Sunday, May 26, 2019

The Problem with Business Casual Attire

A wise word from the highly estimable Miss Manners. This time, in relation to dress codes, the kinds that are going out of style in American business.

Think about it. The press is flooded with stories suggesting that certain members of the business community take a far too casual attitude toward other members of the business community. They seem to have gotten the impression that they are not entirely there to do business… but to engage in the kinds of casual encounters that ought rightly be relegated to Craigslist. Now, you might think, if you wanted to diminish the number of unwanted casual encounters in the workplace, that it would be best to have more formal dress codes.

But, the great minds of American business have decided that they really need to make the office more casual… to ensure that everyone is confused about why they are there and what they are to do.

Excuse this slight digression, which is not entirely on point. So, we turn to Miss Manners to restore our vestiary decorum.

Anyway, today’s letter writer is puzzled by his staff. In truth, he has a staff of one. And he has allowed his employee to dress like a common prole at work. It’s his office and one imagines that he has the right to allow his staff to do as it pleases. But, one day the boss needed to make a presentation. And he needed to have his assistant present. So, he recommended that his assistant dress in “business casual” attire. Guess what, his employee did not know what that meant. That's the charitable interpretation.

Here, without further ado, is the letter:

I own a small company and have one employee. Sean does a fantastic job at the office, but dresses rather casually. I am okay with this, as it is just the two of us in the office, and I want everyone to be comfortable.

We are now doing new client presentations, and I need Sean's expertise at these. I've asked him to dress in "business casual" attire for these events. However, he arrives on the day of the presentation with scuffed shoes and pants/shirt that are mismatched and below what I would consider business casual.

I know the clients will see this as unprofessional, and it may impact our ability to win new work. I suspect he may not have the background or knowledge to know how to dress properly for these situations.

I don't want to be rude or overstep my bounds within the workplace, but how much can I direct his wardrobe? If he doesn't own the proper attire, is it unreasonable to ask him to purchase it?

Who but Miss Manners could instantly get to the bottom of this. The problem lies in the common, everyday locution: business casual. As Miss Manners points out, it is an oxymoron. No manager should set policy by using incoherent phrasing. And he should certainly not to do by employing oxymorons:

He probably thinks he already complied. “Business casual” is an oxymoron, vague and undefinable, so Miss Manners hardly blames its hapless followers for interpreting it as they wish.

It is not unreasonable for you, as his employer, to require a certain dress code, but you must be specific. “These clients are a bit more formal, so business attire — a button-down shirt, dress shoes and pants that are not jeans or overly pocketed — is probably warranted. I know that we are generally more casual in the office when it is just us, but we want to make a good impression in order to help win the account.”

While you do not have to offer any other assistance with this, making sure that his salary is commensurate with the ability to purchase new clothes would not be remiss. Nor would the recommendation of a good shoe polish.


UbuMaccabee said...

A nation of bums. Just back from the symphony. 50% were in attire that I would wear to work around the house. Bums.

David Foster said...

There's no one-size-fits-all solution. Depends on the person's job, and the customs among the people (customers, vendors, etc) that they are interacting with.

For example, a graphics artist or a computer programmer who is *not* interacting with people outside the company really should not have to wear a suit (or female equivalent) to work every day. If they need to attend a customer meeting, then probably (depending on who the customer is and how they do things) then, yeah, they should dress up.

Freddo said...

Ha, I know of a smallish engineering firm in the Netherlands that has a policy when they hire a recent graduate than they sent him out with the (female) secretary to go buy a decent suit. (And I'm pretty sure that should the hire get upset about it, he would be let go within his probation period.)

stevew said...

I interviewed a prospective employee recently who is working as an inside sales rep, phone interaction with clients only. He was pursuing a job in my org which is outside, i.e. face to face sales. Someone advised him, his dad, I think, to wear a suit and tie. Nicely done. However, the shirt he chose was dingy though clean (old, perhaps), well and broadly wrinkled (hadn't faced an iron in awhile or ever), and he had neglected to put the stays in the spread collar so it had the curled jester shoes thing going on.

He did his pitch and went through the interview very well - he is capable and has the appropriate experience. At the end I offered him feedback and a critique. I mentioned the issue of the shirt (get a clean one, have it professionally pressed, and don't forget the collar stays). He took this coaching well, didn't appear offended, and offered that he would do better next time.

So I hired him.

Anonymous said...

Being an old, retired business owner I am in agreement somewhat. I do believe that when at work of any sort you should look professional and sharp as possible in your profession. Office or trades. I have said for 50 years or so that how you dress and groom shows how much respevt you have for your customers, your profession and for yourself. ---ken