When Chrysler Corp.'s Highland Park, Mich., headquarters began experimenting with a business casual dress code in 1991, Paul Smuts told his department Fridays would be casual days. But Smuts thought he would never dress casually himself.
'I had this paradigm, this tradition, that I still wanted to wear a suit and tie,' said Smuts, executive director for corporate personnel, operations and administration at Chrysler.
But Smuts - like many executives with American automotive manufacturers and suppliers - quickly gave in to the appeal of casual clothes. Now he dresses in business casual every Monday and Friday, the appointed days at Chrysler headquarters.
Casual dress is gaining more acceptance in the auto industry, and American companies say it gives them an edge by boosting employee morale. Dress codes certainly distinguish companies visually: While the Big 3 are often casual five days a week, the Japanese and Europeans are sticking with traditional suits.
BIG 3 CHANGES
Chrysler's dress code is business casual two days a week at its headquarters, but five days a week at its technology center in Auburn Hills, Mich. Companywide, Ford Motor Co. has been business casual daily since January. General Motors facilities vary by location, but many offices have a five-day casual dress code.
Business casual at most companies means slacks, a sport shirt and loafers for men, and slacks, a skirt or dress, and a blouse or sweater for women. Most companies prohibit jeans, T-shirts, tank tops, sweat suits or athletic shoes.
The policies are aimed at the employees who traditionally wear a suit - white-collar, salaried office personnel. Manufacturing plants usually have separate dress codes and are unaffected by the policies.
Ford offered the casual dress option last year toall its offices worldwide; North American offices have adopted it, but European offices still are suited up, said John Harmon, corporate news manager at Ford.
At Volkswagen of America's North American offices, employees have dressed casually five days a week since May 1994. Their German counterparts, however, have not adopted a similar policy.
The Japanese automakers also tend to stick with tradition.
At American Honda Motor Co. Inc.'s headquarters in Torrance, Calif., for instance, casual dress is allowed every Friday from Memorial Day through Labor Day. After Labor Day, only the last Friday of every month is casual. The summer casual policy started this year.
Some companies say business casual creates a more relaxed atmosphere and makes their employees more productive.
'It allows people a different mind-set on those days,' said Al Dixon of Dixon Engineering Sales International Inc. He said people often are inclined to tackle different types of projects when they are dressed casually - like fixing computer cables under their desk or cleaning a cupboard.
'It follows the maxim, 'You get twice as much done on Saturday,' ' Dixon said. His employees have the casual option every day.
Business casual also has become a popular way for companies to reflect their changing workplace.
'It seemed to fit very well with the change in culture going on under Ford 2000,' in which the company is emphasizing the best business practices as opposed to traditional practices, Harmon said.
At Volkswagen of America Inc., the new dress policy coincides with a new office look, where cubicles replace walls for a more open and equal atmosphere.
Business casual 'takes away some of the hierarchical thinking,' said Thomas Stretlien, support leader for human resources at VWoA. 'It makes people more equal.'
But according to John Molloy, author of the book Dress for Success, business casual has the opposite effect.
Molloy said the casual dress policy erodes the authority of women and minorities. In business suits, women and minorities send the message that they are efficient and professional. In casual clothes, however, that message becomes blurred.
'When we take men and women and put them in casual clothing it does more damage to . . . everyone who is not a natural authority figure,' Molloy said. He said some casual clothes marketed for women - short skirts, revealing dresses, close-fitted pants - are not appropriate for work, and send the message that 'I'm cute, I'm adorable, I'm passive.
'It destroys in many cases the perception of professional competence,' Molloy said.
It would appear that companies are implementing business casual with few difficulties. Some companies are setting casual dress guidelines.
At Chrysler's tech center, for example, a committee of employees from different departments is working to set guidelines that will work in every department.
The casual dress code is optional at many companies, meaning employees are permitted to dress in business attire. Employees are expected to anticipate when it is appropriate. An important meeting, for instance, still would require a suit at most companies.
But some workers dress casually even for meetings with companies where casual dress has not been approved.
'People understand,' said Chrysler's Smuts. 'It has been well publicized that people are going to a casual dress code.'