So, just what does ‘business casual’ actually mean, anyway?
Whether you’re new to the corporate world or just in a new position, there’s nothing that strikes fear into the heart quite like the requirement to wear “business casual.” As a concept apparently implemented to make getting dressed for work easier, the confounding ambiguity of a business casual dress code now seems to cause more anxiety than peace of mind. Does business casual mean you’re good in chinos? Should you leave the tie at home and roll into the meeting in your spiffy new plaid shirt? (Maybe don’t do that, unless you work at a bar that features a mechanical bull.)
While there’s no universal consensus as to what actually constitutes business casual attire, there are a few simple rules to follow. Keep the emphasis on “business,” not “casual,” and avoid anything rumpled, athletic wear, non-leather shoes, t-shirts, and fabrics and patterns better suited to brunch than a branch meeting. However, keep in mind that business casual also varies by industry, location, individual work culture and gender, so it pays to do your research. Bottom line: speak with a trusted colleague to find out your workplace’s business casual dos and don’ts before pulling on that cute striped polo shirt and hoping for the best.
To give you a clearer picture of dress code differences between workplaces, I asked employees in a variety of industries what business casual looks like for them. You’re welcome.
“In the banking world, business casual for women is wearing a dress and no blazer, or for me, not wearing a suit (e.g., wide legged wool pants and a sweater or blouse, skinny black pants and a tunic top, etc.). It’s still pretty formal. Every spring, my manager used to send a post of what was appropriate, as summer tends to bring out the worst in people – basically, [the rule is] no inappropriate exposed flesh. I have noticed that there are different rules across Canada. Vancouver is MUCH more casual than other cities.”
– A., banking executive
“In my world, business casual means “put together” – could be nice jeans and a sharp jacket, or even simple top with a beautiful scarf and a good lipstick. You also have to good shoes to pull it together. I also like to wear a scoop-necked top with skirt, opaque tights, tall boots, scarf and lipstick. Basically, the idea is to inspire confidence in your client that you have your act together, without having to wear stiff/scratchy/shoulder-padded/uncomfortable suits. But remember, despite the fact that I am a lawyer and my office is technically on Bay Street, I’m pretty far from being a Bay Street lawyer!
– E., labour lawyer
“In my workplace, business casual for men is chinos/khakis, leather shoes and a dress shirt with a sport coat or sweater over top. That said, there’s a lot of variation in terms of what people show up in. We’re definitely expected to look professional, not “casual Friday.”
– D., emergency management supervisor
“Biz casual in a media company (at least for me) is wearing what I would wear out for dinner – fashionable casual. A note did circulate a few years ago reminding staff that tube tops and open back shirts were not appropriate for work. The note was hilarious – I wish I could find it.”
– C., media company employee
“No gang colours! Just kidding. It actually depends on your position – lawyer vs. assistant, etc.”
– N., corporate lawyer
“To me, business casual is a nice pair of pants, a blouse or sweater, and flats or a low heel. I’d never wear runners – that’s never part of it. I find that business casual is more relaxed in the summer, but even then, I still wear a dress or skirt. The challenge is finding pants that aren’t full-on dress pants but aren’t super-skinny tight jeans, either. I dress business casual for teaching as well – I want to be a role model to my students, not dress like them.”
– G., marketing executive and college professor