When Is "Office Casual" Too Casual?

It's tempting to dress down during the summer months, but going too casual can send the wrong message.

July 1, 2003

How can you dress for the heat, but also for success? A lot depends on local business dress customs.

In the resort town of Traverse City, Michigan, salespeople dress casually, reflecting the market's more laid-back nature. "Real estate people here seem to dress with confidence, individuality, good, but not flamboyant taste, and--above all--casually," says Judith Lindenau, executive vice president of the Traverse Area Association of REALTORS®. "Men seldom wear a tie. Even sport coats are not the norm...open-necked shirts, sweaters, slacks, loafers. Jeans, occasionally, but usually not in the city itself"

"The more successful female sales associates and brokers wear a sort of 'arts-community casual,' with designers and original things one finds in higher-end boutiques. Women in pants are common, and high-heeled shoes are rare," she says. "Remember that showings will require climbing in and out of your Cadillac or BMW SUV and walking through beach sand or pine forests."

Do salespeople in resort communities model their clothes on their upscale clients? "The turn-off clothes are looking like a 'downstate flat-lander' in corporate blue and grey, or a resort groupie in bright colors or shiny decorations," says Lindenau.

Local dress codes aside, some real estate professionals feel that office casual can go a bit too far.

"Within the last week we've had three days over 95 degrees, one over a hundred," says broker/manager Bob Deal. "What happens is, they dress down because of the heat (yes, our office is air-conditioned) and become relaxed and so comfortable to the point their dress carries over for several days," he adds. "Today we will probably be in the low eighties and one of our $4 million producers just came in wearing long shorts with low-cut tennis shoes and no socks. Even though I herd them off to the privacy of their own offices away from our front lobby area where our customers and clients come in, they do wander out and around."

For Deal, dressing down is fine as long as salespeople's outfits don't shout that they'd rather be somewhere else than serving clients.

"It's the combination of summer time, the warmer days, enjoying family outings more on week-ends and after work, that brings out the worst in some salespeople's business appearance," says Deal. "All their good image sense seems to go down the drain. Like they just wondered in from a picnic in the park or docking their boat! I can go along with taking off the ties, but we need to draw a line."

"Image/appearance matters a great deal to most professions," he maintains, "yet can be a highly personal and sensitive issue when communicating clients expectations and their importance to our associates. This is why so many brokerages struggle with ways to communicate and enforce what is expected with regard to appearance. We constantly are reminded we are dealing with the biggest asset most people have, so we need to ask ourselves, 'do we display the image level of confidence and trust that we want and our clients expect?'"

New Palm Beach Gardens salesperson Bill McBrayer with MIS Century 21 Holmes Realty agrees.

"I was in investment banking for 12 years before going to the Internet, and then becoming a real estate professional," says McBrayer. "It was always wool suits, silk ties and image was first thing you took care of before you met with anyone. What you are wearing registers with people before you open your mouth."

He says, "I think you have to dress better because it does portray an image of professionalism and we represent clients, we work with them in negotiations where we are negotiating with their money, so you have to play the part."

McBrayer's solution for the heat is dressing down with tropical wools and natural fibers. He wears tropical-weight wool slacks to dress up cotton polo shirts that he has especially embroidered with his real estate company's logo. This uniform serves most of his needs.

Is there ever a time to dress down? "If you are offsite at an inspection and outside of the office, polos and khakis are fine," says McBrayer. "Showing property, you want to be comfortable."

But he says, he's embarrassed when he sees salespeople dropping by the office in workout gear.

"There is a lot of office work in this business where you aren't seeing clients, but some clothing should be off limits--short pants and even dress shorts aren't dressy enough. We have a couple of top producers who are busy, and they are at that point where they just don't care, which is an interesting dilemma," he says. "I can't stand workout outfits in the office. Salespeople come in to pick up a key, and they are coming from the gym or playing tennis, they are not seeing clients, but other clients are observing them."

Attitudes about dressing seem to definitely change the more the mercury rises.

In sunny Scottsdale, Arizona, real estate professionals' dress codes also lighten up in hot weather, say RE/MAX Excaliber salespeople Alice and Stephen Protski , and they say dressy shorts are OK with them.

"Because we see temperatures in excess of 100 degrees for more than 3 to 4 months," says Stephen. "Male salespeople typically will not wear suits to work. They'll will wear anything from shorts, sandals, polo shirts, short sleeve shirts, casual pants, dress pants, closed-toe shoes. It all depends on the salesperson and how they interact with their clients. Even in our luxury home market, you typically see salespeople dressing more casually during the summer months."

"Female salespeople can get away with dressing even more casually than their male counterparts. They will wear shorts, sun dresses, sandals, short sleeve blouses and a variety of business causal attire," Alice says. "Basically anything that is loose fitting. Wearing hose is not typical since a variety of female salespeople sport sun tans and there is really no need for hose."

Is there any clothing that is off limits?

"Professional real estate salespeople will generally not dress like their wealthy clients in casual chic wear. The practitioner in Scottsdale, Arizona will dress a little more casual during the summer months, but not to any extreme," says Alice. "Clothing we feel should be off limits when working with customers are T-shirts, tank tops for men, shower shoes (flip flops), short shorts (for women), tube tops for women or any clothing item that does not befit a professional in our local area."

"Wearing shorts to the office to do paperwork does not convey a negative message to potential clients only if the individual is not dressed professionally," says Stephen. "You can wear shorts and still look professional or if you want to place a label on it, then casual chic! If one dresses too casual working with clients it could send the wrong message. You don't want to meet your clients for the first time wearing shorts and sandals, and clients wearing a business suit and tie. That will probably turn off the client.

So what should you wear in the heat?

Real estate professionals agree that clothing should be situation-appropriate. Clearly, office casual has broad interpretations depending on where you live, with the most casual dress more appropriate away from the office environment. If you are going to the office, keep in mind that while you may not be seeing clients, the brokerage's other clients may be seeing you.

"If I'm dressed so casually," observes Deal, "am I in the right mind-set to concentrate primarily on business or am I thinking about my recreation time as soon as I can get away? More importantly does this spill over into my clients thinking when I am talking to them? I believe it does and conscientiously or unconsciously the message to them is our fun is more important than their business dealings."

In most areas, jeans are considered too casual for the office environment. Go for lightweight slacks instead. You can pair them with a more casual shirt, and still look professional. However, if you are going to be tramping through the woods or pouring sand out of your shoes at the beach, tell your client what you plan to wear and why, and invite them to get comfortably prepared, too.

"Since the Scottsdale, Arizona area typically is a more casual environment year round, business casual has been and probably will be appropriate in our marketplace," says Alice. "However, move to Los Angeles or go up to San Francisco and what is acceptable business attire here, will not be accepted there. We would recommend you dress appropriately for your specific area. If casual dress is acceptable, then dress accordingly. Also, we feel you should wear what makes you feel good as well," she adds. A suit and tie in 110 degrees going in and out of homes all day long will be difficult to endure, not to mention will probably make the individual uncomfortable as well."

"What we wear and how we look tells our clients more about us than we realize. What we wear tells our clients that we either care about our appearance or we don't, and whether we pay attention to detail or not. Our appearance can communicate our sense of paying attention to details, level of success, desire to accomplish our clients goals, our feelings about ourselves and our profession," Deal says.

(c) Copyright 2003 Realty Times. Reprinted with permission.

Blanche Evans is a writer/editor and CEO of evansEmedia. Formerly, she was a senior editor with Realty Times, where she was named by REALTOR® Magazine as one of the most influential people in the real estate industry.

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