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HR Handled Right

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dress code

Contrary to popular belief, dress code lawsuits based on sex discrimination generally fail. This is because courts, recognizing that employees represent their company’s public image, have a lot of leeway in what they can require their employees to wear. And, yes, this is true even when they have different requirements for men and women.

A couple of recent lawsuits, however, have muddied the waters somewhat. Debrahlee Lorenzana, for instance, made the headlines in 2010 when she accused Citigroup of firing her because her curvaceous figure was “too distracting” for her male colleagues. Ms. Lorenzana alleged that her male employers essentially gave her a list of forbidden clothes – including pencil skirts, turtle necks, and spiked heels – that were allowed for other female employees. When she pointed this out, she was told these employees didn’t have the same delectable figure that she did. When she refused to revamp her wardrobe, she was fired.

Too Hot to Sell Sexy Lingerie?

Then came Lauren Odes, who, in May of this year, alleged that she was asked to tape down her breasts, wear baggy t-shirts, and/or wear a bathrobe to keep her male store owners from unnecessarily stimulating the male lingerie store owners. This case has an interesting twist because, not only is gender an issue here, but the religion of the store owners allegedly played a part in their requests – and ultimate termination of Ms. Odes.

The Quagmire of “Suggestive” Clothes

So what is the real issue here? With regard to Citigroup, there could be some legitimate question as to whether they had a discriminatory dress code if they had rules for “sexy” attire for women but not for men; this does not appear to be the case. Similarly, if either Ms. Odes or Ms. Lorenzana reported unwanted sexual conduct directed towards them by male coworkers (again, which does not appear to be the case), then either could have potential grounds for sexual harassment.

One reason both of these situations escalated was the way employers communicated to their employees about their dress code policy and their request for a wardrobe update. In my dress code training, I find that managers often use words like “provocative” or “suggestive” when talking to an under-dressed employee.

Provoking whom? Suggesting what? These words are not only offensive to the person, they can also be misinterpreted as an expression of sexual interest. Most of us are highly sensitive to any comments about our physical appearance; before your reissue your dress code as a summer reminder, make sure your managers know what to say when it’s violated.

In an ideal world, no one would. However, in the real world, we form an impression of a person in the first 30 seconds to 2 minutes after we meet him or her.

Okay, you may be thinking. I’m willing to sacrifice a little upfront pr for comfort since I’ll have the chance to impress them later with my business acumen. Don’t count on it. Recent research suggests that, not only are first impressions hard to change, if someone makes a negative first impression on us, we’re less likely to seek that person out again. So while initial impressionscan be changed, human nature works against us having the opportunity to do so.

Why do Clothes Matter?

You are seen before you are heard. As a result, before you open your mouth, your appearance has already spoken volumes about you. Whether the other person realizes it or not, s/he has already made assumptions about your competence, intelligence, judgment and so forth. In fact, according to Dr. Albert Mehrabian’s research, our visual image (physical appearance and body language) accounts for over half of the first impressions we create.

Are People That Superficial?

Yes we are, although not quite in the way you might think. Because we have so much going on in our brains, our ancestors learned to make mental shortcuts, i.e., simple rules to help us categorize and make quicker decisions about things we encounter. Unfortunately, these often lead to unconscious biases where we tend to see what we expect. In other words, people are affected by your appearance, whether or not they realize it, and whether or not they think appearance is important.

So here’s how this works when it comes to what we wear. Two psychological shortcuts people use are the “halo effect”and its opposite, the “devil effect.” The “halo effect” is our tendency, if our first impression involves one or two positive things about a person, to develop a generally positive overall impression, sometimes in spite of later evidence to the contrary. And, of course, the “devil effect” is the opposite side of the same coin.

A Lapse in Judgment or Fashion Faux Pas?

In other words, the reason what we wear to work is important is because of what our attire represents. What’s really being evaluated by what you wear is your judgment – how well you understand the social rules of the context you are in and whether or not you are willing to follow them.

An attorney who shows up for court has the same skill level whether he’s dressed in blue jeans or business formal. However, he is likely to get a very different reception from the judge, who is likely to assume a Levi-clad attorney either doesn’t know the social codes or doesn’t care about them. And, from a client’s perspective, a professional who doesn’t “look” like one isn’t likely to inspire confidence that she can excel as one.

The Bottom Line

No, it shouldn’t matter if a woman wears a tight, pencil skirt or a man wears Birkenstocks and Bermudas as long as s/he excels at work. But know that to some people, it does.