Career Coach: The difference between business casual and business whatever

I just came back from a conference where in addition to listening to professional colleagues talk about what they learned from various sessions, I also heard quite a bit about what they thought about attendees' "business casual attire." Suffice it to say, the garb was not all that professional.

Many people today still misunderstand the meaning of "business casual." They think this means we can wear gym shoes or flip-flops or comfy pants (e.g., yoga or sweatpants) or beach clothes (strapless tops, ripped shorts, tank tops). This can be a particular problem in the summer when our minds wander elsewhere.

There can be consequences. As I heard from several attendees at my event - people simply do not take the casually dressed as seriously as they do others. Some wonder, "What was she/he thinking?," about a woman in a really short skirt or a man in a ripped, dirty T-shirt. They question a person's judgment about other things as well - unfortunately that still seems to be the way things work in the business world.

When in doubt make sure your business casual is more professional rather than less professional. This is especially important in job interviews or early-on meetings since it is what others use to form a first impression of you. If you're looking to get promoted, you need to dress seriously.

Appropriate business casual dress typically includes slacks or khakis, dress shirt or blouse, open-collar or polo shirt, a dress or skirt at knee-length or below, knit shirt or sweater, and shoes that cover most of the foot.

In particular, for women, they should not wear (unless, of course, company norms say different):

- Anything too short, too tight or too sheer (see-through)

- Skirts or dresses should keep to 1-2 inches above the knee at most

- Blouses that are sleeveless or low-cut and revealing (showing too much cleavage)

- Overly casual shoes (e.g., flip-flops, sneakers), or those with extremely high heels (e.g., stilettos, strappy sandals, heels taller than 2.5-3 inches)

- T-shirts or halter tops or strapless tops

- Jeans (unless you are allowed to wear jeans; in that case make sure your top is not too casual)

- Shorts

- Casual and/or strapless or spaghetti strap sundresses (you can put a light cardigan sweater or jacket over it to dress it up more)

- Tank tops

- Hoodies that are wrinkled or look like pajamas

- Watch the colors you are wearing. Neon and metallic are no-nos.

What's important is to get someone's opinion (and not from the person who dresses even more casual). Some good choices for business casual for women include:

- Casual pants, including cropped pants and capris that hit around midcalf

- Skirts and dresses in more casual styles in an appropriate length

- Button-up shirts, blouses or sweaters

- Open-toed shoes, including dress sandals

Men, meanwhile, should not wear:

- T-shirts, especially those with obscene or inflammatory sayings or gestures on them

- Tank tops or muscle tops

- Jeans or cargo pants

- Tennis shoes, sandals or flip-flops, boots, or worn-out shoes

- Wrinkled or dirty clothes

- Shirts that are not tucked in

- Shirts that are open and expose too much chest hair

- Pants that are too short or too long

- Materials that are see-through or overly harsh or bright colors

Instead, for business casual, men can wear:

- Polo-style shirts or button-up dress shirts

- Casual pants (clean and neatly pressed)

- Sweaters

- Casual (and clean) shoes, preferably leather

Summer is a great time to be able to wear business casual on some occasions. While you may want to just jump out of bed and wear your PJs to work, that's just not acceptable - not to your colleagues, your clients, and certainly not to your boss.

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Joyce E. A. Russell is the senior associate dean at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership, career management, and negotiations. She can be reached at

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