Difficult to define what passes for office attire - The Buffalo News

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Difficult to define what passes for office attire

The flip-flop flap is on again.

The advent of warm weather has renewed attention to what’s proper work attire. Even in a time when summer dress-downs and casual Fridays are common, some workers stumble on the line between what’s acceptable office wear and what’s not.

Unfortunately, that line – between summer casual and summer sloppy – is hard to define, much less police. Not even the human resources boss wants to decide whether leather sandals, covering exactly the same part of the body as rubber flip-flops, are appropriate.

“It’s a challenge for all of us,” said Julie Wilson, chief personnel officer at Cerner Corp., one of Kansas City’s fastest-hiring companies. “And it’s become more challenging as the workplace has become more casual.” Wilson said that one Cerner manager recently had to have the “difficult conversation” and sent three people home to change clothes.

What constitutes appropriate work clothes has opened the door for people to tweet about the summer influx of “skinterns,” a reference to young women in skimpy attire. It’s also why managers take time to huddle about whether the guy without socks offends customers.

And there aren’t just corporate culture consequences to choices of work clothes. Retailers have adjusted their merchandise to fit buyers’ preferences.

“The traditional needs of business clothing have more than evolved. They’ve dramatically changed,” said Spiro Arvanitakis, who recently explained why his longtime Kansas City professional clothing store is closing. “Jack Henry doesn’t meet the current needs, which are more contemporary.”

In short, a lot of workers aren’t buying the stuff that used to be considered professional clothing. The line between leisure clothes and office clothes has blurred.

That means the advice at Cerner is that “you need to dress for your day at work, not thinking about dressing for what you’re going to do after work,” Wilson said.

Casual is fine, of course, in many offices that have little customer or client contact or are in more industrial or manufacturing environments. But human resources experts point out that clothing that’s too revealing, soiled or just plain sloppy can bother co-workers in any location, so it’s always permissible for management to set some standards.

Human resources blogs frequently mention the difficulty of dealing with illustrated T-shirts or sayings on the job. What one worker finds funny or uncontroversial may be offensive or hurtful to another.

Sometimes, there’s a style sea change because of corporate leadership. Under CEO Bill Esrey at Sprint Corp., there was a fairly specific dress code. At one time, even backroom employees who never saw clients were told they couldn’t wear Dockers or other casual-brand pants.

But when Dan Hesse took the Sprint helm in 2007, he announced that employees could wear jeans any day of the week, not just on designated Fridays. The once-specific dress code has disappeared, except for retail store employees. Now, said Sprint spokeswoman Melinda Tiemeyer, “employees are encouraged to work with the supervisor to understand appropriate attire for their role and location.”

Human resources consultants have long advised to “dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” While sound counsel, it still leaves room for interpretation.

Spokesmen for several companies said the most frequent difference of interpretation, especially in warm weather, involves women who wear low-cut necklines or spaghetti shoulder straps. And that’s a particularly difficult topic for male supervisors to address.

Generally, Cerner’s Wilson said, “we try to impress on people that just because it’s stylish, and even if you look good, that style may not be appropriate to wear for the office.”

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