Summer often means casual work attire, but don’t be a flip-flopper or a ‘skintern’

06/01/2014 5:54 PM

06/03/2014 2:23 PM

The flip-flop flap is on again.

The advent of hot 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 a leather sandal, covering exactly the same part of the body as a plastic flip-flop, is appropriate or not.

“It’s a challenge for all of us,” said Julie Wilson, chief people 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 one Cerner manager recently had to have the “difficult conversation” and sent three people home to change clothes.

Most workplaces have expectations, some written and some unspoken, about what to wear.

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 work clothes choices. Retailers have adjusted their merchandise to fit buyers’ preferences. Sales of summer suits for men and women have paled compared with polo shirts and sundresses.

“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 on the Country Club Plaza. “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.

At Hudson & Jane, a Kansas City apparel boutique, owner Rick Brehm said he sees shoppers buying clothes to serve both their after-hours style and what they need for the office.

Instead of a “flouncy skirt that may run a little short,” women are buying long sleeveless dresses — popular for after-hours — and pairing them with lightweight sweaters to wear at work. And, Brehm said, men are aiming for lightweight shirts and no ties, and they’re rolling up long sleeves for after-hours comfort.

At Hallmark Cards, the standard is simply for employees to be “neat and professional,” said employee relations director Haylee Kelley. But those criteria differ depending on whether someone works in the distribution center — where safe and comfortable are the guidelines — or at headquarters, where business casual rules.

But even the office dress code has a squish factor. Jeans are fine for “file-clean-out day,” Kelley said.

Dress code consultants say jeans and T-shirts have proliferated in workplaces because of the influence of round-the-clock Silicon Valley, or dot-com, workplaces. Also, the ever-larger presence of the millennial generation, recently off college campuses, has dialed down workplace dressiness.

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 OK 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 noncontroversial may be offensive or hurtful to another.

Sometimes, there’s a style sea change because of corporate leadership. Under chief executive Bill Esrey at Sprint Corp., there was a fairly specific dress code. At one time, even back-room 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-formal 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 Kansas City area 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, “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,” Cerner’s Wilson said.

To reach Diane Stafford, call 816-234-4359 or send email to stafford@kcstar.com.

The Star’s Joyce Smith contributed to this report.

Dress code no-nos

Unless you’re in warehouse, delivery or outdoor work, these generally are wrong for office wear:

For everyone: Flip-flops, frayed jeans, shorts, exercise clothing, baseball caps, T-shirts with illustrations, messages or logos other than for one’s own organization.

For women: Tops or sundresses that reveal cleavage or bare midriffs, hemlines too short to sit or walk stairs without revealing underwear, sheer material that reveals underwear.

For men: Tank tops, unbuttoned shirts that reveal chest hair, sandals or shoes without socks.

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