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Summer Dress at Work: What's Appropriate and What's Not

A young woman sitting at a desk with her feet on the floor.

​Dominion National, a provider and administrator of dental and vision benefits, has a business-casual dress code. But in the summer, the Arlington, Va.-based company observes what it calls "supercasual Fridays." Employees can wear shorts, flip-flops, T-shirts and tennis shoes every Friday between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

Many companies have adopted a more-casual approach to dress codes in recent years. But summertime can raise questions about just how casually employees should be allowed to dress.

Sandals? Yoga pants? Leggings? Short skirts? Spaghetti-strap tops? What's appropriate and what's not?

Preventing Dress-Code Violations

Because summer clothing can be more casual and revealing than attire worn at other times of the year, there may be an uptick in dress-code violations.

"To prevent violations, every employer needs to have a policy on work-appropriate apparel, even if it's quite simple," said Laura Handrick, HR analyst for, a New York-based small-business publishing startup with 50 employees.

Some employers take the extra step of listing prohibited clothing such as flip-flops, short shorts, spaghetti-strap tops, yoga pants or beachwear, but Handrick said that a better way of deciding what's acceptable is to let employees come up with their own examples of what is not appropriate.

"Ask [workers] what kind of clothing would they not want to see their peers wear to work," Handrick recommended. "They may state things like open-toed shoes on men or low-cut blouses on women or clothes that are too tight and revealing, like leggings. Those examples can be put into an employee communication or e-mail as examples of clothing that wouldn't make the cut for summertime."

Confronting an employee who has violated the dress code can be uncomfortable. Handrick recommends that if an attire policy has been stated in advance and is clear about what type of clothing is inappropriate, then HR may consider a verbal warning followed by a written warning given to an employee who violates the policy.

"However, it's best not to humiliate the employee in any way but rather point to the policy itself, and ask the employee to consider how their work apparel may be distracting or offensive to others at work," Handrick said.

At Dominion National, employees who violate the dress code are sent home and charged use of their paid-leave time.

"If the violation would affect safe performance of the job or was very immodest or very unprofessional, then the employee would have to be [sent home] immediately" to change, said Robin Shea, an attorney and partner with Constangy Brooks, Smith & Prophete in Winston-Salem, N.C.

In cases when the dress-code violation has to do with modesty, how a manager handles it depends on the situation.

"If the dress-code violation is truly trivial and doesn't have an impact on safety, such as a skirt that is two inches above the knee when the employer's dress code has a maximum of one inch, then the employer will have to make a decision about whether this is even a battle worth engaging in," Shea said.

If a woman is wearing clothing that is too revealing, Shea said that she thinks it is better for the issue to be handled by a manager who's also a woman.

"If the employee is dressing immodestly, employers will have to be careful that their discussion doesn't open them up to accusations of sexual harassment," Shea explained.

The discussion should be private and should focus on the specific violation of the dress code.

[SHRM members-only Express Request: Relaxed Dress Code for Summer]

"Managers should refrain from making comments about the employee's body, such as, 'Somebody as bosomy as you has no business wearing low-cut blouses.' " Shea said. "It might be helpful to explain the employer's business justification for the dress code."

Could Dressing Too Casually Prevent a Promotion?

Employees may want to avoid appearing too casual at work, even if summer dress-code policies are more relaxed. The majority of professionals (86 percent) and managers (80 percent) in a recent OfficeTeam survey said clothing choices affect someone's chances of being promoted. The study was based on responses from more than 1,000 U.S. workers 18 years of age or older and employed in office environments, and more than 300 senior managers and 300 HR managers at U.S. companies with 20 or more employees.

Also, different items of clothing are "in" and some are "out" in terms of what is acceptable casualwear at the office. According to the HR managers surveyed, jeans, tennis shoes and leggings top the list of items that are more acceptable to wear to work now than five years ago. In the same time frame, employers have become less tolerant of tank tops, tops that expose one or both shoulders (also known as cold-shoulder tops) and shorts.

Casual Dress as an Employee Benefit to Enhance Work Culture

With all these potential pitfalls, some employers may wonder why they should offer relaxed summertime dress codes in the first place.

But savvy employers know that work culture is important to current and prospective employees and take that into consideration as they try to retain and attract top talent.

Lindsay Gaal, director of human resources at Friedman LLP, an accounting and advisory firm based in New York, stays on top of employee benefit trends and noticed that tech companies in particular were offering more-casual dress policies.

In January 2017, Friedman launched a "Dress for the Day" dress code to replace its business-casual dress code—and it is offered all year. The new dress code encourages employees to use common sense and dress according to whatever the day's work requires. So, for example, if employees are just in the office all day without any client meetings, they can wear jeans.

"There so many different kinds of benefits and perks out there that you can offer to your employees, most of which have some kind of cost associated with it. But this makes employees really happy and has zero cost to the firm," Gaal explained. "And so it's a win-win all around."

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