IT dress codes: What does business casual mean, anyway?

IT managers involved in setting dress-code policy may be surprised to know that some employees think of a relaxed dress code as a raise. These examples of dress-code policy can be used to establish or modify the policy in your shop.

A relaxed working environment is a welcome perk for many IT pros. And following the example of a Dockers-clad Bill Gates, many organizations have adopted a relaxed or “business casual” dress code.

Here’s the problem: What, exactly, does business casual mean? Are blue jeans, sneakers, and T-shirts allowed?

To make matters worse, some IT departments follow dress codes that differ from those in the rest of their organization. According to a recent TechRepublic survey, 30 percent of the respondents said their IT department follows a dress code that is different from the rest of the company (see Figure A).

While the human resources department is typically charged with setting dress-code policy, some IT managers are faced with creating a specific code for their team.

Figure A
Almost a third of IT departments have separate dress codes.

If your department was given the okay for business casual, you should set dress-code guidelines right away, before employees start wearing concert T-shirts and flip-flops.

Here are examples of dress codes and advice from TechRepublic members on why dress codes are more important to them than you may think.

Why employees prefer casual dress
IT pros take dress codes seriously. For some, a move away from suits and ties is what attracts them to a particular position or organization. One TechRepublic member said a business casual code is really a pay raise because it means fewer trips to the cleaners.

“When the last company I worked for went from suit [and] tie to casual, I saved $80/month, or about a $1,000/year, [in dry cleaning bills]. Nice raise and no decline in productivity,” said John Montgomery.

Another member in favor of casual dress said that more traditional business attire doesn’t have any advantages.

“Being ‘dressed up’ would not make me work harder, smarter, more efficient, or more mature,” said Scott Matteson.

The simple dress-code option
Two camps have evolved out of the move away from conservative dress codes to business casual dress codes. One camp advocates “one-liner” dress codes. This means taking a simple approach to creating a policy that is expressed in a single sentence, such as:

“We expect our employees to report to work in neat and clean attire.”

Some managers choose to let employees set their own standards by using “one-liner” dress codes (see Figure B).

Figure B
Examples of one-liner dress codes

Although one-liner dress codes leave the door open for hiking boots, jeans, shorts, T-shirts, and sandals, some TechRepublic members who responded said it is a matter of comfort, personal freedom, and trust.
  • “I show up in sweatpants or jeans as I please. I always wear a baseball cap (I’ve hit my head more times than I care to think about), and anybody who complains will automatically go to the end of the line when the next virus hits,” said Jeff Silverman.
  • “The relaxed dress code is one of the reasons I have stuck around so long, and why I praise my employer to others. A tiny bit of personal freedom goes a long way,” said Scott Matteson.
  • “Set the minimums and trust your staff. If you don’t trust them to be able to dress themselves, why are they working for you?” said Audrey Smith.

The structured dress-code option
The other approach to creating a dress-code policy is for an IT manager to outline more defined rules. If potential customers and clients tour your organization, a business casual code that includes some regulations may be a good choice.

When creating a business casual dress code, your initial task as a manager is to define what business casual is for your organization. Second, you’ll decide what is in and what is out. A simple code may include language from the “one-liner” camp, along with additional restrictions that might include:
  • No shorts.
  • No sandals.
  • No T-shirts.
  • No denim or jeans.
  • No miniskirts.

See Figure C for an example of a more defined business casual code.

Figure C
An example of a more detailed dress code

Dress code add-ons
If you’re making a casual dress code, it is also a good idea to add a couple of sentences to the code that address times when employees meet with customers and clients.

Some examples of these dress code add-ons include the following:
  • “The key to maintaining a professional appearance is being prepared, so dress for the day. When meeting with clients, consider traditional business dress. If you will be under desks connecting wires, consider a more relaxed dress.”
  • “Employees are expected to maintain a professional appearance at all times. If you are uncertain of what to wear for a particular meeting or sales call, always dress one notch above what you think is appropriate. When in doubt, err on the side of conservative dress.”

Can IT be taken seriously in blue jeans?
If IT professionals want senior business leaders to listen to their opinions, shouldn’t they dress like others within the organization? If you wear Levis to work, won’t your coworkers always view you as the “PC repairman?” Let us know by starting a discussion below or by dropping us a line.


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