Casual dress becomes the workplace norm

We may have Mark Zuckerberg to thank for bringing the hoodie into the workplace, but less formal attire has been creeping past casual Friday to include the rest of the week in even the most formal of offices.

According to new research, 50 percent of senior managers said employees wear less formal clothing than they did five years ago.

The trend towards casual dress at the office started when people started telecommuting about 20 years ago, said Joanne Sanders, founder of Bolt Staffing with offices in Santa Rosa, Sonoma, and American Canyon.

While generalities can be applied - the east coast is more formal than the west and lawyers still wear suits in the courtroom. But other areas are more gray: Are tattoos okay? What about piercings? Sandals?

'It's much more difficult for workers to navigate than it was in the past. For women it's even harder with a choice of dresses, skirts, sleeveless blouses, etc.… bare legs are okay now, and open-toed sandals, but absolutely no flip flops,' Sanders said.

Keith McNeil is a partner at Arrow Benefits, an insurance office in Petaluma with about 30 employees. After 30 years of wearing a suit, he quit wearing one every day two years ago.

'I decided to go more casual when I saw so many others going casual and most employers seeming to be fine with it. If I am in the office all day I am more casual than if I am seeing clients,' he said.

McNeil, 61, also said it's still a measure of respect to be dressed better than the client, and will wear a suit coat and/or tie if the situation calls for it.

'My role is to be professional,' McNeil said. 'A suit is a uniform, much like a doctor. Patients might not think of their doctor the same way, for example, if he wore a Hawaiian shirt.'

Andrew McNeil, age 30, is Keith's son and a principal in the same office. About five years ago he ditched the suit and tie. Speaking to the Journal on a Monday, he came into the office wearing a tee-shirt, flannel shirt, and tennis shoes. About the only rule in the office is 'no shorts.'

'The question is not if people are dressing casually, the question is what new tattoo did they get this week?' said McNeil. 'It's okay as long as it's appropriate and no one is offended. If anything, things will get more casual.'

Things weren't always that way. Impressed by his father wearing a suit every day, at the beginning of his career McNeil did so as well. Now, he'll only put on a suit and tie if meeting a client that warrants it.

'A suit is not the normal thing around here, and pretty much anywhere in Sonoma County,' he said.

There is a sense of place in Sonoma that transcends even the most conservative workplaces, such as law offices, Sanders said. After all, we're not in New York or even the East Bay.

Holly Sutton is a partner with Farella Braun + Martel's employment law practice in San Francisco. She said she sees a lot fewer suits and ties than she used to on the streets downtown. She credits the impact of the nearby tech sector with the trend to dress down.

'It's uncommon these days to wear a suit unless you're going to court or a serious meeting,' she said, adding most attorneys keep a suit in their office, just in case.

Tattoos are fairly rare among attorneys, Sutton said, although there is one in the office who has a visible tattoo.

In advising her employer clients, who wish to enforce a dress code, Sutton tells them to keep it gender neutral.

'Employers need to be careful of setting a double standard between men and women,' Sutton said.

The key is for employers to define what is acceptable and make it clear and apply it consistently.

'Some companies have gone as far as providing pictures of the types of clothes that are acceptable and what are not,' said Brenda Gilchrist at the HR Matrix staffing company in Santa Rosa.

Because of the low unemployment rate and a reduced recruitment pool to draw from, employers can't afford to be too critical of workers' attire, however, and that includes tattoos, piercings, and pink or blue hair.

Sanders does suggest prospective employees cover their tattoos for an interview if possible, and cautioned a combination of inappropriate attire, tattoos, piercings and non-conventional hair coloring might be overwhelming.

Cynthia Sweeney covers health care, hospitality, residential real estate, education, employment and business insurance. Reach her at or call 707-521-4259.

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