Business Casual: The New Dress Code

There was a time when every professional knew you wore a suit on the job and for an interview. One Fortune 500 Company even required prospective employees to wear one when requesting an application.

Times have changed. Now, both men and women go to work dressed casually. Today’s question isn’t, “Should I wear black or navy?” It’s, “What’s business casual and what’s appropriate for my interview?”

In general, business casual means dressing professionally, looking relaxed yet neat and pulled together. Business casual is not a license to be sloppy or dress inappropriately. That means no shorts, low-cut shirts, flip-flops, ratty jeans or T-shirts. It does mean respecting and following your company’s dress code. But what if you don’t know the company’s dress code, what to wear for an interview or even how to dress after a promotion to the executive suite?

When in doubt:  Ask Human Resources

Generally, someone in the HR department participated in the planning and adopting the company’s dress code. HR may have handouts explaining the policy or can provide guidelines for business casual and what’s appropriate to wear on the job at various levels.

Develop Savvy

Business dress for women means a suit or tailored dress in conservative colours (black, gray, beige) with low-heeled, closed-toe pumps and conservative jewelry. For men, business dress means a conservative suit, not a sports coat, plus a long-sleeved shirt, tie and leather oxfords or loafers.

Business casual means a tie isn’t necessary. Khakis with a long-sleeved shirt are popular. For women, it’s a dress, skirt and blouse, or slacks and blouse with flat heels allowed.

Window Shop

Go to the stores to get a sense of the latest styles. Observe what the mannequins wear, particularly, at stores catering to business casual clients like Nordstrom’s, Brooks Brothers, Banana Republic or J. Crew.

Trust Your Instincts

Male or female, reluctant shopper or not, experts say no matter what’s appropriate, it needs to fit well and you need to feel comfortable in it. If it doesn’t, you need to keep looking. Shop around, try some stuff on, see what looks good to you and feel appropriate, then head to the register.

Consult a Personal Shopper

When all else fails, enlist the help of an expert. Most better clothing stores have personal shoppers or trained salespeople who can advise you. They’ll help you choose and plan for a business wardrobe, paying particular attention to what’s appropriate in your locale or region of the country. As a free service, this is one resource the fashion-challenged should take advantage of.

By learning the company’s dress code and using resources either on the Web or through consultants at clothing stores, you’ll soon find your own style and what’s appropriate for your situation. You may even discover all you need to do is loosen your tie or switch to a sweater set to be dressed appropriately for today’s new dress codes.

Look the Part

Whether you’re going to the bank for a loan or going to the local auto shop for an oil change, you should look the part. While it’s nice to think that appearances don’t matter, they usually do.

I’m not talking about dressing up or staying in fashion (although I highly suggest it). This is not a diatribe on how casual Fridays and the T-shirt represent the decline of Western civilization. I’m simply saying that you are more likely to command more respect and get what you want if you are dressed appropriately for your surroundings.

If I’m going to the garage to get my car serviced or to buy tires, I don’t wear a suit. I put on jeans, boots and a cap. I want to be taken seriously by the person with whom I’m dealing. I may be as knowledgeable as the mechanic, but he or she will make instant assumptions about me based upon my appearance. If I’m in a suit and look as though I don’t even pump my own gas, how seriously will I be taken? By the same token, if I’m going to the bank to talk with someone about a loan, I don’t wear shorts and a cap.

Your appearance must be consistent with your message.

This really hit home with me last year at the National Speakers Association Annual Convention. I was listening to a speech by one of the nation’s leading sales experts. The audience was made up of sales trainers and sales consultants — people who make their living teaching others how to make more sales, improve relationships with customers and present a professional image to customers.

Half of the room seemed to fit the image of someone whom a major organization would hire to help their sales staff become more effective. They were dressed casually, yet professionally and tastefully.

It’s like the saying, “Don’t trust a skinny chef.” You should look the part. Of course, looks and appearances aren’t everything. But don’t forget the power of first impressions. It’s very difficult to overcome a poor first impression, regardless of your knowledge or expertise.

Shoeless Joe

One afternoon, Joe, a 27-year-old MBA student, walked into the career centre at his University. He was disgruntled because he was going to miss a workshop that all students were required to attend. He came in to make a case for why he should be granted an excused absence. Joe was a professional. He had spent the past four years working for a major brokerage house. Joe grew more agitated as his case was falling upon deaf ears. He finally lost control and began screaming at the career centre director and another staff member, saying, “I’m not getting my MBA for the education. I don’t care about your rules. I came here for one reason, to make a ton of money. I pay for tuition. I pay your salary. You work for me.” Joe continued to make his argument about his professional standing and why he deserved special treatment from the career staff that he had just humiliated.


However articulate Joe was in making his case, he was missing one crucial element that would have helped convince others that he was a professional to be taken seriously…shoes. I’m not saying that his shoes were bad, his shoes were nonexistent. He had come in wearing jeans, a shirt and no shoes. Here was a 27-year-old professional student who walked into an office to make an argument, and he didn’t have the sense to put on shoes. Joe then told the director, “I don’t like your attitude. I’m going to talk to the dean.” The director told Joe to go right ahead and pointed him down the hall. Shoeless Joe then spun around and went to make his barefoot argument to the Dean of the business school. He was equally effective there.

Smart Stuff to Remember

  • Sad but true, appearances do matter
  • Don’t underestimate the power of a first impression. People make assumptions about you based upon your appearance at your first meeting.
  • You are more likely to receive better service, command more respect and get what you want if you are dressed and speak appropriately for your surroundings.
  • Your appearance should be consistent with your message.



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