You're Wearing That to Work? Really?!

Consider your organization’s culture and work setting when deciding what’s OK

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek June 7, 2019
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​Are pajamas OK to wear at work? What about baseball caps, fishnet stockings or a Hawaiian shirt?

HR professionals were outspoken in a recent poll by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) that generated more than 10,000 responses about what passes for appropriate workplace attire.

Readers were asked to voice their opinion on the suitability of 13 clothing choices that also included flip-flops, tight sweaters, off-the-shoulder and low-cut tops, leggings, shorts, track suits, hockey jerseys and T-shirts bearing political slogans.

While some were adamantly opposed to all such casual attire being worn to work, the consensus on SHRM's Facebook page was … it depends.

"It's one of those situational deals" that depends on your organization's culture, said Wes Porter, an HR professional in Portland, Ore. He was among SHRM members commenting on the Society's Facebook page. "The workplace should be about work and your ability to contribute to the workforce, not about what everyone chooses to become offended over."

Type of Business 

Wearing shorts, track suits and ball caps may be the norm at an athletic company or a retailer where employees wear what the company sells, one commenter pointed out, adding that in a setting where business attire is the norm, such options probably aren't a good idea.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Employee Dress and Appearance]

Lorie'l Johnson's last employer allowed very casual outfits, "so a majority of the things on that list—including flip-flops and leggings—were OK." She now works as an academic administrative assistant at Bryant & Stratton College in Cleveland and says, "It's the complete opposite, so it's hard to say and get an accurate poll, because what's appropriate for company A may not be for company Q."

Appropriateness may even vary within an organization. What's OK to wear in a company's warehouse may not be well-received at a company-hosted dinner. Emmy VandenLangenberg, SHRM-CP, works for Pensacola, Fla.-based International Paper, where jeans, baseball caps, T-shirts and steel-toe boots or athletic shoes are the norm.

She wears T-shirts every day, she says, "and I am in HR." 

Wearing ball caps, Hawaiian shirts and track suits was fine at the construction company where Angi Duckwall, SHRM-CP, once worked. But other options listed on the poll would have been unacceptable.

If you have to ask if certain clothing is OK to wear, some respondents pointed out, it probably isn't.

"Our rule of thumb is if you would wear it clubbing, it's probably not the best choice for the office," said Lynn Proctor, SHRM-CP, HR manager at City of Virginia Beach Public Utilities in Virginia.

Style, Cut of Clothing 

Whether an article of clothing is allowable can depend on its style and cut and how it's paired with other clothing.

Elena Radeva, an HR professional and lecturer in Sofia, Bulgaria, thinks fishnet stockings are OK if not worn with a short skirt or dress. "We have hosted summer or sports days where most of the other items [on the list] would be OK," she added.

And Gail Downing Gagnon, HR business partner at McKesson Corporation, a pharmaceutical distribution company headquartered in Irving, Texas, said a tight sweater is permissible. Her employer also allows leggings as long as they don't look like workout gear.

Fashion Police 

David Wohlreich works in the technology industry as senior manager for compensation and benefits at Niantic Inc. in the San Francisco Bay Area. Political T-shirts are the only type of clothing he views as inappropriate, but he says he likely would not do anything about it if an employee wore one.

Another person didn't think there is a definitive answer—nor should there be—about workplace clothing, noting that policies often are so narrowly defined that they cause worse problems than they are intended to fix. Ask yourself what type of business you work for, she suggested. What is the business climate? Who are your customers, and where are they located?

Catherine Harren Barufaldi, SHRM-SCP, vice president of HR at Independence Care System in the Greater New York City area, doesn't want to be bothered with questions about what employees can and cannot wear. 

"I refuse to be the fashion police at work—HR has real issues to deal with, and serving as hall monitor diminishes our profession. Appropriate clothing is up to the employee's manager," she said, "just like appropriate demeanor, appropriate work performance and appropriate technical knowledge is up to the employee's manager."

What is suitable to wear to work comes down to the nature of your business and the amount and type of contact that employees have with customers and one another, pointed out Kari Hazzard, workforce management analyst at Continuum Global Solutions in Rochester, N.Y.

"A strict dress code that isn't serving the needs of the business in some tangible way is counterproductive," she said.


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