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Has your office become too casual?

  • Story Highlights
  • Employers relax rules to enhance workers' attitudes, but too much can be bad
  • Try hard to separate friendship and professional relationships at work
  • Words, appearance and behavior are three factors to gauge casualness
  • If office is too casual for comfort, you can try to fix it, author says
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By Anthony Balderrama writer
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At one time, everyone wore suits to the office. Now casual Fridays stretch into all the weekdays.

At one time, everyone wore suits to the office. Now casual Fridays stretch into all the weekdays.

At one time, offices were the epitome of formality where bosses were addressed as "Mr." or "Mrs." and you wore only suits or dresses (complete with pantyhose).

Now, many workplaces have a business casual dress code with even more casual Fridays, and the bosses -- who go by their first names -- are your Facebook friends.

Employers relaxed the rules to enhance workplace attitudes. If you're on the phone or on the computer all day, it doesn't matter if you're wearing a tie. At least you'd think so.

Of course, as with all things good, too much can be detrimental. How can you have a relaxed, casual environment while still maintaining your professionalism?

To befriend or not to befriend

Friendships are commonplace in all jobs. They exist between colleagues and sometimes between employees and their bosses. Try as you might, switching from friendship to professional mode while you're on the clock can be difficult. For the sake of your office, however, you might want to try harder.

"We spend so much of our day at work that people often forget where the line between work and personal life should be drawn," says Roberta Chinsky Matuson, president of Human Resources Solutions. "Discussions regarding what you did last night and with whom are not necessarily conversations one should be having at work."

Matuson also reminds you that what you say to a close co-worker can be overheard by many other people in the desks or cubicles within earshot. Even if no one else hears, you could be talking to the wrong person in the first place.

You might be close with your boss, but giving information that could undermine your reliability or professionalism can harm your career down the road when it's time for a promotion.

How to tell when you've gone too far

Your words, appearance and behavior are three key factors in gauging whether work has become too casual, according to Todd Dewett, management professor at Wright State University and author of "Leadership Redefined."

Your words: Among the warning signs are, according to Dewett, "The use of expletives, overly familiar terms (calling someone by [his or her] first name or a nickname when few others do), using common slang deemed inappropriate for work communication or failing to use appropriate jargon for your particular work context."

Common sense still rules all, and that means the topics long considered taboo are still off limits. The humor that you find edgy but others could perceive as racist, sexist or any other form of offensive should just be left to private conversations between you and your friends outside of company time.

Your appearance: "This includes both attire and grooming," Dewett says. The obvious wardrobe error is dressing down too much, including jeans and belly-revealing shirts, not to mention showing a lot of cleavage or tattoos and piercings (if it's not the norm for your occupation).

When it comes to grooming, the rules are pretty much common sense: Keep the style and color appropriate to your field and bathe on a regular basis.

Your behavior: "This could include too much socializing at work, socializing that is perceived as too personal and too often getting inside another person's personal space, which for most Western cultures is about arm's length," Dewett says.

How to solve the problem

If your office is too casual for comfort -- either your own or your colleagues' -- you can try to fix it. Kerry Patterson, co-author of "Crucial Confrontations," offers some suggestions for tackling the subject if someone else is responsible for making your workplace too casual.

• Calmly discuss the issue that matters most.

"Don't air a list of gripes. Instead, focus on the one issue you care about most."

• Choose your words wisely.

"Describe the problem using tentative language, then describe what the person is doing -- not what you're concluding."

• Don't make a private issue public.

"This means [keeping the issue private] not only during the conversation, but also after. This will help the other person feel safe talking to you and remedying the problem."

• Don't imply that your concern has been festering.

"Since it's the first time you've brought it up, treat it as something that has only recently become an issue."

Copyright 2009. All rights reserved. The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast or otherwise distributed without the prior written authority

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