What “Business Casual” Really Means: 4 Real Life Examples

For an older generation, “business casual” may have meant “no ties required on Friday.” But now that less-formal dress is more common in so many workplaces, business casual can be a cryptic term to crack.

Dress codes are catching up with the modern emphasis on work-life balance and the need to blend the personal with the professional, explains LearnVest human resources associate Sarah DeGrazia. “I think business casual exists to make people feel more comfortable and be their most productive selves,” she says. “It reflects a cultural shift toward being more relaxed.” According to DeGrazia, business casual for men usually means skipping the suit and tie in favor of dress pants, a collared shirt and a belt. But when it comes to women, settling on a no-fail business casual outfit is more difficult.

Generally, women can wear any type of skirt or dress with a hem that goes past the knee, as long as the cut isn’t too revealing on top, or a tailored pair of dress pants with a button-down or blouse. Closed-toed shoes are a must, though both heels and flats are acceptable. If you don’t know what to expect in a new job, DeGrazia recommends asking a friend in the field. She also sees no harm in asking your team members or boss, as long as it’s not the night before the interview. Today many companies also have websites or social media accounts that feature their employees, so do your homework.

As for business-casual dont’s? Generally speaking, “no jeans, no sneakers, no flip-flops, no sweatshirts,” says DeGrazia. (Though, if you happen to work in Silicon Valley—or an industry like it—the opposite might be true.) If in doubt, consider playing it safe by opting for something more formal. “I can’t imagine a situation in which a candidate would be penalized for overdressing,” DeGrazia assures us. “Even if you show up in a suit and everyone else is wearing jeans, you can always remove the jacket. Especially in an interview setting, you never want something under your control—like your outfit—to act as a distraction.”

Still, what’s appropriate can vary by industry, age and even location. While tech employees can often get away with jeans and tees, a job in finance most likely means a suit and tie every day. Each industry has their norms, so we asked four professional in different fields: What does “business casual” mean for you?