What Does Business Casual Really Mean?

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Last week a client called me with a dilemma: “My new company has a Business Casual dress code.  There are a lot of people I need to influence.  How do I make my appearance appropriate and professional?”

business-casualShe is not alone in her uncertainty. Wikipedia states “…there is no generally accepted definition of business casual wear. The interpretation of business casual differs widely among organizations and is often a cause of confusion.”

Consider these differing perspectives:

  • Business is defined as “purposeful activity.”
  • Casual is defined as “feeling or showing little concern,” (something we definitely don’t want associated with our work product.)
  • Enlightened employers want employees to be happy, comfortable and productive.
  • Enlightened employees recognize that their image communicates volumes, and impacts how others respond to them.

So how do you comply with a Business Casual dress code or “Dress Down Fridays” and still send the message that you have your act together and are capable of handling a challenge?” As a provider of leadership consulting services and career transition programs, we offer 4 basic guidelines:

  1. Don’t lose the collar. Collars on a shirt or a jacket carry visual authority, providing dark/light contrast and straight lines, which psychologically convey action and alertness.  For example, if your company has a “Jeans Friday” policy, (and that would be the only time I would venture into the office in jeans) you might want to choose the absolute nicest, darkest pair of jeans possible and pair them with a crisp collared shirt, a blazer and polished loafers. Women could select dark or black trouser jeans, and pair them with a blouse and cardigan. This will prevent your look from sliding into slouchy, and convey the message, “I can be counted on to get the job done.” vs. “I might just duck out for an early happy hour.”
  2. Keep attention up near your face. Your face is communication central, where you speak, listen, and show expression. Casual clothing is often more body-conscious, like leggings, or clingy tops. Casual attire can also lead to casual behavior, something most employers aren’t looking for. By choosing clothing that maintains contrast and attention up near your face – perhaps with a collar, scarf, tie or necklace — you are directing others to focus on the “business end” of your image.
  3. Choose fabric wisely.  A handy rule of thumb: If it’s an outfit in which you could do yard work, ride a bike, or go clubbing, it’s probably not appropriate for the office. Spandex is for the gym or family room. So are printed or worn-out t-shirts, anything ripped (accidentally or by design), wrinkled or eroded to the texture of a baby blanket. Flannel is for sleeping or hiking. Fabric carries messages too, and when we mix messages, it’s difficult to be taken seriously. There’s a time-tested mantra in the career transition industry: “Never make phone calls in your jammies.” We convey what we feel.
  4. Let your feet do some talking. Save the sneakers and flip-flops for weekend wear. When it comes to your overall image, the devil is truly in the details, and you can instantly diminish your credibility by wearing a big ol’ pair of white sneakers with your khakis. Men can invest in a pair of black dress shoes that look sharp with slacks or good jeans. Women can express themselves with dressy leather shoes or boots that convey professionalism as well as personal style! Remember, Business Casual is NOT casual.

How have you managed your Business Casual wardrobe? We’d love to hear your stories.

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