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Joggers, leggings, sweats? What to wear, what not to wear as you return to the office 

Julie Wyetzner, chief operating officer at Cona Elder

Julie Wyetzner, chief operating officer at Cona Elder Law, and employees at their Melville office on a "Dress Down Friday" in July, when causal attire is allowed. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

No suit. No tie. No problem these days.

The casualization of office attire started before the pandemic, but COVID took it to a new level as many employees worked remotely.

Now as employees return to the workplace, business casual seems to be the predominant theme, but companies would be well-advised to remind employees of dress code expectations to avoid problems later on, experts say.

'Be proactive'

"My advice to employers is to be proactive," says Domenique Camacho Moran, a partner at Farrell Fritz in Uniondale. "Tell employees on a regular basis what you expect."

During the summer, it’s okay to remind staff ‘we don’t want beachwear,’ she says. Many employers, including her own law firm, she says, have moved to business casual.

But even that could be open to interpretation if employers are not clear, says Moran, noting, "business casual has been redefined industry by industry."

For example, business casual at a law firm isn’t ripped jeans and graphic T-shirts but could be dockers and golf shirt with a belt, she says.

Moran says she still likes to wear women’s dress suits for work, but wears outfits with lighter colors and prints for business casual wear.

But it’s best to set expectations.

"Each business is going to have to be really definitive and offer clear guidelines of what will and won’t be expected," says Alexis DeSalva Kahler, a Brooklyn-based fashion and retail analyst and expert.

For example, instead of just saying 'business casual' is appropriate, specify that T-shirts are allowed but not tank tops, and that jeans are allowed but not distressed jeans, she says.

Relaxed policy may continue

Kahler says dress codes were relaxed before the pandemic and will likely be more relaxed as employees return to work.

But she doesn’t think it will go to the degree where employees will be wearing home attire like sweats.

"A lot of people do a mix of working from home and working from the office and dress codes will reflect that," Kahler says.

MaryAnne Hyland, interim dean and professor of human resources management at the Robert B. Willumstad School of Business at Adelphi University in Garden City, agrees. She says, "there already was a movement towards more casual dress and there likely will be more companies embracing that as employees return to on-site work."

'Dress for the day'

That’s the case at Cona Elder Law PLLC in Melville, says chief operating officer Julie Wyetzner.

The firm has a "Dress for the Day" policy where it’s business casual by default and business professional if attorneys are meeting with clients or colleagues.

"For us, business casual is neat and crisp, but doesn’t have to be suits and dresses," Wyetzner says.

Dressing down for charity

The firm also allows jeans on Casual Fridays, which is tied to a fundraiser element. Every Friday each employee contributes $5 to dress down. Contributions are matched by the firm and donated to a charity each quarter, Wyetzner says.

To be sure, business casual is here to stay and is being considered a perk by many employers, says Jeff Agranoff, human resources consulting principal at Jericho-based Grassi Advisors & Accountants.

It’s a perk at Grassi too,, he says, noting, "we’ve always had flexibility in our dress code."

Four years ago the firm adopted business casual. Then two years later jeans were allowed when appropriate with a professional top. The firm’s now transitioning to a "Dress for your day" policy that came out of the pandemic as half of their employees are still on a hybrid work schedule.

Agranoff stresses that even if you’re on a Zoom call with a client you’re expected to dress appropriately.

Uniform enforcement

Employers have the right to adopt dress code policies and enforce those policies, Moran says, adding, enforcement is typically in the form of counseling, warning or, if necessary, the termination of employment.

Any dress code policy, Hyland says, should also be uniformly enforced. Make sure it’s not gender-biased, meaning don’t put stricter dress code requirements on women than men or vice versa, she says.

Adds Moran, employers also should provide reasonable accommodations for a disability or religious reasons.

And be mindful of who’s having the conversation if there’s a violation. Ideally it should be Human Resources.

"You want to avoid a sexual harassment issue, Moran says.

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Formal wear not dead:

U.S. sales of men’s formal apparel fell by 47.8% for 2020 vs. 2019. For January to June 2021, sales grew 35.1% over the same period in 2020. Still, 2021 sales are still around 29.5% down vs. the same period in 2019.

For women’s formal apparel, U.S. sales fell by 34.8% for 2020 over 2019. For January to June 2021, sales grew 36.5% over the same period in 2020. However, 2021 sales are still around 11.1% down vs. the same period in 2019.

Source: GlobalData

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