good first impression.

For a job interview, Robert Half suggested that women wear a blazer and dress pants or a business-appropriate dress and closed-toe shoes with a low heel, and that men wear a suit or jacket and tie.

If you are preparing for an interview, tap your network or check out the employer's social media activity for insights on the company culture. If you're still not sure what to wear, err on the formal side, McDonald said.

The Robert Half study was based on surveys of 2,200 chief financial officers from companies in more than 20 of the largest U.S. metropolitan areas. The OfficeTeam research was based on surveys of 390 workers over age 18 who were employed in an office environment.  



Image Credit: Jovanmandic / Getty Images
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