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Office Casualties

Several years ago, a number of American corporations began allowing their employees to dress casually for work one day a …

Several years ago, a number of American corporations began allowing their employees to dress casually for work one day a week. This revolutionary sartorial development had its roots in the software industry, specifically in Silicon Valley, where countercultural values of the 1960s have long held sway and where everyone dresses badly. But it has since spread across the nation, resulting in a phenomenon called “Casual Fridays,” in which employees of all ranks turn up at the office wearing blue jeans, sweatshirts, and even garish running apparel. The philosophical underpinning is the belief that if employees dress in a more relaxed fashion, they will enjoy their jobs more, and be more productive.

Years from now, when cultural historians investigate the decline of the American Empire, I am certain they will trace the collapse of a once-mighty civilization to Casual Fridays. Once workers started thinking of the office as a place where they could dress in a frivolous, lighthearted fashion, they started thinking of their jobs in a frivolous, lighthearted way. Anthropologists poring over corporate records of important events of the last decade of this millennium will find that Casual Fridays were not, in fact, “casual” workdays-but were holidays, goof-off days, and play-trash-can basketball days. They will wonder how a society that seemed to be doing everything right for the first two centuries of its existence could so foolishly, so capriciously, and so suddenly stray from the game plan.

These experts will trace our national decline to the moment some well-meaning but shortsighted CEO allowed employees to wear flannel to the office. Flannel is a silly fabric: It is worn by eccentric moviemakers such as Woody Allen, by juvenile rock stars such as the boys from Pearl Jam, and by frivolous politicians such as Lamar Alexander. Flannel should be worn while raking leaves, bagging leaves, or strolling in the deepest recesses of the Vermont woods watching leaves fall. It should not deciding whether to upgrade to Big Iron, challenge the current import quotas in Japan, negotiate a new drilling lease with the Kuwaitis, or relocate a large plant to Mexico. When IBM conquered the world, evolving into the most dynamic, aggressive, and prosperous commercial enterprise the world has ever known, none of its star employees were wearing flannel. No company can generate $67 billion in annual revenues by employing a work force cavorting in plaid.

Management gurus may dismiss my logic here and say, not to worry: Important corporate decisions would never be made by employees wearing Birkenstocks and flannel shirts, that Casual Fridays are basically an innovation designed to make the rank-and-file feel better about their jobs.

The horrifying subtext of this is that employees should be encouraged to hate their jobs four days a week, then come in and goof off on Fridays in a strange tit-for-tat arrangement. This makes no sense. If casual attire makes employees more they should be allowed to dress casually five days a week. But if Casual Fridays are merely a ploy to trick employees into enjoying work one day a week and hating it the other four, why not give them jobs they’ll actually enjoy all the time? Either that, or ask them to find other jobs.

Simply introducing Casual Fridays sends a message to the work force that it’s all right to take off one day a week and clown around: shuffle paper, figure out football-point spreads, call old college buddies, play Tetris. This is a frightening development. People used to say you should never buy a car manufactured on a Monday, because auto workers were too hung over from the weekend to put the cars together properly. I feel the same way about Casual Fridays. Should this movement spread to every industry in America, the public soon will be saying: “Never buy stocks on a Friday, because that’s the day your broker comes to the office wearing a Porky Pig T-shirt and a pair of magenta-and-chartreuse Rollerblades.” Soon after, our overseas rivals will start whispering: “Always negotiate with cellular phone makers on Fridays, because that’s the day the sales force wears the funny hats to work.”

Here, I would like to add a personal note. Whenever I am dealing with deadbeats whose payments are long overdue, I visit their offices to collect my money. When I do so, I wear a dark suit, a blue shirt, and an expensive tie, with a serious, sensible pair of shoes. I do not go into the city to collect my money wearing a flannel shirt and dungarees and a baseball cap and sneakers, because I know that people in flannel shirts and dungarees and baseball caps and sneakers are never taken seriously. Nor should they be. Either business is serious, or business is not serious. They don’t call it work for nothing.

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron’s and The Wall Street Journal.

About Joe Queenan

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron's and The Wall Street Journal.