Three Rules of Thumb for Proper "Business/Casual" Dress

Client: I’m a consultant with several partners and an office full of associates who spend a lot of their time in front of our clients – and some of our clients prefer to work with us in our office or conference room. Supposedly we have a “business/casual” dress code, albeit unwritten, but my partners and I would much prefer if our associates would consider dressing more “business” and less “casual”. Is there anything you people can offer that would give them another point of view about the merits of dressing better? If it comes from us, they think we’re just being old school and don’t understand the culture of today’s business environments. But if it came from a third party, maybe another point of view would be taken more seriously. Can you send me some information or at least point me in the right direction?

Tom talks: In spite of our efforts to provide our clients with up-to date business/casual clothing options, we hold to three rules of thumb that are hard to refute. Here they are:

1) Your clients have an expectation or image of what you should look like the first time they meet you – and more often than not, it includes the idea of being dressed in formal business attire (coat and tie). Think about it – when you go to see your physician, you’re expecting to find him wearing a white lab coat with his name on the pocket. And if God forbid my house were to catch fire, I hope it doesn’t happen on ‘casual day’ at the firehouse. I want those guys jumping off the fire truck dressed like they came to fight a house fire – the coat, the helmet, the mask, etc – not cutoffs and tank tops. So embrace the concept of a uniform for business, decide what is appropriate for what you do and whom you serve, and dress accordingly.

2) It’s easier to explain being overdressed than being underdressed in any business setting, whether you’re meeting in a client’s conference room or for dinner after hours. If you’re the only man at the meeting in a coat and tie, even a casually dressed audience will assume that a) you mean business, b) you just came from a more serious meeting with a more important client, or c) you have “an engagement” after your meeting ends, and have dressed for that event. A man I met on an airplane once told me about the time he traveled from Chicago –dressed in a suit and tie — to meet a prospective client in the Silicon Valley. He was teased for being overdressed, and his response was “I want you to know how important your business is to my firm, and I only get one chance to make a first impression. My partners and I treat every contract with a degree of formality that speaks to our attention to detail. Now do I still get to wear my necktie?” He went home to Chicago with a new deal in hand.

3) Your self-image affects your confidence which can affect your performance, so if dressing well has even a slightly positive impact on how you think you look, you can’t possibly lose. And what if more formal business dress gave you the edge in performance? Today’s business environment is fiercely competitive, and companies spend real money on presentation materials, technology, lobby décor, even conference room chairs. Your personal appearance, which includes grooming and clothing, should add to the image of your firm and not detract from it. Keep your khakis and logo shirts for the company picnic – and dress for your clients like you’re worth what you are charging.

Best Regards,

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