Monday, July 05, 1999

Dress codes: a casual question

Businesses say what's suitable

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Casual dress is a norm for Kendle International Inc. employees. From left, Kim Williams, Mike Laird, Nuwan Nanayakkara, Quan Ren, Chris Bergen, Stefanie Adams.
(Gary Landers photo)
| ZOOM |
        Khakis and Polo shirts aren't just for Fridays anymore. Executive time travelers from the 1980s to an office in the late 1990s would feel woefully overdressed — any day of the week.

        Take Cincinnati utility Cinergy Corp., where years ago a corporate policy mandated coats and ties for men, skirts or pants suits for women. What started as “business casual Fridays” eventually found its way into everyday dress codes, spokeswoman Kathy Meinke said.

        But the movement toward casual dress hasn't been universal or equally understood. While some consider jeans and shorts casual, others draw the line at collared shirts and sport coats — and the resulting confusion has given rise to a second wave of reform. Dress codes are being rewritten once again, this time to make sure the word “business” is placed in front of “casual.”

        Kendle International Inc., based downtown, went casual in 1996 when it opened an office in Los Angeles, where casual dress was a more pervasive trend, company spokeswoman Julie Lerner said.

        “It seemed to be the standard out there, and it was more in keeping with our company philosophy anyway,” Ms. Lerner said.

        But less than three years later, the policy is being amended. Employees should receive an update to their handbook before the summer ends.

        “Our general guidelines were very vague,” Ms. Lerner said. “We're providing greater details based on informal comments from our managers.”

  Business casual do's and don'ts:
  • Don't expect to be issued a prescription. The definition of business casual depends on your industry, the region where you live and, most importantly, the culture of your organization.
  • When in doubt, dress up. Especially if you're making a first impression. “I always wear a suit to the first client meeting,” Meta Gaertnier, owner of Merlin Communications in Minnetonka, Minn., said. “It's a way for me to indicate respect.”
  • Take advantage of the latitude that business casual allows men and women to display a different side of themselves. Consult a color expert. Learn to accessorize. Take a friend shopping and ask him or her to point out what “looks like you,” wardrobe consultant Linda Weber said.
  • Look around you. Ms. Weber urges new employees to watch people come and go from the lobby or parking lot. Job applicants should also inquire about a written dress code. “Study what the culture and environment look like,” she said. “You must embrace it to fit in.”
        Kendle isn't alone. The biggest question facing employees and their human resources managers is: What, exactly, is “business casual”? Even different departments within the same company have differing definitions and standards.

        “Our policy is to leave it up to department managers to set Friday attire,” said Carl Alexoff, spokesman for Cincinnati's second-largest bank, Provident.

        Other companies leave the discretion up to the employee entirely. Cinergy's Ms. Meinke said employees of the energy company should con sider their position, duties and contact with the outside world in deciding what to wear.

        “You're an adult — you know how to dress accordingly,” she said.

        Eighty-four percent of companies surveyed by William M. Mercer and Bright Horizons Family Solutions allow employees to dress casually at least some of the time. But no precise definition for “business casual” exists. Nor do executives agree on whether it signals employee- friendliness or an appalling decline of standards.

        Consider these contradictions:

        • Employees at Firstar may wear “business casual” on Fridays, although that does not include jeans or denim — unless the denim has a Firstar logo.

        • Seventy-nine percent of employers say casual dress improves morale among employees, according to the Bureau of National Affairs. But St. Paul Cos. Chairman and Chief Executive Doug Leatherdale said the jeans and T-shirt Fridays have spun out of control, “and every CEO in town would agree with me.”

        • Almost two-thirds of companies that endorse casual dress have a written dress code, according to the bureau. Still, workers are confused. “Typically, policies state what is not acceptable, but they don't say what you can wear,” said Janice Walls, a Bryn Mawr, Pa.-based human resources consultant. Ms. Walls has produced videos for workers and managers about how to institute casual dress policies.

        Kendle's policy started out acknowledging that “Dress, grooming and personal cleanliness standards contribute to the morale of all associates and affect the business image.” The policy advises employees to “present a clean and neat appearance. ... Associates, if they wish, may wear business casual attire throughout the year.”

        But Ms. Lerner said some employees were taking “casual” too far, coming to work in sweat suits or too-short shorts in the summer. The new policy will list what is acceptable clothing (jeans, T-shirt or walking shorts) and what is not (T-shirts bearing distasteful or negative slogans, revealing clothing).

        Financial and insurance companies tend to retain more formality than do research, technology and manufacturing firms. Tolerance for business casual also varies by region. The East Coast, especially New York City, remains formal — though even Wall Street is loosening up, Ms. Walls said.

        Jim Mahon, business development director for Cincinnati's Bartlett & Co., said that despite having casual Fridays, his firm's associates still tend to dress more formally, in part because of the financial atmosphere and in part because of the 101-year-old firm's culture.

        “We're more formal because we're more traditional,” Mr. Mahon said. “If they have any kind of a meeting with clients, these folks will wear a tie.”

        Paul M. Ater, investment specialist with Northwestern Mutual Life's Robert W. Baird & Co. Inc., said he, too, tries to dress to the level of his clients. On first meetings, though, he'll wear a suit because he knows that people still judge others on how they look — “more so than people are willing to admit,” he said.

        To him, business casual means pressed slacks, a collared shirt and a sport coat — something that is comfortable, but that he could play golf in.

        “I feel I work better not in a suit and a tie,” he said. “I feel better. I'm relaxed, and I'm not pulling at my neck.”

        More than 87 percent of executives surveyed by Management Recruiters International say the business suit will disappear within 10 years. Not likely in the conservative Midwest. A surprising number of Tristate business people remain attached to their tweed and ties.

        Charlie Wilfong, manager of the Metropolitan Club atop RiverCenter, said the club surveyed its membership about a year ago about whether they wanted to loosen dress code standards. The club's Governor's Room still requires coat and ties for men and equivalent formality for women. The overwhelming majority (about 96 percent) of members voted to retain the formal standards.

        Nevertheless, the club did expand its informal Grill Room about two years ago from seating 60 to seating 90. Mr. Wilfong said the Grill Room, where collared shirts and slacks are allowed, is more routinely filled at lunchtime than the Governor's Room.

        “Yes, we're seeing an increasing shift to the business-casual style,” Mr. Wilfong said, adding that convenience and flexibility of the Grill Room are other reasons it was expanded and remains popular.

        Still, the casual Grill Room has its standards, too. Like businesses now forced to re-examine their dress-code policies, the club knows there's a difference between casual and sloppy.

        Wardrobe consultants urge casual dressers to buy clothing that is well-designed and well-constructed. They also shouldn't veer too wildly in their look, wearing a business suit one day and a flowing, artsy tunic the next.

        “It takes consistency in dress to convey the right image,” said Linda Weber, owner of 1 Image Wardrobe Services in St. Paul, Minn. “Classic style, neutral colors and good quality are the foundation of a wardrobe. To err too far on the side of personal expression is a mistake in business.”

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