Has Casual Friday Become Too Casual?

Friday is, hands down, the best day of the workweek. Not only is it the last working day, it's usually in conjunction with pay day, summer hours and, if you're lucky, a casual dress code.

But how casual is too casual?

Remember Casual Friday at TV's favorite paper company in Scranton, Penn.? One Friday at Dunder-Mifflin, Oscar showed up wearing sandals, Stanley in a sweat suit, and Meredith had the gall to don a mini-dress sans undergarments -- not a pretty sight when she ends up exposing herself while using the copy machine. When Angela complains about her co-workers' attire, Toby calls an office meeting and cancels Casual Friday when it's clear that certain staff have interpreted the term too loosely.

Although this might seem like an extreme example of "too casual," it's not far off from what employers have seen in their own offices.

Richard Laermer, CEO at RLM Public Relations, says he once had a male intern wearing capri pants, plus many sockless employees and a few with holes in their jeans. All of these are no-nos, he says.

"I've sent people to the corner [near our office] where there's an H&M, Banana Republic and a Gap," he says. "I have said, 'Go get something to wear that doesn't make you look 12.'"

Mary Harris, an etiquette consultant who specializes in business etiquette for small and large companies, says she visited a client's office on Casual Friday and saw everything from football jerseys to sweat suits.

"Our culture has gotten so relaxed that casual to many [people] means what you would wear around the house on a Saturday," she says. "It's gotten lost that the meaning is still professional but somewhat relaxed."

Casual confusion

It's no wonder that the meaning of casual has been lost on employees -- after all, it's defined as "without formality, relaxed." Yet, what is casual for one person or company may be totally different for another.

"Few employers expected, when 'business casual' or even 'casual casual' policies were instituted, that anyone would interpret them as allowing flip flops, major views of cleavage or stomachs, intimate garments or athletic wear," says Sue Thompson, a professional speaker on workplace issues. "Many employers are just fed up with people dressing like they are still in college and have just rolled out of bed."

As a result, some companies have had to embark on stricter -- or at least more defined -- dress codes in the office.

I Love Rewards, a web-based employee rewards and recognition program provider, implemented a dress code in 2006 that would hopefully refine the line between casual and business casual: First Date Dress Code.

"It's exactly what it sounds like. Come to work dressed as you would for a first date: classy and sophisticated," says Razor Suleman, founder and CEO of the company. "I think casual is a vague term and can mean anything from shorts and t-shirts to a suit with no tie. This is why First Date Dress Code works. We created it, we set the guidelines and the employees made it their own."

Economic effect

Some companies have chosen to define their dress codes in a different ways and for different reasons. Laermer recently decided to allow his employees at RLM to wear jeans every day as a result of the economy.

"People want to give their folks 'something,' since more money is not going to happen. When I realized there was not going to be a 'Summer Friday' this year, I decided that in this era of recession and blues, we need to be comfortable," he says. "I believe we (and I especially) are happier to come to work and push as hard as we have to during this difficult time. It's a lot about working early and late and I don't want to be thinking about ties."

Casual counsel

Having trouble deciding what is "too casual" for the office? Here are five tips for you to dress professionally, yet still allow you to be comfortable in the office:

1.Culture check
"In choosing casual dress for your current or applied-for job, consider the corporate culture," says Susan Fitter Sloane, founder of Global Manners. Dress in a way that is consistent with your company's values, whether they are conservative or liberal.

2. Blend comfort and professionalism
"Keep in mind that dressing professionally and being comfortable are not two mutually exclusive things," Thompson says. "You may be psychically uncomfortable in business attire, but there is no reason the clothing you purchase should be ill fitting and uncomfortable."

3. You are what you wear
"Remember you are an important part of your employer's image," Suleman reminds. "The way you dress reflects the type of company you work for and speaks volumes to your customers and clients on how your company sees itself and its people."

4. Be economical
"Dressing professionally does not have to cost a fortune," Thompson says. "'I can't afford it' is no excuse. The problem may be that you do not know how to dress well or carry it off." Check your local Goodwill for some very nice, freshly dry-cleaned, high-end suits or separates, she suggests. They may need to be hemmed, slightly altered or have buttons replaced, but these are easy fixes.

5. Make good choices
When there is a truly casual atmosphere on the job, at least don't wear anything that represents what you do away from the office like going to the beach, exercising, cleaning the garage or rearranging your attic, Thompson says. "What would you wear to work if you knew the president of the company would be asking you to come to his or her office that day? Always be ready."

Thompson reminds employees the following: "It is not your civil right to dress as you please. A casual, dress-down day is a privilege; learn do it with style."

Next: Work Wear Do's and Don'ts >>

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