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What Business Casual Means -- and Doesn't Mean (part 1 of 2)

Categories: Workplace Etiquette

workplace-shoes T-Shirts, Sandals & Tanks … Oh My!

Is it just me, or does summertime feel more relaxed and more casual than the rest of the year?

It makes perfect sense. After all, conducting business lunches on some restaurant’s outdoor deck is definitely more relaxing than having to reschedule them because of the two feet of snow that just buried your Prius.

Many businesses allow business casual attire throughout the heat of the summer months. (And many don’t, so make sure you find out before slipping into that polo.) But guys, does this mean you can show up to work in Birkenstocks, cargo shorts and your favorite Pink Floyd T-shirt? And ladies, does this mean you can put on your spaghetti-strap sundress and spike-heeled gladiator sandals?

Most definitely NOT on both fronts!

But, what is "business casual," anyway, and how can you stay cool but maintain your professional appearance at work?

One of the main problems in many workplaces is that no one has stopped to really define business casual, enabling sweaty and unsuspecting employees of both genders to crossing the business casual line at the office.

Every company’s corporate culture is different, and different industries also demand more or less formality -- seasons notwithstanding. Your goal should always be to feel comfortable but look professional, and it can be done. When in doubt, look to what your managers and higher-ups are wearing as business casual, and don’t go beyond it.

Men, are your managers in polos and dockers? Follow their lead, but don’t take the fact that they’ve traded their button-down shirt for a polo to mean that baggy cargo shorts fall into that same category.

Ladies, are female managers wearing casual skirts or slacks, perhaps even that perfectly pressed pair of capris? Fine for you too then, but don’t go beyond that.

No female managers or execs at your place of work? Hmmmm ... well, that’s a topic for a different blog post!

Here's some guidance. These items of clothing are always don’ts, regardless of the season:

  • Jeans (unless your company dress code approves them) and ripped jeans in particular
  • Athletic wear (e.g. sweat suits) -- but you’d never wear anything like that, would you?
  • Leggings
  • T-shirts
  • Bare midriffs
  • Low-cut garments -- and this includes low in the front or the back
  • Any kind of workout clothes, running or gym shoes, sneakers or sandals
  • Ripped or tattered clothing
  • Extremely tight-fitting tanks, short skirts or other suggestive clothing

Of course, the Eastern half of the country dresses much more formally than the Western half. Rumors surface all the time about Silicon Valley meetings filled with mega-preneurs in cargo pants, tees and Keens.

So, know what’s appropriate in your industry and your area. And it wouldn’t hurt to know what’s appropriate when you travel to a different country or a different part of the U.S., either. You want to be noticed for your accomplishments, your leadership ability, your professionalism in all areas -- including wardrobe.

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