Walk into some dot-com companies and finding a guy wearing a tie is as likely as discovering a typewriter. Or take a look at the suburban banker at work on Saturday morning: She's got jeans on, just like the customers.The state of appropriate dress seems to vary so widely -- by gender, age, occupation, geography -- and be in such flux that workplace conflicts are bound to occur. As the move toward casual dress expanded over the past decade, more companies adopted guidelines about acceptable and forbidden attire.
A 1996 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management showed that 63 percent of U.S. companies had a dress code, up from 49 percent in 1992.
Other companies apparently see no need to spell out the clothes rules, or are too timid to deal with the issue.
But the rush to turn casual Fridays into casual everydays has slowed. In a recent survey, the human resources group found that 87 percent of companies still allow at least one day of casual dress each week, but that's down from 95 percent last year.
Appropriate dress, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. Which brings us to a couple of similar issues posed in recent letters:
Q: I have gotten a couple of complaints about a woman in my department whose skirts are too short. I'm not her immediate supervisor -- there is a layer (a woman) in between. How should I handle that?
Q: What's the best way to approach people in small offices who wear flip-flop sandals that make annoying slippety-slap sounds? We've tried to say something jokingly to the offender, but she doesn't take the hint.
A: It's clear the letter writers have no problem defining what is "too short" or what it takes to be an "offender."
Employment lawyer Margaret Bryant of the Jackson Lewis law firm in White Plains, N.Y., said "it's a good idea for a company to have dress policies in place," including "very specific examples" of what's acceptable and what isn't.
"It's very important that these things be enforced consistently," she added. "It becomes difficult when management elects to counsel or discipline one person when there have been others who have not been disciplined or counseled for the same thing."
Assuming the company cited by the letter writer has a policy addressing skirt lengths, Bryant said, the employee "should be reminded of that policy" by the immediate female supervisor. "Even if not, it requires some sensitivity."
If the initial talk proves unproductive, "the (supervisor) next in line ought to get involved," she said. But, considering the issue, the male supervisor "may want to ask another supervisor who's a woman to sit in on the counseling session."
As for the flip-flop-wearing worker, Bryant said, "If someone has taken a lighthearted approach and it hasn't worked, perhaps a supervisor ought to say something more formally."
The conflict over office dress codes was evident in opinions voiced by executives at 1,000 companies Jackson Lewis surveyed over the past year.
Bryant said 40 percent of them felt that one or more casual dress days a week had a positive effect on workplace morale. But 44 percent also concluded that dressing down had led to an increase in tardiness and absenteeism, and 30 percent thought it had led to more flirtatious behavior in the workplace.
"It kind of led us to think that employers need to monitor workplace behavior," she said of the survey.
Ann Marie Sabath, author of "Beyond Business Casual: What to Wear to Work If You Want to Get Ahead," regularly advises corporations and individuals alike on appropriate office dress.
She and others familiar with the issue have detected a retreat from the attitude that nothing is too casual for the workplace, with some companies rethinking what's acceptable.
(And, in an effort to boost lagging sales of men's suits and sports coats, a group of clothing manufacturers is, starting in September, promoting Dress-Up Thursdays.)
"Business casual is, across the country, on the downswing," Sabath said. " 'Business appropriate' is the word."
Of course, defining "appropriate" can be tricky and may vary widely from office to office. Sabath said workers should take a clue from those at the top of the management ladder.
Mules -- shoes without backs -- would be on most lists as an office no-no, Sabath said, but "mules are very appropriate if the highest-level woman is wearing them. Polos are OK when the highest-level male wears them.
"As the economy tightens, so will the dress codes," she said. "Classic clothes have come back. You should dress for the job you want, not the one you have."
So, while workers may find the situation at their office differs, here are some of Sabath's do's and don'ts:
Men should wear V-neck undershirts, not crew-necked ones, if they're wearing an open-necked dress shirt on casual days; leave the last button open on their sports coats when they've buttoned the middle or upper two; wear leather-soled shoes rather than rubber-soled ones; knot their ties so the tips reach their belt buckles; and wear a dress watch with dress clothes, not the sporty scuba-diving model they took to the beach.
The biggest male offense: wearing trousers without a belt on casual day.
Women should wear closed-toed shoes with backs; have natural, fashionable nails that are a manageable length; wear hair that's shoulder length or shorter or else pull it back; and skip the ankle bracelets.
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