In the movie “The Intern,” the staff of Anne Hathaway’s booming online fashion website are taken back by Robert De Niro’s over the top business attire. In fact, the crisply ironed handkerchief he keeps peaking just out of his pocket becomes almost a character in and of itself as he loans it out to various lovelorn 20-somethings navigating make ups, break ups, and love in general.
While most companies aren’t quite as casual as Hathaway’s fashion start-up, the reality is that expectations around business attire do differ by generation. In most offices, business casual for your more senior staff likely means ditching the freshly ironed khakis and button down in favor of a pair of freshly ironed khakis and a polo shirt! For your younger workers, however, business casual can mean a complete departure from anything business appropriate and a veritable free for all from the laundry pile!
With these completely disparate ideas about what business casual entails, we thought it would be relevant to provide a bit of guidance that you can share with everyone, especially the younger members of your workforce, to ensure appropriate attire among all ages.
Show don’t tell:
Usually, folks pick up what is appropriate from the office by looking around at what their peers are wearing, but for the younger generations, especially those entering the workforce for the first time, they may not appreciate that frame of reference. Still, you can demonstrate what is and isn’t appropriate by including actual, preferably annotated, pictures in your employee handbook depicting appropriate work wear for your office. Pictures should include details such as length of hemlines, width of straps, preferable shoe styles, and even notes that logos are not appropriate.
Comfort is king:
For younger staff, dressing comfortably has almost always been a way of life. After all, they and the Millenials before them, are the ones that helped to skyrocket “athleisure wear” out of the gym and into the every day, with designers touting this style as one that can be worn just about anywhere. While sweatpants aren’t going to be appropriate in most work settings, soft pants — think silk joggers or stretch cropped trousers in yoga-pant like material paired with flowy tanks and sweaters, can prove both comfortable and professional. For the men, many khaki brands now come with flex options to make them easier to move in and the options when it comes to dress shoes have never been comfier!
Consider a capsule:
One of the easiest ways to steer clear of wardrobe malfunctions is to limit your choices. During new employee orientation, your HR pro can advise new hires, especially those starting out, that it can be smart to establish a small, capsule collection of work-appropriate clothes, shoes, and accessories that can be mixed and matched to create a variety of outfit choices. Not only is it economical for someone just launching their career, but it also takes much of the guesswork out of getting dressed in the morning (meaning more minutes to hit the snooze button in the a.m!)
Beyond the wardrobe:
Appearing appropriate within the workplace also extends beyond what an individual is wearing and should also include information on personal appearance and even hygiene. Younger staff may not realize that their 5 o’clock shadow is not very professional or that their faux-hawk will raise eyebrows around the office. Similarly, you’ll want to also rehash your rules regarding piercings, tattoos and other forms of body art as they are a popular form of self-expression among the younger set. That said, be very careful with your guidance on personal appearance to ensure that it doesn’t violate any religious, cultural, or even gender-based norms.
Keep it consistent:
While our focus here is on instructing the younger generation on work-appropriate attire, be sure that you are enforcing the same dress standards across the whole company (regardless of age and rank). When more tenured employees dress appropriately, they lead by example and set the stage for younger folks to follow suit. Further, when you enforce the same rules across the board, you protect yourself from potential lawsuits from disgruntled workers who feel singled out over their appearance.