Casual Confusion



s casual day becoming too casual? When dressing down, do we emphasize the "down" at the expense of the "dressing"? Does relaxed-fit attire lead to relaxation of standards in other areas of the government workplace?

Admittedly these questions don't rank right up there with those concerning, say, nuclear disarmament. On the other hand, most of us aren't confronted with weighty matters like the destruction of global civilization on a daily basis. We are, however, constantly faced with decisions concerning appropriate professional attire in a civilized society. Sometimes, in fact, those decisions seem to hit us in the face.

You know what I mean if you've seen women walking around the office in skin-hugging leggings. And men aren't off the hook either-some wear pants so snug you can count the change in their pockets.

And there's no doubt this issue has struck a universal nerve when even the cartoon character Dilbert appears on a T-shirt reading "Casual Day-It seemed like a good idea." Especially when that shirt is flying off store shelves at $16.95 a pop, plus tax.

However interesting the slogan on the shirt, I suspect the real selling point is the scene portrayed: three employees strolling along the office hallway dressed (and I use the word loosely) down. One fellow is comfortably set for the day in his robe and slippers; another is dressed to perform in a tutu. It's the third guy, though-the one who's stark naked-who's taken dressing down to its (il)logical conclusion.

That caused me to stop and wonder, "Are we really coming to this?"

After all, as Mark Twain said, "Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence in society."

Is that any less true today than when Twain uttered it a hundred or so years ago? Who dreamed up this whole casual day concept in the first place? With a nod to Dilbert, just who, exactly, thought it seemed like a good idea? And why?

I posed these questions to a federally employed expert in workforce relations, who told me that casual day originated in private industry. It began as a way to reward employees, on the theory that people would appreciate an opportunity to dress more comfortably one day a week. This, in turn, would supposedly lead to improved workplace morale.

In the beginning, corporations assumed that employees would dress down only when they had no meetings outside the office or would not be interacting with the public. The federal government, in its continuing efforts to be a friendly employer, subsequently picked up this idea from the corporate world.

"All well and good," I said, "But what are the minimum standards for dressing down? Are there any?"

"In other words, you're asking where casual ends and poor taste, or just plain tackiness begins?" the expert said with a discernible twinkle in her eye.

And therein, I learned, lies the rub.

Because when such extremely personal matters as taste, and professional discretion, and culture, and expectations, and-dare we say it?-common sense, all come into play, it becomes difficult to define appropriate professional attire.

After all, one person's slacks may be another person's pressed jeans, which may be another person's torn, tattered and faded jeans, which may be another person's shorts, which may be another person's short skirt, which may be another person's. . . . Oh well, you get the picture.

And since it is problematic to set such standards, whether for casual day or any other, what is acceptable is often left to the discretion of each individual, at least in the federal workplace.

But what about in the corporate world? What about private business?

I asked a consultant, a man who works with government agencies as well as numerous corporate clients nationwide on human resource development issues. He said that on the whole, corporate America is more conservative with regard to dress code than Uncle Sam is. In fact, I learned, some private employers are reluctant to share building space with federal agencies for fear that the "casualness" of government employees' attire will reflect poorly on their image.

"But wait!" you may be thinking. "Didn't we just hear that private industry pioneered casual day?

"And isn't that where every touchy-feely New Age management technique that comes along, and eventually is used in government, begins? Who are they, private employers, to look down their noses at us, their faithful civil servants?"

I believe the key to answering those questions lies in our perceptions.

Because, like it or not, those unique and individual perceptions about what we wear to the office have a definite impact on our employers, our employees, our colleagues and our customers. People constantly make, either consciously or unconsciously, decisions about us, our abilities, our careers and our futures. Those decisions depend on our overall image, be it positive or negative.

Therefore, managers might actually be doing their employees a favor by establishing more stringent guidelines on what attire they will, and will not, tolerate on the job. My federal workforce relations expert tells me this can be done successfully if the guidelines are applied uniformly.

Personally, I think we'd make progress toward clearing up this casual confusion if each of us cast one last glance in the mirror before rushing out the door on Friday morning.

Catherine Kimrey Breeden is a manager at the Justice Department. The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the agency.

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