Weekly Wrap: Workplace Dress – Is It Wrong to be Casual All the Time?

From www.istockphoto.com
From www.istockphoto.com

Way back in early 1994, I was in Honolulu to interview for a job. I showed up in a suit and tie.

I got the job, but I never, ever dressed that way during my three-plus years in Hawaii again.

In fact, Casual Friday really started in Hawaii as Aloha Friday when the city of Honolulu allowed workers to wear Hawaiian (aloha) shirts part of the year, and the trend spread over into the general workforce. Yes, despite all those old re-runs of the original Hawaii Five-O with Jack Lord wearing a suit, businesses in Hawaii decided a long time ago that casual dress in a tropical climate made for happier employees.

Casual dress is the new normal

But most of America is not a tropical climate, and that makes you wonder: just what is it that has led to Casual Friday turning into casual dress on the job for so many so often? Is this a good thing that makes people more productive, or, is it just another sign of our ever-deteriorating standards?

Steve Giegerich, in his STL JobWatch blog at the St. Louis Post Dispatch, tackled this subject recently, although as he readily admits, “Never have I been less qualified to address a subject than the one you’ll read about today.”

Still, he paints a picture of what a lot of us probably know: casual dress on the job is the new normal. As he writes:

There is no one way to dress for business anymore, where there used to be a set formula,” said Nancy Nix-Rice, a St. Louis image and wardrobe consultant. …

Jeans, polo shirts and sweaters are standard attire in the boutique marketing firms, information technology and other companies with no designs of ever nailing down a spot on the Fortune 500.

“There’s no doubt some people have taken business casual way too far,” said Nix-Rice. “And that sends a message that either says, ‘I’m an intellectual, and can’t be bothered by something so mundane as to how I look.’ Or, it’s a (finger gesture) approach that tells your employer, ‘You can’t tell me what to do even if you own the company.’”

An HR push-back

123RF Stock Photo
123RF Stock Photo

As you might imagine, some HR executives tell him that they don’t necessarily agree that this trend of dressing down on the job is a good thing:

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With the exception of casual Fridays in the summer months and occasional informal office celebrations, Edward Jones employees are expected to meet certain standards whenever they stroll into corporate headquarters.

For men, the rules call for a shirt, tie, suit or sport coat. For female employees, it means business attire.

Human resources executive Beth Cook said the Edward Jones dress policy rests on “the fundamental belief that being a professional is dressing like one.”

And, if you are thinking that this casual dress at work wave is just a trend that will eventually run its course, consider this: Blogger Giegerich points out that a recent Time MoneyLand survey found that an overwhelming 93 percent of Millennial (also known as Gen Y) employees said they gravitate toward workplaces that allow them to dress “in a way that makes them comfortable.” The survey also found  that 79 percent of the respondents felt they should be allowed to wear jeans or denim to work at least some of the time.

Does how you dress at work matter? Have we taken Casual Friday too far? How is your organization handling it, and has it changed over the last few years?

I’d love to get some comments from some readers who are dealing with this issue, because like so many other things in the workplace, I don’t think the focus on casual dress is going away anytime soon.

More workers lunching at their desk

Of course, there’s a lot more going on this week than office dress codes. Here are some HR and workplace-related items you may have missed. This is TLNT’s weekly round-up of news, trends, and insights from the world of talent management. I do it so you don’t have to.

  • Collecting unemployment while still on the job. More than 90 District of Columbia workers have been suspended, and 61 fired, for collecting unemployment benefits while still working. According to the Washington Post, “Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s administration has fired 61 of 92 employees who were suspended in February pending the outcome of a review of city records to determine whether workers had fraudulently collected benefits in the past three years. … The improper payments ranged from a few hundred dollars to more than $20,000 per employee, authorities said.”
  • Bill banning “unemployed need not apply” moving ahead in California. Looking to join two other states, California may become the latest to ban job discrimination against the unemployed. According to U-T San Diego,Assembly Bill 1450, making its way through Sacramento, would make it illegal to list current employment as a prerequisite in job ads, and to take someone’s unemployment status into account when considering who to hire. If passed, California would join New Jersey and Oregon as the only states to prohibit employers from listing the requirement in ads. California’s legislation, however, would take it a step further by making it discrimination to use unemployment status in weighing a candidate.
  • Arming workers with Tasers? Is this a good workforce trend? You decide. The New York Daily News reportsthat “State Sen. Eric Adams (D-Brooklyn) … wants bus drivers, subway conductors and other transit workers to be able to protect themselves and passengers from crazy riders, criminals and even would-be terrorists. …  Adams, a retired NYPD captain, introduced a bill last year to allow Amtrak and commuter railroad workers and subway train crews to carry Tasers. It was buried in the state Senate’s Codes Committee. But now, spurred by the rise in attacks on bus and subway workers, the Brooklyn Democrat is amending the bill to include bus drivers, believing it may fare better in a different Senate committee, such as Transportation.”
  • Lunch at the desk becoming more common. Here’s another trend that shouldn’t surprise you: more workers are eating lunch at their desks. A story from the Louisville Courier-Journal reports that, “Only a third of American workers say they take a lunch break, according to a Web survey conducted last year by Right Management, a human resources consulting firm. The survey also found that 65% of workers eat at their desks or don’t take a break at all. CareerBuilder, another employment consultant, found that less than one-fifth of executives surveyed ate lunch at a sit-down restaurant, about 40% take a brown-bag lunch and 17% eat fast food.”

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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6 Comments on “Weekly Wrap: Workplace Dress – Is It Wrong to be Casual All the Time?

  1. Regarding dress code.   Guess I was spoiled when working in Silicon Valley.   Companies there didn’t care what you wore as long as it was not revealing.  No shorts were allowed, no tank tops, no low cut tops, etc.   Everyone I talked to said they felt more comfortable and more productive by dressing down.    Only if a person was meeting a customer or client or another person from outside the company that they felt would be offended, did they dress more formally.  Heck, employees in small companies were even allowed to bring their pets to work!

  2. I’m at the point in my life that I would likely take a lower paying job if it meant more flexibility in the dress code, work schedule and culture. I want to be happy and know I perform best when I am. People have different internal motivators and smart employers recognize that and act accordingly.

  3. I moved to Austin, TX in the fall from Dallas. HUGE difference in dress codes here. It’s rare to find people who dress up, even when people go to see clients. It’s very laid back. I would for a construction company with about 100 employees. We just hired a new person in our office who I think takes “casual dress” a little too far. She has worn a hoodie to work almost every day since she started. A HOODED SWEATSHIRT. I don’t care that we’re casual and you don’t see people. As our accountant I would appreciate at least a normal shirt with your jeans.

  4. I am a professional in the resume writing field. I am shocked and dismayed at the attire people wear to job fairs. It is not about your comfort. It is about your competence. First impressions only happen once! Regarding workplace clothing, I find that I perform better when I feel and look like an expert. “Dressing up” does not mean uncomfortable clothing. While I am on the subject, comb your hair, too.

  5. Re: Dress Code:  I can understand a dress code that serves a business function (like having to wear a hazmat suit when dealing with hazardous materials) and wouldn’t argue against that.
    Otherwise, what does it matter what I wear so long as I do a great job?
    Seems like dress code matters to others who are looking at us vs our own self comfort. An example would be Kayla Elliot (in comments) and her issue with a co-worker wearing a hoodie. If Kayla were blind (glad she isn’t) then would it matter that her co-worker was wearing a hoodie?

    Are we being discriminated against because of what we wear?
    Shouldn’t we be judged on the value we deliver for the business?

  6. I work in a major corporation that runs call center farms, and has the strictest business casual dress code I’ve ever encountered, as well as requiring us to pay actual money to wear jeans, with “dressy” tops, on casual fridays.

    I don’t wear jeans, because they aren’t comfortable to me, and I can’t pay actual money to be able to wear a sleeveless shirt (not a camisole, but like a blouse with no sleeves, no spaghetti straps involved.) on days when it’s more than 90 degrees out, or any of the other things I actually care about, so it’s a moot point.

    The biggest problem for a lot of younger people who are just starting out in life is the idea that you would need to buy “work clothes” and pay for a whole different working wardrobe, and I wonder if that and the disproportionate impact of the recession on young people is one of the reasons for the trends we see now that err on the side of vintage clothing, plain colored shirts, and natural hair colors that might be wearable at work.

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