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Office Dress Code – Flip Flops and Cargo Pants Are Not Business Casual

No one wants to tell you you’re dressed inappropriately for work.

The office dress code conversation seems to be feedback managers avoid and struggle with the most. Perhaps because attire is so personal, I’m not sure. But I do know that I’m getting more and more requests to train managers how to give employees feedback that their butt crack is showing. Yes, really.

Many employees push the envelope on the office dress code during the summer, breaking out tank tops, jeans and capri’s. The problem with dressing this casually is that some of the people you work with will judge you for it, but they are not likely to tell you. They’ll just decide you have poor judgment and that you may not be the right person to stand in for your boss at a meeting or conference.

A couple of office dress code guidelines to follow, unless you work in a very casual office environment where even the folks at the top wear jeans and t-shirts to work:

  1. Make friends with your iron, or a dry cleaner.
  2. If you put something on and ask “Can I get away with this,” the answer is most likely no.
  3. Ladies, your cleavage should never show at work. Never ever.  It will only limit your career.
  4. T-shirts and cargo pants are not business casual.
  5. Capris and sandals are ok, if your company allows them. Spandex and shorts are not.
  6. Thongs and butt cracks are a no-no. Ladies, don’t wear low rides to work. Men, if your belt sits below your stomach, buy a bigger pair of pants and raise the belt. This will solve the butt crack problem.
  7. Ladies check your skirt length. If it’s too tight or too short, it’s not for the office.
  8. Lots of women are wearing really high heels to work. They look great, at a club.
  9. General rule of thumb, if can comfortably leave work and go to a club or a baseball game, you’re not dressed conservatively enough for work.

Most of these suggestions are aimed at women because women have more flexibility with clothing and thus a greater margin for error. Men have the man’s business casual uniform: khakis and a button down or golf shirt. That’s hard to screw up, unless of course you sleep in the khakis.

Here’s how you can give a woman feedback that she isn’t dressed appropriately for your office dress code:

“I’ve noticed that some of your clothing shows cleavage. When people look at you, I want them thinking about how smart you are and all that you add to our organization. I don’t want them distracted with something else.” Replace cleavage with whatever misstep the person is making.

Here’s another example: “I’ve noticed that you wear short skirts and pretty high shoes to work. We work in a pretty conservative environment. You always look great, but not for our office environment. I’m going to ask you to wear longer skirts, that aren’t as form fitting, with lower shoes. I know this conversation is awkward, and I appreciate that you’re willing to have it with me. When people look at you I want them thinking about how smart you are and all that you add to our organization. I don’t want them distracted with something else.”

Notice, I didn’t say, “You’re not dressed appropriately for work.” The word “appropriate” is too vague and thus doesn’t qualify as feedback. Being vague doesn’t tell the person what to do differently. If your employees felt that what they are wearing to work was inappropriate, they’d wear something else. You need to spell it out. And this is true for all forms of feedback. Be specific and give an example, or you haven’t given feedback and shouldn’t expect anything to change.

Men, you can’t have this conversation with the women in your office. Ask a woman the employee has a relationship with to have the conversation on your behalf.

Read How to Say Anything to Anyone to get the words to have other difficult feedback conversations.

Some of you are currently gasping, thinking there is no way you can have this conversation. Yes you can. I have these office dress code conversations with clients regularly without damaging my relationships. So few people will tell someone when they’re wearing clothing that damages their reputation, when the feedback recipient gets over being shocked and embarrassed, s/he’ll thank you for caring enough to give such honest feedback.


Shari Harley is the founder and President of Candid Culture, a Denver-based training firm that is bringing candor back to the workplace, making it easier to give feedback at work. Shari is the author of the business communication book How to Say Anything to Anyone: A Guide to Building Business Relationships that Really Work. She is a keynote speaker at conferences and does training throughout the U.S. Learn more about Shari Harley and Candid Culture’s training programs at

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4 Responses to “Office Dress Code – Flip Flops and Cargo Pants Are Not Business Casual”

  1. Stacy Chadwick says:

    I have a question about bare legs. Are they now considered appropriate for business casual? Personally, I am not comfortable with the idea, but I see many women not wearing pantyhose or stockings. Maybe I am old fashioned?

    • shari says:

      Hi Stacy, Good to hear from you. Thanks for your comment. Bare legs at work are acceptable. But if it makes you uncomfortable, definitely don’t do it. But know that most of the people around you will. Sorry I don’t have better news!

  2. Stacy Chadwick says:

    Thank you, I guess I better get with the times. When I started in the workforce, it was no bare legs and over 50% of our feet had to be covered by our shoes. Of course, we could not wear slacks without being a suit too.

  3. Alessandro says:

    I’m Italian,. I move out of Italy 5 years ago, and I still laugh about this thing of the dress code. Maybe because I grow up with good taste for dressing (and I never heard about this until I moved out), I believe if you need a “dress code” to give people direction on how to dress it’s just because they don’t know how to dress properly. I saw in Australia people with short-sleeve shirt AND a tie! A “must” for a farmer maybe.
    Today it’s kind of hot here, and I’m wearing formal trousers, elegant shirt and Birkenstock. I’ve just been told by the manager: “You really know how to bend rules and still stay elegant and pleasant! I should learn”… 😉

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