Workplace dress codes are still a minefield

McClatchy Newspapers

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — From bare shoulders in California’s Capitol building to Muslim head scarves at Disneyland to no “bling” in the NBA: What’s acceptable attire — or not — in the workplace is as rumpled as an ill-fitting suit.

It’s a problem that has permeated office cubicles and corporate culture for decades.

“There’s been a million books written on ‘dress for success,’ but there’s still a lot of uncertainty,” said Kimberly Elsbach, a graduate school of management professor at the University of California-Davis.

And as employers have found, it’s never easy defining what’s appropriate, no matter the workplace.

“It’s a minefield as far as misinterpretation or causing bad feelings,” said Tom Nearn, operations manager for Generations law firm in Sacramento.

It’s not a problem everywhere, of course.

Diane D. Miller, president and CEO of Wilson Miller &Nelson, a Sacramento career and executive coaching firm, said: “We don’t find tank tops and cleavage at the executive ranks. … Men and women who are serious about their work make sure they look like it.”

But there are generational differences as to what’s “appropriate,” and there are differences across corporate cultures. The loosened-up environment at Apple or Pixar has completely different clothing requirements than a more buttoned-down insurance or financial services company, Elsbach notes.

Part of the problem is that easygoing styles like cargo shorts or spaghetti-strap tops are everywhere in public, but they’re not always welcome in the workplace.

“We’ve had to address low tops, short skirts, tight clothing. Either too much or not enough,” said Debbe Dreher, vice president of Association Resource Center, whose 44 employees are primarily women.

“You don’t want to be offensive or critical of an employee,” she said, “but at the same time you have to look at the impression they’re giving your clients.”

Nationally, the issue has spawned plenty of legal complaints, like the recent case brought against Disneyland by a Muslim employee who was barred from wearing a head scarf.

“As a consequence of our society’s increased obsession with appearance … courts have seen ‘appearance-based’ litigation become more prevalent,” said Jennifer Fowler-Hermes, a labor/employment law attorney writing in the April 2001 issue of the Florida Bar Journal.

It’s clear some clarity is desired.

Miller said some companies are dropping their “business casual” policies because employees don’t understand the term. “When the staff starts wearing clothes they would wear to the market on the weekends, you’ve got trouble. Certainly a client visiting your office immediately forms an impression.”