When Did Business Casual Become “What Not To Wear”?

What NOT to wear to the company Christmas party!

What NOT to wear to the company Christmas party!

Civility in the work place is one of those subjects that most of us don’t put much thought towards. With all the rules, policies, guidelines, expectations and training, we usually are hypnotized into a false sense of comfort in our respective work environments. And yet, incivility in the work place is a real problem – with small incivilities stacking on top of each other until truly awkward or dangerous eruptions of uncivil behavior manifest.

Time and again, news stories snap us back into a reality that is much more dark and troubling than worrying about what the latest watercooler gossip is or guessing who is next to be let go. Just like in our schools, our courts and our Little League baseball diamond, there has been case after case of individuals walking into an office building or factory and opening fire on their co-workers; committing the ultimate act of incivility. I am certain that all of us have personally experienced the time-warp like transportation of the typical school yard bully, and their behaviors, to a corporate conference room filled with colleagues. We’ve witnessed behaviors in the workplace that range from petty insults to spit-slinging screaming matches. As with all other aspects of our society, the work place is just as vulnerable to uncivil, as well as inhumane, behaviors.

As I’ve stated many times in this blog, I am convinced that what we experience in the way of incivility in any environment isn’t an instantaneous phenomenon. Instead, incivilities that drive us to exasperation are iterative; small incivilities lead to larger incivilities and so on.

Which brings me to a business environment incivility that probably seems trivial to most people. While walking through the halls of a large corporation recently, I had to ask a colleague if it was “dress down” day. I’m not suggesting that I asked if it was “business casual day”, as the attire that I was seeing was several notches below casual. I saw everything from rumpled flannel shirts to day-glo fuschia thong tops peeking above a jeans waistline. I saw what has apparently become the official “bro” or “dude” uniform; flip flops with terribly worn jeans. This look gave me the distinct feeling that way too many middle-aged middle managers watch “The Big Lebowski” every weekend. There was certainly a “club” variation on the theme too, where the attire looked perfectly suited for an after party in the wee small hours of the morning. While dressy, the look came off as distinctly not the right kind of dressy.

So, I’m certain your wondering about what clothing has to do with civility. A lot more than we might care to admit. One of the key reasons for an increase in incivility has been explosion in the idea that we all know each other; I referred to this effect earlier in Familiarity Breeds Contempt for Civility. Many “old timers” lament the demise of professional attire in the workplace, without being able to articulate why. “It just looked better” or “I love neckties” aren’t really strong arguments to bring back the power suit and everything in your closet being a shade of navy blue.

When I dress like I’m raking leaves – and I am, in fact, holding a conference call with a key client, I’m setting myself up for a litany of uncivil behaviors from friends, colleagues and enemies. When we dress like we are going out dancing, or running off to the greasy burger joint down the road, or like we simply rolled out of bed and came to work we are exposing our personal selves to our professional colleagues. We are inviting people into our personal realm by dressing like we would if our friends (real friends) were coming over to watch the game, eat nachos and drink beer. Which serves as that jumping off point to being too familiar with each other. And, once we become familiar, we feel entitled to share opinions, glances, gestures, language and attitude that pushes the boundaries of civil behavior in the work place.

It isn’t that someone’s underwear hanging out of their pants is skanky. It is that someone’s underwear hanging out of their pants breeds a comfort level with that person that opens up a potential Pandora’s box of bad behavior – on both parties part. Okay, so I have to admit. It is skanky.

Clothing informs culture and behaviors. Before anyone gets overly concerned that bringing suits back to the workplace, or uniforms back to the shop floor will lead to a regimented and totalitarian dominated career experience – ask yourself if the “live and let live” business uncasual approach hasn’t caused the civility pendulum to swing too far in the opposite direction. I’m not asking for the resurrection of gray flannel (although it would be nice to see men’s dress hats make a comeback). I’m just asking that the “dudes” hang up their flannel and low rider jeans for sensible khakis and an iron.

Civility is about boundaries. Fashion in the workplace is an important,albeit overlooked, component of civility because it helps to subliminally enforce barriers that make us understand that we are at work to …well, work. Not bowl, cut the lawn, do the nasty dance, hunt turkey, root on our favorite NASCAR driver, collect phone numbers or go water skiing.

Now, put on a belt, get a haircut and get to work!

2 Responses to When Did Business Casual Become “What Not To Wear”?

  1. Val says:

    We must lay some of the responsibility on corporations for having vague definitions of “business casual”, “dress down Friday”, etc.
    If those definitions are unclear then it is left up to each employee to establish their own standards of acceptable business attire.

  2. Mike says:

    I always enjoyed dressing up for work, crisp white shirt and jacket. Not wearing a tie was as casual as I ever got around the office. I just thought it added a sense of seriousness and respectability. However, in every management job I have had I have always had to call some employee down for inappropriate dress. Whether it was women wearing skirts so high they couldn’t cross their legs without revealing something, or men coming to work in satin pajamas or looking like they were heading for a match. It’s individuality without common sense, I think.
    And what about personal hygiene? It is embarrassing to have to tell employees that they need to go home and wash under their arms or change their socks. Sadly, I generally felt more humiliated than the employee.

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