A few weeks ago, I wrote about summer style on a budget and received some feedback that made me pause. Everyone who wrote in seemed to think they had the right idea about what constituted proper office attire during summer months and that everyone else was completely clueless.
Most interesting to me was the fact that everyone who wrote in had completely different theories about not only fashion, but business fashion, in particular. One email extolled the virtues of a past office environment accepting of shorts and anything barring actual beach gear.
Another note railed against the concept of anything more casual than a full-fledged suit and bemoaned the days of official work wardrobes across all industries. Some argued that workplace dress codes were outmoded, while others wished their companies had more clear policies.
I was curious enough about the radically differing ideas and opinions on what is considered appropriate, that I asked attorney Rosemary S. Gousman, Managing Partner at Fisher & Phillips LLP, who deals with many workplace issues and lawsuits (some dealing with attire and discrimination), for some advice.
Can Your Boss Tell You What to Wear to Work?
I posed the question: “Who, if anyone, can tell you what to wear to work?” And her answer was pretty surprising. As it turns out, there’s really only one person who can determine what is or is not office appropriate in your particular place of work: your boss.
Not only that, according to Gousman, your boss really can and should decide on what’s appropriate wear for your office, especially during the hotter summer months.
Barring religious accommodation issues (like headscarves or yarmulkes), Gousman says an employer has every right to tell you what to wear to work without many restrictions. In other words, your boss can tell you what you can and can’t wear to work.
The issues aren’t quite that black and white though, and companies should consult with their own attorneys and HR professionals to avoid any awkward bias situations.
Guidelines for Office Dress Codes
That said, if there is a clear and consistent suggested mode of dress for both men and women, it’s generally both legal and acceptable. “When you do have rules of professional dress, make sure you have the same rules for men and women. If you require professional dress, it should be for both,” says Gousman.
So, while it’s acceptable for a company like Hooters to enforce a shorts and tight t-shirt rule for their employees because it’s part of their brand and image, it’s probably illegal for a boss at a pharmaceutical company to suddenly insist that female employees wear similar attire. Gousman says you don’t have to work there if you’re not comfortable with it.
She explains, “Suppose you’re an NFL cheerleader and you say, ‘No, I won’t wear the outfit,’ or a basketball player refuses the uniform.” See the difference? Gousman also offers the analogy of airline uniforms — you immediately know who’s part of cabin crew and who’s part of the flight crew. In that way, a well-defined dress code not only helps define the company image, but the hierarchy, as well.
Things can get more confusing during summer months when “scantily clad workers in a professional setting can create real dilemmas for employers,” says labor and employment attorney Audrey Mross of Munck Wilson Mandala. “A coworker who is revealing a little too much can make colleagues uncomfortable, or even attract attention that forms the basis of a harassment claim.”
So, what happens if someone comes into the office and they’re inappropriately dressed? Gousman says it’s a manager’s job to talk to him or her. “If someone came in and had dirty clothes on, you would say something,” she adds.
Mross says, “Supervisors are often loath to confront the situation, since it can come off as an attack on personal taste or style. That’s where the value of a consistent, basic dress code comes in.” If you’re unsure of your company’s dress code, ask your supervisor, manager, or the person who hired you. If you don’t receive a clear answer, try to model your own summer wardrobe on those in positions of authority.
The Biggest Office Attire Offenders
Adecco, one of the world’s largest temporary staffing agencies created a survey on people’s perceptions about appropriate office attire. According to the results, flip flops came in as the biggest workplace offender, with 71 percent of Americans choosing them as inappropriate, more so than mini-skirts (70 percent) or strapless tops or dresses (66 percent).
Somewhat surprising were the ways that men and women’s views of the boundaries of appropriate office attire differ. For example, more than three-quarters (76 percent) of women believe strapless tops or dresses are inappropriate for the workplace, while just over half of men (55 percent) agree. Similarly, eight out of 10 women believe mini-skirts are inappropriate, compared to only 61 percent of men.
Region and locations plays a part in perception, as well. According to the survey, Northerners are slightly stricter on the casual dress code. One-fifth (21 percent) of those in the Northeast think that it’s unacceptable for anyone to dress casually at the workplace during the summer, compared to 14 percent of those surveyed in all other regions.
Kathleen Wu, a partner in the Dallas office of Andrews Kurth, is unswayed by region or weather. Wu believes that women, in general, need to ignore even intense heat and continue dressing like a professional year-round, since even in intense heat it’s fairly temperate within the office.
Wu believes that shorts, t-shirts, sandals and anything appropriate for an afternoon at the pool are anything but appropriate for the workplace. “Women who want to be treated professionally and be taken seriously, need to dress professionally,” says Wu.
Then again, some companies don’t want to issue any directives on appropriate office wear.
“What we do is more important than what we wear,” said Kalen Holliday, a spokeswoman for Covestor. “We don’t dictate what employees wear, but expect them to dress for success.” Their dress code is pretty open ended — “Please use common sense in your choice of work attire.” Holliday explained that at Covestor, shorts are acceptable and the company does not dictate the lengths of skirts or dresses.
As a company “at the intersection of the financial and technology fields, jeans with button down shirts is our unofficial dress code.” Interestingly enough, the dress code is more strictly enforced when employees meet with people outside the company, when they’re told to dress “as people at THAT company would.” So, for a formal meeting in another Registered Investment Adviser’s office, a suit and tie might be pulled out.
The bottom line is, if you’re not sure what to wear to the office during hotter months, check to see if there’s an office dress code in place. If you’re a freelancer or consultant, spend some time researching the company and their policies and try to dress accordingly when on-site.
Rachel Weingarten prefers to err on the side of professionalism even during the hot, sweaty season. She’s a style expert, marketing strategist & personal branding consultant for CEOs, politicians and celebrities and the creator of MintStyle. She is the award-winning author of Career and Corporate Cool and Hello Gorgeous! Beauty Products in America ‘40s-‘60s. Rachel writes for top media outlets including CNN, Fortune, Forbes Life, MSN, USA Today, Yahoo Finance and many others. She is a regularly featured expert on TV shows including Good Morning America and The Today Show. Visit her online at http://racheletc.com or on Twitter @rachelcw Write to her with your burning style questions at firstname.lastname@example.org