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BusinessColumnistsJamie Herzlich

Casual office dress codes require some guidelines, experts say

A recent survey found the majority of employees

A recent survey found the majority of employees say they would prefer to dress casually for work. Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Business casual is becoming the norm these days as offices adopt a more relaxed dress code.

In fact, a majority of employees prefer to wear more relaxed work attire, according to a recent survey from OfficeTeam, a Manhattan-based division of staffing firm Robert Half.

But with that relaxation comes some uncertainty. OfficeTeam found that 41 percent of employees are sometimes unsure about which type of clothing is office appropriate — and that’s why employers should institute some guidelines in their dress code policy, experts say.

Employees “just want to be told what’s OK to make it easier on them as they plan their wardrobes for the week,” says Daryl Pigat, a division director at OfficeTeam,

He believes the move toward casual within the office environment is fueled in part by the increase in people working remotely and also the tech boom that occurred with the likes of CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg, who consistently dress casually.

“I think the business suit used to be a status symbol,” says Pigat. “That’s being flipped on its head in the current market.”

With that said, most companies are opting for business casual vs. just casual (jeans and T-shirts), he says.

At least that’s the case at Jericho-based Grassi & Co., a CPA and business advisory firm, which shifted a few years ago from business formal to business casual in the office, says Jeff Agranoff, chief human resources officer.

If the firm’s accountants are headed to meet a client, “We dress in a similar manner to the way the client is dressing,” he says, noting “We dress for the situation.”

The firm, though, is not a proponent of pure casual, he says, adding that “we want to create a professional presence to our clients that we feel is better served with a business casual dress code.”

Grassi has a dress code policy that details what it considers business casual, Agranoff says. For example, they prefer men wear dress slacks.

It can get tricky for employers, though, when it comes to setting guidelines for women, because they have more clothing options.

Once you veer away from formal attire to a more casual style of dress, “employers are now faced with managing many more distinctions within the dress code,” says John Diviney, a partner in the employment and labor practice group at Rivkin Radler in Uniondale.

On the plus side, the law recognizes that employers have “significant latitude” in adopting a dress code, he says.

But there are some exceptions employers must be cognizant of, such as making accommodations for certain religions that may require particular clothing, as well as for certain disabilities.

You also have to tread carefully with gender and ethnicity.

For example, you can make distinctions between gender in your dress code as long as you can show a reasonable business basis for the distinction, says Diviney. The same holds true with regard to certain ethnic clothing an employee may feel more comfortable wearing.

It pays to have guidelines because without them it’s difficult to enforce a dress code consistently.

Look at your dress code as an opportunity “to inspire employees,” says Lee Heyward, a South Carolina-based image strategist and author of “Strategically Suited: Your Secret Edge to Grow Sales and Get New Clients” (Morgan James Publishing; $12.95).

It becomes an opportunity to “empower employees to get behind the mission of the company.”

Oftentimes people think of dressing for work as a separate look, meaning they purchase work clothes and that’s the only thing they wear them for.

She advises employees to instead create an overall image that’s both representative of who they are and also helps them get the results they’re looking for in their career.

“That’s a different way of thinking about how to dress than asking, does this look professional?” says Heyward.

Dressing down

Nearly 3 in 4 CFOs say their teams have a casual dress code

Source: Survey by recruitment firm Robert Half

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