By MATT VILLANO
Q. A colleague comes to work wearing flip-flops, ripped jeans and a tight tank top, and it bothers you. What can you do about it?
A. Speak your mind. Joyce Gioia, president of the Herman Group, a management consulting firm in Greensboro, N.C., says that if a colleague’s clothing choices distract you from your work, it’s important to air your concerns. “You’re at work to do a job,” she said. “If the person’s attire is affecting your productivity, you have to tell him or her how you feel.”
Q. What is appropriate attire for an office environment?
A. That depends on your office and whether you routinely come into contact with customers or clients. If you work in banking, finance or law, you may be expected to wear traditional business attire, like suits, slacks, knee-length skirts and collared blouses or shirts. In other industries, like advertising and Web design, it may be acceptable to wear blue jeans and T-shirts.
Even on a day designated as casual, sweatpants, shorts, tank tops, baseball caps and athletic shoes may not be acceptable. Kacy Douglas, marketing manager at Positive Networks, a technology company in Overland Park, Kan., said that employees should avoid clothing that is particularly tight or revealing, or more appropriate for a night out than a day at work.
Q. Why do some employees dress in ways that others find offensive?
A. Of course, tastes differ. But sometimes, dressing in a fashion that is obviously inappropriate can be a hostile act, said Sandy Dumont, executive director of Impression Strategies Institute, a consulting firm in Norfolk, Va. “It’s an insult, really,” Ms. Dumont said. “Dressing inappropriately says, ‘My comfort is more important than impressing you,’ and people pick up that message loud and clear.”
Comila Shahani-Denning, a professor of organizational psychology at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., said sartorial miscues were shortsighted. Some employees wear certain outfits solely to be noticed, failing to understand that it’s better to stand out for one’s work than for one’s wardrobe, Ms. Shahani-Denning said.
“In any workplace, you want people to focus on what you’re accomplishing, not what you wear,” she said. “Attire is always an accessory; it should never be a distraction from your skills.”
Q. How should you discuss this issue with your colleague?
A. If you have a good relationship, talk face-to-face, privately. Offer suggestions instead of criticisms and be sincere.
Many people will appreciate your honesty, but some colleagues may be offended. Robin Walker, president of My Wardrobe Companion, an image consulting firm in Chicago, said that because individual style was involved, the discussion could quickly escalate into an argument. “Attire is such a personal thing that some people bristle instantly at the suggestion that their dress is inappropriate,” she said.
Q. Is it wise to involve your boss?
A. Sometimes it can be. Mercedes Alfaro, president of First Impression Management, a consulting firm in Atlanta, said that it might be advisable for a male employee who is uncomfortable with the way a female colleague dresses to talk to his boss, to avoid any perception of sexual harassment.
Employees should approach such a conversation carefully. Outline exactly what it is about the colleague’s attire that makes you uncomfortable. You may want to request a class to raise awareness about workplace attire over all.
“Make it clear the person is offending you and perhaps may be offending other people, too,” Ms. Alfaro said. “At the same time, couch your concerns in a way that makes it clear this isn’t personal, that it’s something everyone should be aware of.”
Q. Are employers permitted to manage what workers wear?
A. Debra Weiss Ford, a partner at Devine, Millimet & Branch, a law firm in Manchester, N.H., noted that any company could adopt a policy on office attire, provided that the rules were applied consistently and did not discriminate on the basis of sex, religion or ethnicity. “Ultimately it’s the employer’s discretion to lay out for people what is and is not acceptable to wear,” she said, adding that these policies “can be specific or general as an employer sees fit.”
At the Chamber of Commerce in Beachwood, Ohio, for instance, the employee handbook provides specific lists of appropriate and inappropriate attire. Khaki pants, sweaters and loafers all are acceptable; flip-flops, Spandex and camisoles are not. Tom Sudow, the chamber’s executive director, said employees were also encouraged to wear polo shirts bearing the chamber’s seal.
“We like logo shirts because they’re like a uniform, but they still give people the opportunity to be creative,” said Mr. Sudow, who prefers to wear a suit. “The whole idea is to look professional, like part of a team.”
Q. Can someone be fired for violating a dress code?
A. First-time offenders of a company’s dress policy probably won’t lose their jobs. After two or three warnings, however, failure to dress appropriately could put a job in jeopardy. Karen Loebbaka, recruiting partner at Bay Partners, a venture capital firm in Cupertino, Calif., said the easiest ways to avoid this problem were to learn from your mistakes and to always look sharp.
“It all goes back to the notion of dressing for success,” she said. “Once you’re in the right outfit, the rest is up to you.”