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Jewish World Review March 14, 2001 / 19 Adar, 5761

Jim Steinberg

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Consumer Reports

End those corporate casual everydays? -- Just when you've become comfortable at work, the management types who help define "professional appearance" complain that casual dress has gone too far.

Management Recruiters International of Cleveland, Ohio, the self-described "world's largest search and recruitment organization," lodges that complaint amid its most recent nationwide poll about dress, adding that executives across the nation are concerned.

Sue McCombs of McCombs & Associates, a human-resource consulting firm in Fresno, Calif., sings the same lament: We're all looking a little rough around the edges.

It's one thing for professionals to reserve occasional days for wearing slacks and sweaters instead of business suits and to go without ties on certain days, these and other critics say. (Opponents call them the "dress police".) It's another matter when professionals and office workers show up wearing Hawaiian shirts, short shorts, jeans, tennis shoes, halter tops - the list goes on.

McCombs cites one client, a hospital administrator, who came to her expressing concern about what she calls "a significant drop in the level of appropriate attire."

The administrator's concern, McCombs said was "twofold: the way it looks and whether the patients question our commitment or abilities" as a result of casual dress.

"Here you are, going to have surgery, and your surgeon comes in wearing a Hawaiian shirt. Won't you have a question if he is going to put the knife to you? Is he serious today?" McCombs adds.

Some patients agree, some don't.

Nancy Culley, 55, was questioned as she waited for a ride outside Saint Agnes Cancer Center in Fresno. She sees doctors with ties and doctors without ties.

"It doesn't bother me at all," she says. "As long as he's a good doctor, it's OK. It feels me more down to earth" when an oncologist she sees wears no tie or jacket. "It makes me feel more comfortable."

Elisa Jackson, 45, was questioned as she waited to be seen in the X-ray department of Community Medical Providers in Fresno. A social worker, she doesn't usually dress casually at work, even on alternate Friday casual days, because she deals with families in crisis. She wants them to see her as a social worker, not a pal. But as she waited to be seen as a patient, she wore jeans and running shoes.

Still, she said, it matters to her how a medical professional dresses. "If I had a man walk in just in street clothes, I would feel he was not a doctor. But if he wears Levis underneath, I don't care - just as long as he has the white coat."

She draws the line at physicians wearing Hawaiian shirts and sandals: "I would think he was too relaxed and not prepared for what I'm there for. If he's in Birkenstocks, I think he's too liberal with medications."

So why was she in jeans and running shoes when she prepared to return to her office? She didn't intend to make a style statement, she said, adding, "My foot hurts today and I couldn't wear pumps." she says.

McCombs believes that professional and business dress standards affect work quality. So does that also mean that casual dress carries lax job performance in its back pocket?

Dr. James Kratzer of Fresno says he finds his casual dress actually improves relations with patients in his pediatrics office. "We try to create an atmosphere that is friendly and puts our patients and families at ease," he says. "I would assume that doctors in all situations would behave professionally... .

"As far as a patient's confidence in a physician, it is actually better to reduce anxiety and stress. To put people at ease is an important part of the whole process. White coats may frighten kids and intimidate adults, too."

Allen Salikof, president and chief executive of Management Recruiters International, complains that "the mode of dress is deteriorating" but stops short of saying it has any provable effect on the quality of work.

Salikof says his firm polled 3,500 executives and found that about a third, or 34 percent, agreed with him that "business casual" has become too hang-loose. His firm did the same survey two years ago, and 40 percent of executives who hire people then expected that the suit and tie would vanish altogether from the workplace.

Says Salikof, "Perhaps the pendulum has swung too far."

At San Joaquin College of Law, Pam Ramirez, director of placement services, emphasizes professional appearance and common sense when would-be lawyers venture forth interviewing for jobs.

Law firms may feature casual dress in the office but want to see their attorneys in three-piece suits in court, she says. "Once students are hired, they can adjust to the environments of their law offices," she says.

That comment recalled an anecdote of one law professor's own experiment. He dressed casually for one class and professionally for another. Then he asked each class to judge his performance at the end of the course.

In the class for which he dressed professionally, he got a higher rating.

Jim Steinberg writes for Fresno Bee. Comment by clicking here.


© 2001, SHNS