Dressed for success? Featured

9:50am EDT July 22, 2002

You thought it was one of the best decisions you ever made. But then you saw the results.

Employees strolled into the office wearing ripped jeans, tennis shoes and baseball hats. And executives were confused. Should I wear a tie or not? Is a polo shirt and khakis OK?

“Putting on a suit and tie and leaving for work is a no-brainer,” says George Frankino, co-owner of Canterbury Clothiers in Fairlawn. “But when it comes to coordinating slacks and a shirt, they need our help — or their wife’s help.

“Companies thought they were giving their employees a perk by letting them come to work casual,” Frankino concludes. “But the minute they say, ‘We’re going casual,’ there is a state of confusion about what to wear to work.”

That confusion ranges from whether a collarless shirt is acceptable to whether a company should instill a business casual dress policy at all. The questions are endless: What will clients think when they see an employee in jeans and a T-shirt? And will casual dress make employees work harder or slump at their desks?

No matter what your concerns, you can be sure of one thing: Business casual isn’t going to go away.

In a recent survey conducted by Management Recruiters International, 87 percent of executives said that within the next decade, the business suit will be rarely worn. But many companies are resisting. Akron’s Roetzel & Andress law firm allows its employees to dress casually on occasion — to celebrate a Cleveland Indians winning streak, for example. But it understands the seriousness of its decision.

According to Ann Coplan, director of recruiting at the firm, the company e-mails its employees with dress guidelines before the casual day and places a placard at the receptionist’s desk to let clients know. “That way, they don’t question why everyone is dressed in Indians’ garb,” she says.

But why doesn’t the firm institute a business casual dress policy every day?

“Law firms have a certain image that the clients and the community hope to see,” Coplan says. “We try to present that image. If you get too casual, you lose that.”

Other companies implement a business casual dress policy so they won’t lose employees. Two years ago, Babcox Publications, an Akron-based trade magazine publisher, expanded its business casual dress policy from Fridays-only to every day of the week.

“The reaction has been very positive,” says Greg Cira, chief financial officer of the company. “But it opens up a lot of questions. If you have strictly business dress, you have six different kinds of suits. If you open up casual dress, there are hundreds of ways to go.”

That’s why Frankino suggests businesses come up with guidelines that detail what is acceptable — and what is not — before they institute the policy. After all, “Some people will show up in sport coats, some people will show up in Levi’s and some people will show up looking like they should be outside washing cars for a fund-raiser,” he says.

When Babcox noticed employees were wearing everything from freshly pressed Dockers to backyard barbecue duds, it created a list of fashion dos — and don’ts — for male and female employees.

“One of the lines that we use in our personnel manual is that when you get home, if you feel that you don’t have to change, then you’ve probably dressed too casually,” Cira says.

But if employees show up in ripped or torn clothing, hats, excessively worn clothing, untucked shirttails,; sweatpants or T-shirts with large, questionable or offensive text on them, they can count on going home. After all, Frankino says, “You wouldn’t want to see a person wearing a sweatshirt with Stroh’s beer written across it at work.”

The most important question to ask yourself before instituting your company’s dress policy is what kind of image do you want your company to project? And what will dressing casually cost your company — and your employees — in the long run?

“A lot of people believe casual dress breeds familiarity,” says Bill Welsh, owner of William E. Welsh & Associates, a management consulting firm in Akron. “You get kinda laidback, a little sloppy.”

Despite the fact that the Bureau of National Affairs says that 79 percent of employers believe casual dress improves morale among employees, Frankino believes the better you’re dressed, the better you’ll perform.

“Psychologically, I still believe if I was sitting at my desk making phone calls, I’d feel better with a suit on,” he says. “You always feel better dressed up. It’s like putting on a tuxedo. You feel like the king of the world.”

In fact, some companies have instituted formal dress days where women traipse into the office in sequined gowns and pearls and men don tuxedos and cufflinks to make sales presentations clients won’t soon forget.

And while Frankino notes that business casual has become so popular that major manufacturers of fine tailored clothing have incorporated business casual clothing into their lines, he still believes dressing for success hasn’t really changed.

“Dress for your next position, what more can I say than that?” he says. “I don’t think the man at the top is wearing a golf shirt to work. I’d like to think he’s still wearing a suit.

“The first thing you’re selling is yourself. If you look professional, your business is going to thrive.”

How to reach: Canterbury Clothiers, (800) 286-8601; Babcox Publications, (330) 535-6117; William E. Welsh & Associates, (330) 864-9997