February 3, 2001
By Erin Douglas
Policies and Administration Section


Your company has recently decided to abandon its Anything Goes approach toward workplace dress in favor of Business Casual. While you know what this means for you and your closet full of clothes, employees are likely in the dark about the proposal—particularly its impact on their comfort level and fashion budgets.

Before too many rumors get rolling, commit to explaining the new clothing covenant to worried workers.

Get Specific
It’s little wonder that employees flounder in the face of Business Casual dressing, particularly if the only light managers can shed concerns what not to wear. Hauling in the specifics about what is welcome at your company may help dissolve this problem.

If your company has a dress code, update it with an eye toward detail to reflect the new, more casual mode of dress. Delete items no longer required on workers’ bodies, such as pantyhose or ties, and add elements that are now welcome, such as khakis and loafers.

If your company eschews dress codes, consider lobbying for a policy to lend credence to the new look—and help employees negotiate their ways and wardrobes around it.

Sherry Maysonave, image consultant and author of Casual Power: How to Power Up Your Nonverbal Communication and Dress Down for Success, echoes the importance of specifics: "What has shocked many companies is that they cannot leave the interpretation of dress codes open to employees. If anything, business casual requires a more definite dress code—right down to specific fabrics, garments, necklines and hemlines."

Marketing Coordinator for Macy’s West Carolina Pleytez concurs, noting the ebb and flow of corporate wardrobe consulting clients: "Companies come to our program desperate to communicate guidelines that are new or changing and to make sure there aren’t any gray areas." As it turns out, the consultants’ busiest season is summer, when the onslaught of sandals, tank tops and short skirts puts open ended or laissez faire policies to the test—often with uncomfortable results.

Sharing the Secret
Communicating to confused employees what is and what isn’t Business Casual is most, if not all, of your battle. First, pick your weapon. Perhaps an explanation in the employee handbook of the dressing policy—including dos and don’ts—will suffice. If that feels insufficient, or if you’re still beset by employee questions, schedule a lunchtime seminar and create handouts rife with visual examples. Or, get fancy: Bring in the experts, such as workplace image consultants, trainers or buyers from a local department store, to stage a fashion show.

If you choose to do the enlightening, begin by stressing that assembling a collection of polished, practical business attire need not be an expensive ordeal. Encourage employees to stretch the basics they already have—or invest in them if they’re starting from scratch.

Pass along these business casual basics.

Begin with starter pieces. Zoom in on basics such as a navy suit or a pair of khakis in good condition.

Mix and match. Pair these basics with a variety of tops, such as sweaters, knits and shells for women, sweaters, vests and light jackets for men. For footwear, recommend flats or boots for women, Oxfords or Monk Straps for men. Says Jennifer Brown, Personal Shopper for Macy’s West: "Just because you have a suit doesn’t mean that you just have one outfit."

Add finishing touches. Use a light final touch: gold hoops or pearl studs for women; a leather or cloth band watch, not a sport watch, for both guys and gals. Beware the urge to pile on the accessories, since they can make a smart looking outfit veer into the flashy, outdated or cheap. "The fewer accessories, the better," says Brown. "And keep them simple."

When Business Casual Is Big Business
Casual dress, often applauded as the Great Equalizer for the workplace, gets trickier when employees need to convey authority or command a room—jobs traditionally given a boost by the aptly named Power Tie or Power Suit. Consultant Sherry Maysonave offered a few specific clothing guidelines for men and women giving a presentation or heading up a division in a Business Casual environment.

Guidelines for Women

· Wear a jacket. "It’s a power essential, says Maysonave. If you eschew jackets, choose a structured cardigan that looks like a jacket.

· Lean toward a more tailored look, avoiding khakis, which often appear too casual and aren’t always attractive on overweight women.

· Opt for sheer hose or tights.

· Choose simple, polished shoes.

Guidelines for Men

· Wear a jacket.

· Choose a shirt with long sleeves—not golf sleeves or polo shirts—and a collar.

· Lean toward dressier dress pants.

· Use a leather belt.

· Wear socks and polished shoes.

Erin Douglass is Content Editor for HR One and a Contributing Writer to the website.

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