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Specific Dress Code Will Solve Fashion Dilemma

Tue., Aug. 5, 1997

I transacted some business the other day with a woman who showed a great deal of skin. Sure, midriff-exposing fashion is everywhere on hot summer days, but the skimpiness of her particular attire surprised me in a workplace setting. Suffice it to say, more than midriff showed.

Several men in the vicinity allowed as how they’d (ahem) noticed, too, but were afraid to say anything lest they be seen as sexual harassers.

The conversation took this turn: What should a manager do when an employee comes to work wearing clothes others have either a vague or violent belief are not quite right?

The answers could be easy if the workplace has a clear dress code. Sears, for example, tried to help employees at its Chicago headquarters understand what it meant by “summer business casual.” It even dressed two mannequins in sample attire and posted them at the main lunchroom door.

Similarly, if a dress policy says, “No blue jeans,” and somebody comes in with cutoffs, don’t be surprised if he is sent home to change. If a policy says, “Socks required,” managerial eyes might frown on bare ankles. Show up in loafers sans socks, and don’t be shocked if a demerit follows.

Calls to several human-resource managers in the Kansas City area, though, made it clear many workplaces have extremely mushy dress codes. As a result, it’s hard to say someone’s violating policy if there’s no clear, written policy to prove it.

What many workplaces rely on is a hope-filled belief workers will rise to the professionalism of their jobs and dress acceptably. Yet you and I both know the definition of “acceptable” is slippery. Some people find ear, nose and tongue piercing - all on the same head - to be perfectly acceptable. Others gag.

Standards of fashion and modesty vary wildly. Remember when high school principals required girls to kneel to measure the distance between their hems and the floor? A “long” skirt to some girls suddenly became a “short” skirt in the eyes of the principal.

Fast-forward to the workplace of today. If you find a manager anywhere in this country who measures women’s hemlines (or necklines), you’ll probably find someone whose name is mentioned in a lawsuit.

For that reason, the men who noticed the scantily clad woman said they wouldn’t have traded places with her supervisor that day for a million bucks. Way, way too scary to even bring up the subject.

That hypersensitivity, balanced against wanting to allow for individual taste and not wanting to look like a tape-measure-wielding old fogy, makes it pretty easy to understand why workplace uniforms have become popular. Easy on the wardrobe budget. Easy on the daily “What shall I wear?” quandary. Easy to know if the apparel is workplace-acceptable.

I wouldn’t want to see uniforms everywhere, but at least you wouldn’t have to worry whether you understand what “business casual” means.

Just for the record: Largely because of the newsroom temperature, as I type this, I am wearing a high-necked blouse with sleeves below my elbows, a baggy jumper that nearly brushes the floor and conservative loafers. But no socks.

The latter was a mistake. My feet are cold.

Coffee on the brain: Could coffee breaks at work be causing a break in your concentration? A British researcher reports that just two cups of coffee could, in some circumstances, reduce the blood flow to the brain by as much as 20 percent. That finding has prompted a study by Britain’s defense ministry, which is concerned about the speed of combat pilots’ reactions.

Business pointers: Despite what your mother said, it’s all right to talk with your hands. Gestures are OK when making a business presentation, says Marjorie Brody of Brody Communications Ltd. But don’t overdo them, and, for heaven’s sake, keep your gestures above the waistline, Brody says. Low gestures are hard to see and indicate “low demeanor.”


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