Do Office Dress Codes Still Make Sense?

Shorts seem to be the last frontier of office attire—the one place where most casual-Friday-everyday employees are afraid to go, and the one choice of attire that might get them spoken to by Human Resources.

My own company sent a memo from HR yesterday reminding us of proper office attire, and explaining that the emphasis in “business casual” should be on the “business” part of the term, rather than the “casual” part of it. As far as I can tell, the only thing we all understand to be too casual for our office is shorts. Though, to be honest, I snuck a pair of dressy heart-print shorts in last week. No one was the wiser, however, because you’d have to inspect these shorts very closely not to assume they’re a miniskirt (which is allowed).

Our memo warned about any clothing that exposed too much of the wearer’s chest, back, or shoulders, or revealed (presumably a woman’s) cleavage. Or any shoes that exposed too much of our feet. That’s tricky because there now are fancy flip-flops on the market. Are feet provocative and distracting? Or is it foot odor in business meetings that’s a concern?

I’m sure you probably can tell I think all of this is silly and outdated. A survey I found on on dress codes is interesting. Some respondents said they didn’t even know their company had a dress code, never mind worrying about conforming to it. The reason some employees don’t know, or care, whether their company has a dress code relates to why you hired them in the first place. Along with having the hard skills, and communication ability, needed to do their jobs, you hired them because they led you to believe they have good judgment. Part of that good judgment is having the ability, without being guided like a child, to choose appropriate clothing. If employees lack this ability, which they should have acquired as children, what other abilities are they lacking? If I had an employee who consistently came in looking inappropriate or offensive, I would be concerned about the decisions he or she makes on behalf of the company. If you can’t run your closet, can you run a client’s account?

Surprisingly, some respondents to the survey wanted their company to offer a more structured dress code. I wonder what that means. Does that mean having a dress code like I’ve seen in hair salons or professional orchestras, where it seems everyone was instructed to dress somewhat modestly and in black? Or does it mean stipulating that everyone, both men and women, wear dress jackets and keep their feet concealed all year round?

The problem with structured dress codes, and dress codes in general, is they’re difficult if you have a mixed-gender company. As everyone knows, us women have much more leeway in how we dress. I’ve often laughed cruelly to myself on a 95-degree day as I happily walked to work in my sleeveless sundress with bare legs and sandals beside a man all buttoned up in the heat in his suit, complete with jacket and tie and laced-up shoes that lack ventilation. There’s no sundress equivalent for men to wear to the office on a hot summer day. So what becomes the simplest way to give guidance? Ask everyone, both men and women, to wear pants suits and closed-toe shoes, regardless of the time of year and weather? Do you have any ideas on giving simple direction on appropriate dress that leaves out ambiguity or room for interpretation?

Another thing about the dress code memo my company sent yesterday that bothers me is I detect some potential feminism issues. “Your business clothing should always keep those around you focused on the work at hand,” the memo states. What do you think that means? Does that mean men should be careful of the cut of their pants, or make sure their tie doesn’t induce excitement? I’m guessing this is a direction targeted to women employees to make sure we dress with the comfort of our male colleagues in mind. That’s heading into dangerous territory. Could a male colleague complain that a woman in an appropriately form-fitting blouse and skirt and high heels is dressed too provocatively because he’s having trouble concentrating on his work with her around? It reminds me of lawsuits I’ve read about in which women were fired from their jobs because they were told they were too attractive, or dressed in a way that distracted their male co-workers. That directive makes me question who we are dressing for—ourselves and our own comfort, or our male colleagues’ comfort and ability to concentrate?

The clothing we decide to brave the world in is a personal choice. If an employee is customer-facing, the company can give specific directives, such as requiring both men and women to wear suits and closed-toe shoes. But if an employee is not meeting with customers, it’s hard to require much, isn’t it?

What guidelines do you give employees in how they dress? Is it a training issue? How do you guide up-and-coming, or entry-level, employees on understanding the clothing requirements/expectations of the meetings and events they attend?


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