Are Casual Fridays Really a Good Idea?

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May 22, 2018

How do employers turn Friday into “Fri-yay”? They open the door to some dubious fashion choices. Evan Williams explains.

When employers want to boost morale, they have a variety of options. They can pull the team-bonding lever, subjecting staff to a day of personality testing and go-karting. The efficacy of this lever is debatable. At its worst, it can be degrading and unproductive. At its best, it can lead to physical injuries resulting in a prolonged absence from the workplace.

Then there’s the free-food lever, pulled in the hope that a greasy pizza from the takeaway joint around the corner will brighten spirits dampened by weeks of unpaid overtime. This method can be highly effective… for about 45 minutes.

If management isn’t sold on catering or karting, there is another option. It gets mixed results but, unlike the first two, it doesn’t cost the company anything – at least financially. It’s the casual-Friday lever.

The origins of casual Friday are innocent enough. The trend started in Hawaii in the 1960s; in a bid to sell more of its distinctive aloha shirts, the Hawaiian Fashion Guild promoted the idea of Aloha Friday, making the shirts acceptable end-of-the-week office attire. Then, during a brief recession in the 1990s, mainland American businesses put their own spin on it as a thrifty way to turn employee frowns upside down.

At first blush, casual Friday ticks a lot of boxes. Letting people wear T-shirts instead of shirts is simple, free and “fun”. But casual Fridays can open a Pandora’s wardrobe of unforeseen consequences.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines casual as “not formal; relaxed in style or manner”. Unfortunately, Dave, senior accountant, defines casual as thongs and board shorts. This isn’t a problem at first but after multiple sightings of Dave in mufti, employee perceptions of him begin to change. “Style is a way to say who you are without having to speak,” fashion designer Rachel Zoe once said. And a few Fridays on, employees don’t see Dave as senior accountant; they see him as thongs and boardies. And let’s not get started on the receptionist in a onesie. In their planning for casual Friday, some Human Resources departments have anticipated Dave and the receptionist.

One company’s sartorial strategy includes a lengthy policy document outlining exactly how employees should be “relaxed in style or manner” on Friday: “No torn clothing. No clothing that is visibly dirty or worn out. No spaghetti straps. No clothing that shows midriff. No activewear.” (Is there something deeply ironic about a formal casual-Friday policy? Not that Human Resources can see.)

Reading over the fashion manifesto, staff morale lowers. It falls further when Thursday comes around and an outfit has to be selected. What exactly is casual? Khakis – too casual or not casual enough? Cowboy boots – too crazy?

When the big day arrives, the excitement of being in khakis instead of a suit lasts all of 10 minutes. Morale dies. There are emails to answer, calls to make and meetings to attend where it’s a challenge to stay focused on that important client and not the fact that Justin from Marketing is wearing Crocs. Let’s have another look at that go-karting idea... 

Top image: Steven Moore

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