How Casual is Too Casual?


During Apple’s recent announcement of its new iPhone 5, this picture of the Senior VP of Worldwide Product Marketing Phil Schiller was snapped. His shirt tail outside of his pants is obvious, but it also appears he is wearing bluejeans.

OK, is it just me, or does anyone else think there is something not quite right with this picture? The Senior VP of Worldwide Product Marketing for one of the biggest businesses in the world, WANTS to project the image of ULTRA CASUAL – I’m a 20-something Dude ready to go clubing? Neck-tie? No way! Maybe the fact that his sleeves are rolled down and buttoned is a statement that his ultra casual appearance only goes so far? And, the fact that his button-down collar shirt is nicely pressed is also a statement that ultra casual has standards?

So what? So what does the staff attire at your library communicate to your customers about your library?

My good friend library director recently adopted uniforms for her urban library staff. It was the result of frequent issues with staff concerning their appearance, and her desire to communicate a more professional image of her library to her community.

It was somewhat of an ordeal to adopt the appropriate “look” by selecting the specific style of clothing – tops and bottoms – to create that “look.” The expense was acceptable considering the goal. How much is too much expense for library advertising? It also takes a talent for clothing style that not just everybody has, so I suggest that you don’t try this if you’ve never been complimented on your own appearance. What is totally critical in this decision to adopt “uniforms” – if one must call it that – is knowing your staff and your organization’s culture. Some organizations and leaders can make the change successfully and beneficially, while others will fail miserably.

I searched for comments regarding uniforms in libraries and found very few ‘constructive’ opinions on the topic.

*I think that if we are moving to roving reference, there needs to be an easy way for patrons to identify staff. I know we can go and ask people if they need assistance, but how often does that bug you about retail shopping?

*One of the reasons that the issue of uniforms were raised was for easy identification of staff. As we settle into our implementation of RFID and move away from the circulation/information desks where our location is our identification, this could be a good reason to reconsider.

*Uniforms can be a symbol of authority, but it’s more about presenting a distinguishing appearance for my library. Our uniforms are really nice looking and everyone feels they look nice as well as all looking alike. It’s not a bad thing for our staff.

It’s not for every library, but just how casual is your library environment, and is that the message you want to communicate to your community?

Here’s a video of some really sharp uniforms.

10 Comments

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10 responses to “How Casual is Too Casual?

  1. My uniform is jeans and a cotton work shirt with my name tag attached. I can easily be identified and I have a measure of approachability as well as being able to get dirty as often happens doing library work. I am happy and my students are happy. They know me on a first name basis and we work well together.

  2. Anonymous

    I am not a big fan of casual-except on the appointed days or if the work involved includes grappling with brittle newspapers and dusty archives. As director my responsibilities include interacting with city officials, members of the business community and representatives of funding agencies. Some are decidedly casual in appearance, but most are not. It would never occur to me not to wear the appropriate attire, and that expectation extends to the library staff.

  3. Bob Farwell

    I think casual attire has its place, such as on the designated “casual days” or when grappling with brittle newspapers or dusty archives. It would not occur to me to appear before the city council, attend a conference or keep an appointment with a potential donor dressed casually. Of course I am also one of those mossbacks who cannot understand why men insist on wearing their hats at the dinner table.

  4. Juan Lee

    Sorry, but my role model is not the 70’s IBM executive look. Just sayin’…

  5. As a former director of a couple of public libraries, the “dress code” for staff has always been a touchy issue. Staff do not like to be told what to wear. Many see it as an infringement on indiviuality. However, as a library consultant working with libraries throughout the country, I am often appalled at staff attire which, in my opinion, is often too casual (baggy jeans and tee shirts with graphics). Customers also notice and comment as such on surveys. I think a “uniform,” in a sense, is the way to go. Think of Southwest Airlines and their kahkis and alway neat attractive collared henley shirts. Staff are easily identifiable, look neat and very presentable. It ehnances the team spirit and reflects their customer-focused work ethic. This approach is one that libraries should consider.

  6. Anne Peoples

    I’ve known plenty of people who present a smart appearance in casual clothes and just as many who appear slovenly in uniforms. Uniforms are not a part of library culture and, having worked as a senior manager in libraries where there were various attempts to introduce uniforms and/ or dress codes, I know first hand that you risk alienating the majority of staff who do dress appropriately, who feel insulted at any suggestion that they do not and who are convinced that uniforms are barriers to engaging with users of all ages and backgrounds.

    • Thank you for your comment, but I have to take exception with “Uniforms are not part of library culture…” Please explain your perception of today’s “library culture” that categorically excludes anything that works. Something may not work for you in your library, but declaring something that works for others in their library as “not a part of library culture” seems unimaginably intollerant and judgemental.

  7. Linda Senkus

    Even if you could get uniforms to be accepted in libraries, selecting a uniform that looks good on everyone is impossible. Have you ever seen a tee-shirt that looks good on a full busted woman? A well written dress code that defines “business casual” for both men and women has worked well for me. As a manager, I can point to the local bank for an example. They have a strict business casual policy without resorting to uniforms. All staff members should wear nametags at all times so that they are easily identifyable. This is for customer convenience and for the safety of our young people. (I worked in a library where a patron acted like a staff member, and our youngsters did not know the difference at first. They were told that a staff member would ALWAYS have a name tag.)

    Appearance conveys level of authority. We have to balance approchability and patron safety.

  8. Kay Dee

    As a Director who has implemented uniforms I can state with complete confidence that, in some libraries, uniforms are absolutely positively the way to go!
    It was a process and it took time. About 4 months to be specific-from the decision to move to uniforms to the day the staff first donned the new attire. We consulted with the staff, the Board, and did a great deal of research. We settled on a standard color scheme that research had shown complimented the majority of skin tones and also held an air of authority. We then agreed on a simple polo shirt and fleece in a complimentary color would become the basic uniform. We provided the staff with a certain number (long sleeve and short sleeve) in relationship to the number of hours per week that they work. We then provided 15 additional choices that included cardigan sets, sweaters vests, dress shirts, and blouses that staff could choose from. The library paid for 1 additional selection and all others are at the discretion of the employee. They can wear only the basic uniform or they may select as many additional options as they would like. I had one staff member who spent approximately $650 on her own personal order.

    The reaction:
    With the exception of one woman who has an absolutely FABULOUS wardrobe and, justifiably, misses showing it off, the staff are thrilled. Comments I have received include: “It’s so much easier to get dressed in the morning”, “Now I don’t ruin my own clothes on the dirty books and ink and dust”, “Wow, I feel so much more ‘official’ and confident”. From one hourly worker that I didn’t even know was struggling with finances: “Thank you so much! Now I don’t have to buy anything but a new pair of jeans and I can get that cheap at the salvation army store” She is a great worker and should not have to spend the minimum wage my organization pays her to try to “keep up” with a dress code implemented by professionals who can easily forget the struggle it sometimes is to afford food never mind a new shirt for work. Now staff need only provide the “waist down” attire than includes everything from dark blue jeans to khakis to skirts.
    The public is thrilled. We have not had one negative comment and literally hundreds of compliments. I can see and feel the staff morale increasing every time they hear “You guys look GREAT! I love the new shirts! Do you guys sell them!!?” So now we also have a fundraising item! The Friends group has purchased white tshirts with a silkscreened version of the library logo (not embroidered as it is not staff uniforms) and is selling them! Two patrons have actually attended Board meetings to tell them how much they love the new “look” and the sense of professionalism it has brought to the Library.

    To those who said:
    “Staff don’t like to be told what to do”- hahahahahahaha!!!…oh wait..you were serious? OF COURSE staff don’t like to be told what to do! But that doesn’t stop managers from doing it all day long-everyday-around the globe-about a hundred different things! And if you are a member of a management team who “attempted” to implement a policy (uniform or other) that you believed in and knew was good for your organization and you allowed staff push-back and reticence to stop you…well, maybe management just isn’t your thing…?
    “You can’t find a t-shirt that looks good on everyone.” Well gosh. Come on-let’s call a spade a spade- realistically a certain percent of your staff looks unacceptable in their attire of choice as it is (and unfortunately I feel confident enough in this to say- if you don’t think any of them look ‘unacceptable’ then maybe its you) …so … if you can even reduce the % of unacceptable by half, then it’s a win-win. If you can’t, then at least the patrons looking for help can find your employees among all the other patrons …and at the end of the day isn’t THAT what its all about? Not how fashionable your large busted staff look in a t-shirt?
    “Uniforms aren’t a part of library culture”—um…respectfully…Uniforms have always been a part of library culture (tho I would LOVE to debate the idea of ‘a library culture’ as I think the assertion that there is such a thing is SO presumptive!). But if we DID ever have a culture then we have certainly LOST that part of it. It’s simply that the ‘uniform’ has traditionally been a suit or other profession attire. Some “old-school” librarians may remember back in the day when female librarians were required to wear skirts. Call it a dress code or a uniform- at its core it’s the same. Unfortunately, folks everywhere have simple forgotten (as I believe was the point of Dr. Matthew’s post) what the professional “uniform” entailed and now we must implement codes. And …business casual…as the title of this posts suggest, when does it become too casual? When do staff begin to look like patrons? Approachability is one thing…but when did it switch to this feeling of almost apologizing for being professional? If I’m getting a multi-100 thousand dollar loan- I promise you-I appreciate getting it from someone in a suit vs. a polo-t-shirt and if-heaven forbid- that is too much to ask…at least please TUCK YOUR SHIRT IN!

    As a profession we have meetings, sessions, discussions, workshops, and published articles on WHY we are still relevant. Why people should still come to the library vs. using Google. We talk about our professionalism and what sets us apart…but then we very nearly apologize or refuse to dress the part. Whether it’s administrators and managers in professional attire or frontline staff in a smart looking polo with your logo front and center- Let’s get BACK to who we are and should be- professionals in a profession running a professional operation.

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