Summer is here. That means backyard barbecues, beach weekends, sightseeing trips and the annual reminder from management that ensembles worn for those occasions are likely not office-appropriate.
The warmer temperatures mean people wear less clothing, leading to more opportunities to run afoul of the company dress code.
The evergreen debate among corporate attire police about whether leggings are pants and if they're suitable for the workplace doesn't vanish in the summer. It's joined by myriad other questions, such as whether a skirt is too short, a dress is too sheer and leather footwear with a heel but no backstrap constitutes a flip-flop.
"Summer is a fertile time for problems," says Michael Studenka, a partner specializing in employment law at Newmeyer & Dillion's office in Newport Beach, Calif. "Clothing styles and trends show more [skin] and stick to the body more. This often causes conflict with policy."
Casual Is King
Dress codes and habits vary greatly based on industry, position within a company hierarchy and geographic region. Retail establishments usually require staff to wear uniforms, while the clothing allowed at manufacturing plants is dictated by safety standards.
The office environment is especially ripe for confusion and even conflict, given the numerous attire options and the changing work culture. Offices are becoming increasingly casual, as comfort-loving Millennials take over the workplace and the Silicon Valley ethos exemplified by Facebook founder and chairman Mark Zuckerberg's T-shirt and hoodie spreads into other business sectors. A majority—56 percent—of individuals prefer a relaxed dress code, according to a survey by OfficeTeam, which specializes in placing temporary office and administrative staff.
At the same time, companies are trying to foster inclusion and diversity by encouraging employees to be themselves at work instead of adhering to a perceived stereotype. Amid the tightest labor market in 50 years, firms are also reluctant to impose restrictions that could irritate employees and prospects.
Creating the Code
Many companies now advise staff to just dress "appropriately" or have rules that ban "revealing" or "distracting" garments. Those words may be in the dictionary, but, in reality, the definitions are in the eyes of the beholder. The workplace has never been more diverse, so dress codes are viewed through the lenses of people of different ages, genders, ethnicities, economic standings and beliefs. Such differences can lead to conflicting opinions.
"Everyone draws the line in a different place," says Pamela Moore, a partner in the Hartford, Conn.-based office of law firm McCarter & English. She adds that good dress codes should list definitive dont's, so there's no confusion over what's acceptable and what's not. If employers don't want an atmosphere that resembles a pool party, Moore says, executives should clearly nix shorts, flip-flops, shirts that reveal the midriff, halter tops and tank tops, for example.
Still, there's a lot of gray area in dress codes, and that's what makes the issue so complicated. Nearly half of men and one-third of women say they aren't sure what constitutes proper office attire. Eighty percent of managers said last year that an employee's dress affect his or her chance of getting a promotion, according to OfficeTeam. And while that's down from 93 percent in 2007, it's still an overwhelming majority.
Michelle Crowley recently celebrated her 50th birthday and concedes that she sometimes misses the early days of her career at a law firm, where knowing what to wear was easy: Suits were a de facto uniform. Now she's the human resource director who oversees the "business casual" dress code of Ferland Corp., a Pawtucket, R.I.-based owner and manager of apartment complexes. That means men must wear a collared shirt and tailored pants or khakis. Women can wear dresses, pants or skirts. No-nos include shorts, tight pants and any "excessive" accessories, hairstyles or perfume. Jeans are reserved for Fridays.
Despite the code, Crowley says she's surprised that job applicants dress so informally. Most men don't wear ties, and often neither gender pulls together their outfit with a jacket. Their clothing doesn't conform to her idea of professional attire, though Crowley says she has learned to adjust her sartorial expectations, especially when interviewing younger candidates.
"I just look at their skills," she says. "If I waited for candidates who were more formally dressed, I would have no employees."
Crowley adds that there's a man at the company who wears a suit to work every day and that doesn't necessarily convey a positive message. "He looks 'old-school,' " she says. "Part of me thinks that's showing his age."
That's not a look that many want to project in a time when ageism is a major concern. Beyond that, there aren't many workplaces left that require such formal attire. Banks, professional service firms and the floor of the U.S. Congress are among the last holdouts.
Goldman Sachs made international headlines in March when it told employees that it was loosening its approach to office attire, moving to "a firmwide flexible dress code." Employees were told to "dress in a manner that is consistent with your clients' expectations."
Virgin Airlines also took a step toward modernity in March when it dropped its requirement that women wear makeup and began offering them the option to wear pants without them having to make a special request.
Dressing for the workplace has always been more complicated for women than men. After the women's movement of the 1970s, women's demand for workplace equality manifested itself through attire that resembled their male counterparts. During the 1980s, women projected their seriousness and competency through a wardrobe of dark suits with big shoulder pads accompanied with blouses and floppy bow ties. They eventually dropped that armor and began wearing brighter colors, dresses and separates. Often, though, the softer styles were misinterpreted as too sexy or not serious enough.
Most of the problematic dress-code situations arise from women's clothing, says Susan Strauss, a workplace consultant in Burnsville, Minn. "I never hear anything about men's attire."
Last summer, a woman at Ferland wore a long but sheer skirt to work, and management though it was too revealing, despite the bike shorts underneath it.
"Others noticed it," Crowley says. "It was too sexy."
The woman's supervisor told her not to wear it again, and the employee didn't question the decision.
Women can be cautioned about their choices, however, even when they're covered up. Female employees at the Nebraska State Bank & Trust Co. can wear leggings if they're paired with a tunic that reaches mid-thigh. A problem emerged when a woman wore a printed tunic and printed leggings that didn't match along with fringed boots and dangling earrings. A customer called the bank's president to complain about the woman's outfit. Her manager is slated to speak with her about avoiding such busy apparel.
Betsy Smith, the human resources officer of the bank with 44 employees, isn't sure that any action would have been taken if the customer hadn't voiced his opinion, even though other employees had noticed her "bohemian" ensemble. The dress code vetoes "distracting' clothing, and Smith says the outfit fell into that category.
"This is a conservative place," says Smith of Broken Bow, the town in the middle of Nebraska where the bank is based. "We value our customers' opinions, so it was a big deal."
Smith and other managers say conversations about dress code violations can be difficult, and sometimes they just let issues slide if they aren't outrageous infractions. They're especially reluctant to speak to a woman wearing tight clothing, noting that she may have gained weight and might not have the money to replace the snug apparel. "You really want to be very sensitive," Smith says.
Male supervisors say they are especially hesitant to approach women about dress-code issues given the #MeToo movement. "Men don't want women to think they're checking them out," says one senior human resource executive at a large midwestern health care firm who requested anonymity because of the sensitive topic.
Consistency Is Key
Experts agree that such matters should be handled delicately and that maintaining a consistent policy is critical to avoid legal entanglements. For example, if a company doesn't allow tank tops but lets a young, thin person wear one without incident, it can find itself in legal trouble should it decide to reprimand an older, heavier individual.
"You have to be so careful," Moore says. "You can't make judgments by what looks good on certain people."
The midwestern HR executive says he was shocked when a female director complained about a male employee who wasn't wearing socks with his boat shoes—a detail that was noticeable because he was wearing shorts in accordance with the company dress code. The executive told the director that women in the office don't wear socks or tights, so she couldn't object to the lack of a layer between foot and shoe on a man. The director replied that in her opinion going sockless was fine for women but not men.
The director ultimately promoted the boat shoe wearer, though she told him he must always wear socks, and he agreed. The HR executive later learned of the exchange and informed the director that what she did could be found illegal because she was setting different standards for men and women. Now he hopes the sock stipulation won't come back to haunt the company.
Know the Law
Federal courts have upheld companies' rights to set different dress standards for men and women if the requirements don't burden one gender more than another. However, if employers are too strident, they risk violating employees' rights under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act—a federal statute protecting employees from discrimination, including based on the protected category of sex.
Lawyers say that companies should be especially careful when applying dress codes to transgender individuals. For example, if a company has a dress code that says females must wear skirts, forcing an individual born as a woman to adhere to the policy if the individual identifies as male could violate civil rights laws, lawyers said.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says that employers must make exceptions to dress codes if the codes interfere with an individual's religious beliefs and there's no undue hardship on the company. The same is true for individuals with disabilities.
In January, the U.S. House of Representatives overturned a 181-year-old ban on head coverings on the House floor when it passed a rule that allows individuals to wear them for religious reasons. The change accommodates Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., who wears a hijab.
Dress codes can be a legal quagmire because laws differ from state to state and city to city. For example, in New York City, employers can't have different policies for different genders. New York employers may set a professional dress code, though it can't say that only men can wear pants and only women can wear skirts, according to law firm Hogan Lovells.
PwC avoids dress code hassles by barely having one. Shorts and midriff tops are not allowed. T-shirts with messaging should be avoided, while mini-skirts and spaghetti-strapped dresses are deemed inappropriate. Employees select their outfits based on what they will do that day. Jeans and leggings are fine for the PwC office and fine for the client office if that's the client's style. However, PwC employees are expected to respect and reflect their clients' sensibilities with a more traditional approach to dress.
"We trust our employees," says Anne Donovan, PwC's people experience leader.
Donovan says PwC seeks to hire the best and brightest and doesn't want a dress code to interfere with that goal.
"You want the brain," she says. "What do I care what's on the body?"
Theresa Agovino is the workplace editor for SHRM.
SHRM provides resources to help business leaders better understand and navigate the rules of establishing a company dress code.
Toolkit: Managing Employee Dress and Appearance
This toolkit discusses dress and appearance policies in the workplace, along with legal considerations employers face in the U.S. and issues such as safety, religious expression, gender and race as they relate to dress and appearance.
Dress Code: Business Attire Policy
A sample policy for companies where employees are expected to present themselves in a professional manner that results in a favorable impression by clients and customers.
HR Q&A: Can Employers Have Dress Code Requirements That Differ Between Genders?
There are circumstances when an employer may have dress code requirements that differ for male and female employees. Federal courts have historically allowed different dress standards at work if policies are reasonable and don't place a significantly higher burden on one gender.