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Dr. Shirley Says...

Casual Dress:  Morale Booster 
or Image Buster?

One thing for sure, casual dress does not mean "slob" dress.

According to a 1998 Society for Human Resource Management survey, 36 percent of organizations have daily casual dress and another 61% allow casual dress once a week. Interestingly enough though, a recent poll by the national employment law firm, Jackson Lewis, found that 40 percent of human resource managers linked relaxed attire to a laxity in workplace behavior, 44 percent noticed an increase in tardiness and absenteeism; and 30 percent noted a rise in flirting. Yet, improved morale, increased camaraderie–especially between managers and staff–comfort, and a better work environment are some of the effects cited of casual dress in the workplace.

While offering many perceived benefits, casual dress can also open the proverbial can of worms. It’s no wonder then that managers and employees alike are left struggling with many concerns. In fact, some businesses are hiring consultants to help employees determine what is appropriate for work, and what is better left at home.

Keep in mind that casual dress has more than one definition. It means different things for different companies. Casual dress at IBM for example, is unlikely to be the same as casual dress at Advertising Age magazine or at a chemical manufacturing plant or other industrial-type organization, and so on. One thing for sure, casual dress does not mean "slob" dress. Guidelines on what is and is not appropriate are important.

A broad definition of casual business dress would be clothing that allows you to feel comfortable at work, yet always look neat and professional. On the inappropriate, unacceptable list are jogging or sweat suits, spandex, jeans (in some organizations), miniskirts, cutoffs, tank tops, muscle shirts, t-shirts with indecent sayings, and anything too tight, too sheer, too low-cut. This may seem like common sense, but too many times we’ve seen employees take the concept of casual days a bit too far. An employee I know equated the casual look with the unshaven, disheveled, rolled-out-of-bed, ready-to-wash-the-car look. Always remember, there is no substitute for good taste. In general, a quick check in the mirror each morning should be enough to tell you if you’re on the right track. If you look like you’re dressed to go somewhere other than work, you probably aren’t dressed appropriately.

The actual mix of casual clothing in your work setting depends on the work you do, the comfort level of your co-workers and management, the nature of your contacts with customers outside the company, and adherence to your company’s casual dress policy.

It is important for organizations to develop a casual dress policy in an effort to communicate its expectations of what is meant by casual dress and what is acceptable as well as unacceptable. Also, as with most other things, management must set the tone. Managers not only talking the talk, but walking the walk will help employees maintain the appropriate level of professionalism for the organization.

Centuries ago, Shakespeare wrote, ".... and the apparel oft proclaims the man." Here we are centuries later, and research psychologists are still telling us that it takes approximately 10 to 15 seconds to create a first impression. Fair or not, like it or not, we never get a second chance to make a first impression, and those critical first impressions are lasting impressions.

Your appearance simply complements all the great stuff you already have going for you. It gives you a psychological edge. Though most of us would prefer to be judged by our knowledge, skills and ability only–in today’s competitive business world, every message we send needs to be positive. So that means not only do you need the knowledge, skills and ability–you also should look the part of a competent, credible, self-confident business person–even in casual dress.

A final word: One of the most important points to remember about casual dress is that the company’s image comes before your image. What you wear to work should work for the greater good, not against it. While casual dress, for the most part, may be in place to boost morale, in the end, business is still business and you need to dress accordingly.

Available now: Casual Dress in the Workplace: 101 Terrific Tips


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