February 20, 2001
Reprinted for Search Pro Inc. Newsletter 
Written by Crystal Dempsey, August 7, 2000
The Charlotte Observer
Charlotte, North Carolina


Is business casual wear on its way out already? In most cities - Charlotte included business casual thrives as increasingly more companies relax dress policies to reward employees and make casually clad clients more comfortable during meetings. First Union joined the ranks after Memorial Day when it went casual for the summer.

But two author/consultants say they see firms in New York and San Francisco nudging folks back to dressier, more professional attire. And USA Today recently warned that the business casual backlash has begun.

It's enough to make the savviest dressers cringe.

A female executive lamented to Charlotte retailer Paul Simon: "I don't have this wardrobe. What do I do?" She had changed by degrees over the years, going from jackets and skirts to pantsuits, and now was faced with buying sweater sets and less dressy pants. "To start all over again - at the same level - can be a formidable thing," says Simon.

A favorite perk

Business casual is rated as employees 'favorite perk - trouncing flexible spending accounts and on-site day care - in a poll by human resources firm Ceridian Employer Services.

"Associates love it. The staff loves it. It makes them happier and more upbeat," says Norma Di Donato, human resources manager for Smith Helms Mulliss & Moore, a Charlotte law firm.

A groundswell of employee requests prompted First Union to expand its business appropriate dress code to include casual for the summer, says Sandy Deem, a vice president in corporate relations. "Our clients are doing it, so we feel more comfortable with it."

"More than 60 percent of 130 companies we surveyed in February'99 have a business casual policy," says Kenny Colbert of The Employers Association, a group of 700 small to medium companies in the Charlotte area.

But USA Today recently warned that the business casual backlash has begun. Their examples:

The no-cost perk can be a managerial nightmare, one study says. It leads to bewildered bosses acting as fashion police and to increases in absenteeism, tardiness and harassing behavior.

Another study says casual attire fosters casual performance.

A tailored menswear group is advocating "Dress Up Thursdays" starting Sept. 21. Sales of casual apparel are robust, but marketing research firm NPD Group reports that men's tailored apparel sales dropped 5 percent in 1999.

Marry Charlotte employers say 'they haven't had any major problems like those cited by USA Today.

"People respect the fact that we have the benefit and no one wants to lose it," says Ronee Gawrych, director of experienced-hire recruitment at Arthur Andersen. The global consulting firm has a business casual dress code for the summer. It employs 500 people in Charlotte, Columbia, Greensboro and Raleigh.

Some places haven't jumped on the casual bandwagon. "At Bank of America, we don't have a (casual) dress code," says spokeswoman Jennifer Tice. 'We are a professional company. .... We trust associates to know to do the right thing and to know what's appropriate."

Uptown Charlotte at lunch midweek is a good way to gauge what's going on.

Men have traded in the suit-tie-crisp shirt combo for the softer (not-necessarily-kinder) knit golf shirts and cotton Dockers or khakis. They dress more like Tiger Woods than Donald Trump, even if they're built like President Clinton.

Women go the route of dress slacks or long skirts paired with nice blouses and sweater sets. It's the trends - capri pants, platform shoes, tops and dresses with spaghetti straps - that cause trouble.

What is client wearing?

The rule of thumb for most casual dress codes is to dress like the client. If the client dresses up, you dress up.

Winn Maddrey, president of Charlotte-based Crescent PR works with Internet/tech firms, which tend to be more casual.

Maddrey says, "Everyone at Crescent PR dresses comfortable, professional and casual the same way our clients dress. ... The suit or the suit and tie rarely appear."

Before the PR firm went business casual, a few clients would ask: Why are you wearing a tie?"

The request for mutual casual attire doesn't come just from the Gen-Xers or tech firms, says Dan Vicini, general manager of Wrenn Handling, a material handling firm in Charlotte that primarily sells and services forklifts. "Some of our customers have asked us not to wear a tie," says Vicini, 54. Wrenn Handling - whose clients include Philip Morris and Freightliner - went to 'business casual for the summer this year. It has casual Friday year-round. Another sign that times have changed: Dressing up may cost you a customer.

One Charlotte advertising executive (who asked to remain anonymous) is pretty sure he lost a prospective banking client because he wore cuff links to make the pitch.

"I grabbed the last clean shirt I had," he said. "It was one with French cuffs, so I had to wear cuff links." Throughout the meeting, he says, the mid-30s banker , who was looking for a low-budget campaign, "'would look at me, then look at my cuff links." 
He didn't get the account.

The bad and the maybe

Many firms have found that trust, common sense and specific dress codes get you only so far.

It's the bad stuff that sticks in people's brains. "About 97 to 98 percent of the time, people get it right," says Colbert of The Employers Association. "But it's hard to forget the 2 to 3 percent that don't."

"I've seen business goofy casual and business extra casual," says Mariellen Boldt, 29, a sales representative for Unisource, a division of Georgia-Pacific. She's been with the company for a year and stopped wearing suits because she felt overdressed.

Tales of business-casual-gone bad include:

  • A paralegal who wore an old sweatshirt, jeans and sneakers for the closing on a high-price house.
  • A tech support staffer who thought it was "completely cool" to wear a white T-shirt advertising his beer of choice.
  • A mid-level employee who sported go-go boots and an "Ally McBeal"-short skirt to a meeting with potential clients.

"Sometimes it looks like the only word that some people heard was 'casual,'" says Anna Marie Sabath, author of "Beyond Business Casual: What to Wear to Work if You Want to Get Ahead" (Career Press, $14.99).

'Men there are the more subtle violations - the ones that lead to what author Sherry Maysonave calls "Casual Confusion Syndrome." They're the toughest to deal with, Maysonave says, because one person's casual can be another's sloppy.

For instance:

A manager is chastised for wearing a plaid, short-sleeve shirt rather than the firm's signature golf shirt. ,

One man shows up in a not-so-cheap designer T-shirt. That's a no-no, he's told; you must wear a shirt with a collar. The next day, a co-worker sports a shirt with a banded collar. T-shirt man complains.

One firm says women can wear cropped pants. A few show up in form-fitting capris. An email banning cropped pants follows.

What happens in most cases is that employers will tweak policies to make them more specific, Colbert says.

Gender gaps, age gaps

Men think women have it easier because they have more choices. The women think men have it made because of lack of choice. "All they have to wear is a golf shirt and khakis and they're set," says one female worker.

Women have a tougher time because they can't differentiate between social attire and business apparel, says Maysonave, who wrote "Casual Power: How to Power Up Your Nonverbal Communication & Dress Down for Success" (Bright Books' $29.95). Maysonave says she was in a meeting recently where a 35 year-old man in a position of power told his 31 year-old female co-worker that she wasn't promotable because she wore sleeveless tops.

Sound like grounds for a lawsuit? The local Equal Employment Opportunity Commission office gets complaints, says spokeswoman Mindy Weinstein, but it doesn't deal with those kinds of cases.

Some labor lawyers are, though. "We are advising our clients that they need to monitor their employees' behavior," Kathryn Russo, an employment lawyer on Long Island, N.Y., told USA Today. "'When people start dressing more informally, many of our clients feel there is an increase in more informal behavior like flirting and dating."

Then there's the old vs. young battle, says consultant Cam Marston. His firm, Marston Communications, helps companies deal with generational issues. Older workers may resent having to modify extensive (and expensive) wardrobes, human resources managers and retailers say.

"The older generation would like to fit in with the younger group," says Maysonave. "But they don't want to lose their authority. They want to maintain credibility."

For younger workers, a relaxed dress code is a selling point. "When we're interviewing, it's obvious we're not wearing the navy blue suits," says Di Donato, the HR manager at Smith, Helms Mulliss & Moore. "People do seem pleased when they hear about our policy."

Some companies bill it as "you won't have to spend money on a wardrobe."

Younger employees "'don't want to worry about dry cleaning," says Marston, 31, who doesn't wear his token suit very often.

What's the bottom line?

While sales of suits and ties have dipped, retailers are making money on the biz casual trend. Brooks Brothers ' Men's Wearhouse and Banana Republic are three of the many stores that target the style in advertising campaigns.

Besides offering tips in stores, ads and on Web sites, some stores will come to the workplace and do "business casual" presentations. Banana Republic did one last year for Smith, Helms Mulliss & Moore.

In Charlotte, Paul Simon of Paul Simon Co. sent a mailer in the spring telling customers that the store could help with their transition to the new world order of business wear.

"Our perception is, everyone's mystified," says Simon. "Some people have had to buy whole new wardrobes, and some are dipping their toe in to test the water to see how it's going to play out."

Author/consultant Anna Marie Sabath thinks it'll play out like this: Business casual is no longer a perk. "A perk is a treat, like a hot fudge sundae," Sabath says. "If you have a hot fudge sundae every day, it's no longer a treat."

She expects people to go back to the basics when the economy starts to tighten. "When you dress down," Sabath believes, "the bottom line is affected eventually."

Maysonave says many people are buying into the myth that the Internet has completely changed how we do business and that the visual doesn't matter anymore. "They're wrong," she says. "You are your walking home page and "visuals do-matter."

Any good image consultant will tell you to dress for the job you want and to follow the lead of the top executive in your office.

Maysonave believes more people will start dressing up a little more. "I'm seeing more suits in New York and San Francisco, " she says. "But they may not be wearing a tie."

Will we go back to the days of the blue power suit and white shirts? Probably not. Many predict we'll end up with more specific dress codes that are the little less casual but still comfortable.

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