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Flip-Flops and Spaghetti Straps: Can Summer 'Casual' Cross the Line?

Dress codes should consider culture and clients

You may not have to take it as far as one judge did—when he banned sleeveless shirts in his courtroom—but it’s a good idea to revisit your summer dress code now, before you’re forced to address hot-weather attire that may be unsuitable at work.

During summer, many companies allow workers to dress more casually, which means women’s hemlines can creep up, men may show up in shorts and both may shed the fancy footwear for flip-flops.

“The line that an employer draws should involve a balancing of several factors, such as risk management, culture of the workplace and any image the employer wants to convey to clients, customers and other outsiders,” said David B. Monks, a partner with San Diego-based Fisher & Phillips LLP. “Sandals, capris and sleeveless shirts may be no big deal to some employers but simply not appropriate in the minds of other employers.”

According to a May 2012 Workplace Solutions LLC poll, a large majority of businesses (63 percent) don’t alter their dress code policies during the summer, while 9 percent indicated that employees are not required to wear professional clothing during the warmer months.

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), however, found in the 2013 Employee Benefits survey that 23 percent of organizations allowed seasonal casual dress. That percentage has remained relatively stable since 2010, according to the survey, which canvassed 518 HR professionals who were SHRM members.

“There are always people who will take opportunity to an extreme and quite honestly, we have a hard time constraining ourselves when it comes to sensible fashion,” said Mila Grigg, CEO of Nashville, Tenn.-based MODA Image and Brand Consulting. “Most clients I work with simply do not know what is or isn’t appropriate, and there are very few universities that offer courses” on work attire.

Picking on Women?

Lenore Nesbitt, the first female judge appointed to the U.S. Southern District of Florida, famously sent female attorneys out of her courtroom for wearing open-toed shoes.

After lawyers showed up in his courtroom wearing sleeveless tops, Rutherford County Circuit Court Judge Royce Taylor in summer 2013 sent a memo to the local bar association reminding women that sleeves on jackets and dresses should cover the elbow. Several female attorneys interviewed by The Tennessean newspaper at the time supported Taylor’s memo, with some saying sundresses should also be off limits.

“Women are more likely than men to wear more revealing and comfortable summer attire,” Monks said. “A sleeveless top is, I think, a part of most women’s wardrobe, but not so with men. While men wear shorts, I think there’s a perception out there that a woman is more likely to wear shorts in a given office environment where casual attire is allowed than a man. Another reason is that men are more likely to engage in inappropriate conduct—staring, unwelcome comments—when seeing women in summer attire than women are when seeing men in summer attire.”

While a lot of summer “no-no’s” appear to be aimed at women’s fashion choices—halter tops, tube tops, short skirts , sheer fabrics, bare legs and spaghetti straps—it’s wise for employers to pay just as much attention to men’s summer attire. Men working in creative fields, for instance, are more likely to wear shorts, overly casual pants, shirts that aren’t tucked in and sandals such as Birkenstocks during the summers.


Those in their 20s and 30s may think nothing of wearing flip-flops with cocktail dresses and work trousers, but members of the Northwestern University championship women’s lacrosse team caused a national uproar in 2005 when several of them wore flip-flops to a White House meeting with President George W. Bush.

Some experts said that—even in summer—flip-flops and other casual sandals belong at the beach or swimming pool.

“By having a no-open-toed shoes policy, [employers] limit the risk of having shoes that are more sandal than shoe, having toes and feet exposed that are not clean and properly cared for, and also from having items from the floor or spilled drinks all over someone's feet,” Grigg said.

In short, the bottom line when creating a summer dress code is to consider the organization’s culture and clients, Grigg said.

“First impressions are made in a quarter of a second,” she said. “You can be the smartest [professional] in the world, but if you are dressed improperly, nobody will ever get past your fashion to see the gifts and intelligence you have to offer.

“If you feel you need to explain to someone who walks in to meet you that today is casual [dress day], and ask them to please excuse the casual clothing, then you should not have casual [dress day]. Why start the meeting off with an explanation of why you do not look like you are ready for business or work?”

Said Margaret Feister, operations manager for SHRM’s HR Knowledge Center: “I would say pretty universally [that] tube tops, swimwear and of course, very sheer tank tops with spaghetti straps, worn without an over-garment” are inappropriate for work. “And some men, particularly those who work in IT, might disagree, but shorts and sandals for men in the office is probably not a good idea.”
​Here are some tips for creating a summer dress code:

  • Put a general dress code in place long before summer arrives. This ensures everyone’s on notice about the rules, which should also specify repercussions for transgressions, whether that means being sent home to change or receiving verbal or written warnings.
  • Be specific: If your summer dress code is “business casual,” explain in the policy what that means for men and for women. Spell out what’s restricted, whether it’s capris, sleeveless tops, types of suits, sundresses, shorts, tank tops, open-toed shoes, flip-flops or the like. “Wouldn't it be great if everyone had the same idea as to what casual really meant?” Grigg asked. “Firms take a risk unless they define what casual means.”
  • Handle all offenders equally. Be consistent about singling out people who violate the code, no matter their age or rank. While Millennials tend to have different standards than older workers for what’s appropriate attire at work, that doesn’t mean they should be held to different rules. And it’s not sexual harassment to tell a female employee that she can’t wear a tube top to work. If one offender gets away with breaking the rules, others will follow.

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.


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