CHARLESTON -- Writer and actor Larry David tackles the subject of casual workplace attire in his Emmy-award winning sitcom "Curb Your Enthusiasm."
In this particular episode, an ailing, grumpy man (played by Ed Asner) wants to leave his entire fortune to a group of environmentalists, but he needs an estate lawyer to rewrite his will. Larry refers the dying millionaire to his own lawyer to ensure the man receives sound legal advice.
The lawyer, who is dressed in a western shirt and tight-fitting blue jeans, seems confused by the conservatively clad client, who reacts quite negatively to the firm's dress code.
Client: I'm a little puzzled. What's with the outfit you're in? Is it a Halloween party?"
Lawyer: "It's casual Friday."
Client: "Casual Friday…what does that mean?"
Lawyer: "It means we dress like we would at home."
Client: "But you're not at home."
Lawyer: "I know that sir; it's casual Friday."
Client: "I know; you told me that already. What do you do on casual Friday?"
Lawyer: "We come in, we do our work, but we dress casually."
Client: "I don't like it."
Lawyer: "It's just the one day of the week…"
Client: "I don't care if it's a half-day each week. I don't like it. I'm here to change my will. A lot of money is involved! It's very important to me! I want you to be on the cutting edge when you're handling my business!"
Lawyer: "I'm sorry ... please ... understand ..."
Client: "You look like a cowboy! You look like J.R.! You should be in Dallas, not L.A.! You should be sorry because you just lost my account. Go wrangle somebody else!"
Lawyer: "But sir, if you'll just come back on a Monday ..."
Corporate coaches advise workers to dress for the job they want, not the one they have. Perhaps a more meaningful suggestion would be to dress for the job you need to keep, as a poor choice of clothing could easily jeopardize one's employment status.
According to white papers issued by the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM), relaxed dress codes communicate more to the public than the gesture of workplace perks. High-tech companies were one of the first groups to initiate business-casual atmospheres, which quickly spread to the dot com practices in law firms.
Human resource advisers warn administrators in traditional law firms to think seriously about converting to a business-casual philosophy, as many clients consider informal dressing a form of inappropriate behavior.
In some firms, formal business attire is required of those lawyers and staff members who maintain frequent, face-to-face contact with clients. For everyone else remaining behind closed doors, a less rigid line of clothing is permitted, which younger employees view as step taken to make a working environment more comfortable.
Consultants argue that a casual workplace has a tendency to trigger deterioration in other parts of a business, from sluggish productivity to longer, more leisurely lunch hours and breaks.
Supporters of casual settings argue that dress-down days serve as a reward to employees who perform well and deliver quality work every day of the week. Professionalism should be presented through one's work ethic, rather than through one's uniform, they say.
Still, HR managers advise law firms to stress the terms of business- casual attire in an employee handbook.
For example, women's open-toed shoes may not necessarily mean flip-flops. A button-down shirt may be permitted, but not a sleeveless style. In menswear, denim jeans may be allowed, but they must be worn at the natural waistline and secured with a belt.
Marketing experts claim that one of the best ways to capture the attention of a potential client is to look the part. If a lawyer is too suited or "stiff", then he or she may appear to be unapproachable. Marketers recommend that lawyers should tailor their wardrobes to match a client's industry standard, an effort that reinforces that the firm is a proper fit for their legal needs.
Some old-school practices simply refuse to adopt a relaxed business wear policy, even during holiday weeks when offices are nearly empty. The reason is quite simple: when management gives an inch, some employees take a mile.
Larry David voices a similar concern.
"Casual Friday? What's next? Naked Tuesday?"
Brown is the managing member of and senior writer for The Write Word LLC. Once a legal marketing executive, she now works as a communications consultant, teaching courses in English grammar, business correspondence, public speaking, and professional etiquette. For more information, go to www.thewritewordllc.com.