May 21, 2019: This page has been updated
During those hot summer months, what’s appropriate office wear and what’s not? We asked you for questions earlier this week, and we sent them along to Alison Green, office advice extraordinaire over at AskaManager.org.
Marketplace Weekend host Lizzie O’Leary sat down with Green to go over your questions, and even a few other ones that may not be the first thing you’d think to ask.
Should you wear shorts to the office?
Alison Green: So if you have a dress code of any sort in your office, probably not. Even if your office is business casual, you can’t really wear shorts in a professional environment. It’s interesting, because fashion magazines love to show these sort of businessey-looking shorts that are made out of suit-like material. But I don’t know who’s wearing them. In real life, it’s highly unlikely that someone working in an office can get away with wearing this. Maybe if you worked in the fashion industry. But for the rest of us, it’s pants, a dress or a skirt, but no shorts.
What do you do, especially if you’re a manager, when somebody shows up in something that is inappropriate?
Green: Yeah, if someone is way over the line, you have to say something. Really the easiest way to ward it off is to have a clear dress code that spells out what is and isn’t OK, upfront. I think it would be nice to assume that because we are all adults, you can trust people to use their own judgment and show up looking reasonably professional, but offices find over and over again that it’s not the case. So if there are categories of things that you know you don’t want people to show up wearing, put it in a clear policy so that everyone is on the same page and you can avoid a lot of awkward conversations. That said, even when you have that clear policy, some people are going to still violate it. If it happens, the best thing to do is be straightforward. Be matter of fact. I think people tend to agonize over talking to people about dress because it feels so personal, like you’re commenting on their fashion sense. It’s OK.
From Karen Yen, who asks: Are flip-flops OK to wear to work, ever? I’m not a fan, but see it on others all the time.
Green: Flip-flops are probably the most-hated clothing item I hear about. People are passionate about their dislike of flip-flops at work. I think it’s because of the sound that they make when you walk in them. I will say I love flip-flops, but they’re at the top of people’s list of things that annoy them about work wear. And so I think you’ve got to consider them a strong “no” in general. That said, do some people wear them? Yes, at some offices, people do. So it really comes down to what your office says about them. So with the caller, for instance, it sounds like they are OK in her organization. Annoying maybe, but it sounds like in that culture they’re OK.
From Alan MacDougall via Twitter, who asks: When are we finally going to drop the whole ridiculous office attire charade that hurts lower-paid workers and makes so many uncomfortable?
Green: I will say that you can dress professionally on a pretty low budget if you check out second-hand stores and consignment stores. Whether or not you should have to do that is is a question worth asking, I think. But, as a society, we’re a long way away from abandoning this idea that people should dress for the occasion. And a lot of businesses have dress codes because their customers respond better to it, or they think their customers will respond better to it. I mean, a lot of people don’t want the person who’s handling their taxes, for example, to show up in shorts and a T-shirt. And until that changes, I think we are stuck with dress codes.
What would you say are the three rules, if you had to pick them, for dressing in the office?
Green: The absolute biggest one is to know your office. Pay attention to any written policy, pay attention to what colleagues are wearing, and in particular pay attention to the colleagues who you admire, because they might be wearing different things than like the slacker who works down the hall. That’s the biggest one. I think, too, if you’re frustrated by dress codes, try seeing it as a sort of uniform. Find a few combinations that work for you. If you look great in an A-line skirt in a silk blouse and you’re comfortable in that, great. Get it in a few different colors and patterns, and just be done with it. Have a go-to set of outfits so that you don’t have to agonize in your closet every morning. And then three, I think, don’t listen to fashion magazines when they tell you what is appropriate work wear. They have a much more exotic idea of what you can wear to work than what real offices will have.
From a letter on the Ask a Manager website: What does it mean if someone … bites a co-worker?
Green: She’s miserable in her job, and she’s working in a really unprofessional environment that’s sort of infected her. She’s now stooping to the level of all her terrible co-workers to the point that she actually bit someone. There’s so much to say about biting a co-worker, but I think, ultimately, it’s got to be a flag for her that she has to get out of that environment, that it’s turning her into a woman who bites colleagues. And that’s not someone she wants to be.