What Not to Wear: Defining Casual Dress in the Workplace

What did you wear to work today? The answer is most likely “business casual” or “casual,” since more and more employers are accepting a casual dress code in the workplace. But with summer right around the corner, it is a good time to remind employees about what constitutes appropriate work wear and what does not.

While many companies permit casual dress year-round, some implement a more relaxed dress code during the summer, typically from Memorial Day to Labor Day, so employees feel more comfortable in the hotter weather. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found in the soon to be released 2014 SHRM Employee Benefits Survey that 56 percent of organizations allowed casual dress once a week, 32 percent allowed casual dress every day, and 19 percent allowed seasonal casual dress.

When asked about the benefits of casual dress, SHRM’s educational programs manager, Carlos Marroquin, said, “It gives employees the freedom to express themselves to a certain extent, which adds to the enjoyment and positive mindset of being at work.”

While casual dress can promote a more relaxed atmosphere, it also can bring professionals a new set of challenges about what to wear to the office. Employees should never assume that they know what casual dress means until they have read their company policy.

It is often the responsibility of human resources to develop, communicate and manage those policies to protect employees’ rights and to align them with organizational goals.

 “Sometimes the dress code is in place to project an image or the brand. Other times, it is in place for employee safety, or to help maintain a certain culture in the organization,” said Lisa Orndorff, an HR business partner at SHRM.

Although no two workplaces may require the same dress code, there are general guidelines that apply. Here are examples of appropriate and inappropriate attire for most work environments (not a comprehensive list):


  • Dress shirts, conservative blouses and polo shirts
  • Slacks or dress pants
  • Skirts and dresses, usually knee length
  • Blazers and cardigans
  • Conservative shoes, usually closed toed, low heel for women


  • Strapless, halter or spaghetti strap tops/dresses
  • T-shirts with logos or advertising
  • Sheer or transparent fabric (also, anything with holes)
  • Clothes that are too revealing or that do not fit properly (too tight or too short)
  • Rubber shoes and flip-flops

According to human resource professionals, employees should dress for their particular industry, occasion and environment. So before putting on those flip-flops and tank tops this summer, make sure to review the company’s dress code.

Here are resources from SHRM to assist human resource professionals in developing dress code policies. (Note: SHRM member ID required to login).

Gabrielle Pidal contributed to this blog post.

The SHRM Blog does not accept solicitation for guest posts.

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