By Alan Neff
In the workplace, two words frequently cause confusion and, from time to time, painful embarrassment: “Business Casual.” It can be awkward to walk into any situation dressed for rugby when everyone else is attired in yacht-club whites for croquet on the lawn.
I actually was the first advocate of business casual in my workplace, when law offices were the last to embrace workplace fashion-flexibility. I’ve watched our workplace evolve and develop surprisingly detailed rules for Casual Fridays.
Generally speaking, “B-C” means “what your workplace allows you to wear on days (or at business events, such as conferences) when you do not have to wear traditional office clothing (suit, dress-shirt, tie, socks and laced dress-shoes).”
Unfortunately, definition by a negative is not terribly helpful. You need to fill in the blanks with actual workplace-appropriate clothes.
Besides it’s relatively high OQ (Oxymoron Quotient), “Business Casual” is slippery in definition and perilous in application. For men, Business Casual can range from: (1) dress-slacks and open necked, long-sleeved dress-shirts, with socks and laced shoes; through (2) blue jeans, golf/polo-shirts/short-sleeved dress shirts, and loafers (with or without socks); further into (3) Hawaiian shirts, jeans or cargo shorts, and sandals; and all the way to (4) bike-messenger chic – mid-calf black-denim cutoffs, black sneakers with low/no socks, and artfully torn tees.
In short, “Business Casual” is endlessly mutable, depending on the values and preferences of management in a given workplace. Context is everything.
Fortunately, for an entry-level male, deciding how to dress casually for the workplace is not a complicated six-dimensional chess problem. If you interviewed in the work-place (rather than entirely on-line), and on more than one occasion, you probably have an idea of how your colleagues dress on typical work-days. If you’re lucky, you interviewed on Business-Business and Business-Casual days. That would give you a complete picture of dress expectations in your new home-away-from-home.
Initially, wear what you see to be appropriate on both formal and casual days. If you don’t have a good sense of what’s appropriate on Business-Casual days, begin by erring on the prudent side. On your first business-casual day, dress as you would on a regular work-day, or wear a blazer over an open-necked dress-shirt and slacks, with socks and laced shoes from your Business-Business wardrobe. Let your observations and colleagues tell you you can dress more casually the next time around.
Regardless what you wind up wearing on casual days, keep traditional clothes at the office. You never know when you’ll have to attend a meeting with a client, customer, or colleague who expects you to look entirely traditional and professional.
Next, we’ll talk about the details of a basic “B-C” wardrobe.