It hasn’t been that many years ago that the term “business casual” was coined to describe a new flexibility in acceptable office attire . To many business leaders though, the phrase meant no more than wearing a red tie, and perhaps only once a week.
Well, that was then. Today, attitudes and customs are quite different, and typically much less conservative. For example, it is not uncommon in some circles for male employees to forgo the use of socks within an office environment. I know, because recently I visited such an office and saw for myself.
But is this clothing revolution a global phenomenon, where everyone is doing it, or are there minefields of differing customs out there, waiting to trip up the unwary business traveler?
According to a new survey of 24 countries by Ipsos / Reuters, clothes still do make the man – or woman. Depending on where an employee lives, putting a best foot forward – at least at work – is still key to upward mobility and career success.
Or sometimes not.
As you might expect though, customs of acceptance have evolved – though not in a uniform fashion. Researchers have found that attitudes about the use of proper attire in the workplace differ from country to country, which leads to some interesting and diverse attitudes about perceived workplace “slackers” and “achievers.”
Have you ever arrived at a meeting dressed for the Boardroom, only to discover everyone else wearing collared shirts and slacks? Awkward, isn’t it? A scenario you would wish to avoid.
Europeans have been found to have the most casual attitude when it comes to work clothes. Only 27 percent of Europeans reported that they wore traditional business clothes to work (jackets and ties for men, dress suits for women). People in Hungary might be the most casually dressed workers in the world. Only 12 percent of Hungarians reported that they wore “business clothes” to work, while 46 percent said they thought clean and pressed shorts were appropriate office attire. On the other hand, workers in India might be the best dressed, with nearly 60 percent of survey respondents reporting that they wore business clothes to work.
Many workers worldwide no longer equate dressing well for work with what they consider success. Approximately 40 percent reported that they wore casual business clothes to work. However the same percentage of respondents said that people who wore such casual attire in the office would probably not be hired or promoted into senior management positions. Additionally, 66 percent of respondents believed that senior managers should always appear better dressed than their employees.
For many then, conservative dress is never out of style. In some circles (usually non high tech) casual dress may even give the “perception” of a lack of professionalism.
Workers in India held the harshest views for people who wear casual clothes to work. Nearly 60 percent of Indians described casual business dressers as “slackers”, and 64 percent said that such casual dressers would never reach senior management positions.
For a contrary viewpoint, in Central Florida business casual is often the proper attire, across the organizational hierarchy. In fact, wearing a tie would cause co-workers to stop and stare.
When it comes to bosses wearing casual clothes in the office, Swedes appear to have the most lenient attitudes. Only 27 percent of Swedish respondents reported that they believe that wearing casual clothes on a regular basis would hinder workers from attaining high-level jobs.
Generally speaking though, the higher up you are in the company’s structure, the greater the reluctance to “dress down.” One Business Unit Head acquaintance in Europe suffered through so many shocked looks when he once wore jeans to work, that he never repeated the experience.
So what’s the takeaway from the survey data for the business traveler? When in doubt, ask ahead. Don’t assume. Getting the lay of the land in advance is always smart thinking. As a rule of thumb though, remember that you can always dress down by taking off the tie or power jacket, but the opposite won’t work nearly as well.
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