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Too Casual? Dressing for Success in Today's Workplace

Too Casual? Dressing for Success in Today's Workplace
Credit: Maridav/Shutterstock

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

The study by Robert Half Finance & Accounting revealed that just one-quarter of organizations require employees to dress formally at work. Specifically, only 4 percent make employees wear a suit and tie and just 21 percent require workers to wear dress slacks or skirts with button-down shirts.

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

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

While most employees appreciate not having to dress up every day, having a relaxed dress code is causing workers some difficulty trying to figure out what's appropriate to wear. [Is your office dress code reasonable? How to create a solid policy]

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

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.

Among some of the clothing items employees are unsure on are:

  • 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 track suit
  • 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."

To help employees, Robert Half offers 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, dresses. It never hurts to dress for the job you want.
  2. Be neat. Even if you can dress as casual 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 and 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 formal, 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 unexpectedly changes.

When interviewing for a job, its 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. You want to make as good a first impression as possible.

For a job interview, Robert Half suggests women wear a blazer or business-appropriate dress and closed-toe shoes with a low heel, with men faring best in a suit or jacket and tie.

For job seekers preparing for interviews, tap your network or check out the employers' social media activity for insights on the company's corporate culture. If you're still uncertain of 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 the age of 18 who are employed in an office environment.  

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based writer and editor with nearly 20 years in media. A 1998 journalism graduate of Indiana University, Chad began his career with Business News Daily in 2011 as a freelance writer. In 2014, he joined the staff full time as a senior writer. Before Business News Daily, Chad spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Chad has also worked on the other side of the media industry, promoting small businesses throughout the United States for two years in a public relations role. His first book, How to Start a Home-Based App Development Business, was published in 2014. He lives with his wife and daughter in the Chicago suburbs.