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Balancing act: Does too-casual attire hurt chances for promotion?

Published: Tuesday, May 28 2013 9:15 a.m. MDT

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With summer upon us, it's not only the temperature that's changing.

In offices across the country, clothing styles are getting a seasonal alteration, too. Sometimes that's OK. Other times, it can be a disaster.

Anyone who has worked in close proximity to different kinds of people in an office environment probably has a story or two about professional "wardrobe malfunctions" — or at least bad clothing judgment.

With some exceptions, the print journalists with whom I worked during my newspaper career were generally dressed appropriately, if not in the latest fashions. (You can't afford haute couture on a reporter's salary.) This means that you would expect to see sports reporters who were covering games wearing blue jeans and baseball caps, but courts reporters would wear their best business attire.

I was especially impressed by photographers I knew who seemed to be ready for any fashion emergency. Since they often wouldn't know what kind of assignment they would be shooting when they showed up to the office each day, they would have several clothing selections in the trunks of their cars — everything from a white shirt and tie for assignments with church officials to grubby clothes for tromping through outdoor crime scenes or the aftermath of fires and other destruction.

That's not to say we never saw inappropriate clothing choices in the newsroom. I can think of a few specific instances that left me scratching my head wondering, "What was he (or she) thinking when he (or she) got dressed this morning?"

Frankly, there were probably a few times when my fellow reporters and editors wondered that about me.

However, my business casual attire — sometimes including a tie, but thankfully tie-free since I started my new job — has always been good enough to keep me from getting too much unwanted attention.

The question is: Has it ever kept me from getting a promotion?

I don't think it has, but a recent survey led me to question that belief.

According to an OfficeTeam survey, when asked the extent to which someone's style of dress at work affects his or her chances of being promoted, 8 percent of executives said "significantly," and 72 percent said "somewhat." The remaining 20 percent said "not at all."

An independent research firm conducted the survey for OfficeTeam, a staffing service for administrative professionals, by completing telephone interviews with more than 1,000 senior managers at companies with 20 or more employees.

"The good news for the wardrobe-challenged is that proper attire may carry less weight than it did six years ago: 93 percent of executives surveyed in 2007 tied professional wear to advancement prospects," the OfficeTeam press release about the survey said. "Among those respondents, 33 percent said clothing significantly affects a person's chances of moving up the ladder, versus just 8 percent who feel this way today."

That's interesting, and some would point to the change in numbers as yet another indication that our society is growing entirely too casual. I don't agree, but that's mainly because I really dislike wearing neckties.

Anyway, the part of the survey I found more fascinating was what managers said when they were asked to recall the strangest outfits they had heard of or seen someone wearing to work, not in observance of Halloween.

Would you believe that answers included "a dinosaur costume," "a chicken suit," "a spacesuit," "a wolf mask" and "parachute pants"? (I guess that last one would be OK if you were working with MC Hammer.)

Executives surveyed also noted creative clothing combos that included "short pants and a winter jacket," "shorts and house slippers" and "tennis shoes and men's knicker pants."

I'm all for casual Friday, but shorts and slippers? Really?

But wait — there's more! Executives also noted seeing clothing that, according to the OfficeTeam release, "left little to the imagination," including "a see-through dress," "a bathing suit" and a "backless shirt," as well as "yoga pants" and "very tight bike shorts."

Would that really be distracting, these employees might ask? The answer is, "Absolutely."

"Employees may be tempted to dress down in today's workplace, especially during warmer months, but clothing that's too casual or revealing can be frowned upon," said OfficeTeam Executive Director Robert Hosking. "Although a polished appearance alone won't land you a promotion, it can help others envision you in a leadership role."

Most people have probably heard the old saying that you should dress for the job you want, as opposed to the job you have. I see some merit in that.

However, I also think it's important for people to dress in a manner that will allow them to be both comfortable and productive in the workplace. What that means will differ based on the person and the job he or she is doing, but I think most of us know what is and isn't appropriate to wear to work.

For example, does anyone actually think it's OK to wear a bathing suit or tight bike shorts to a regular office job? I would say probably not.

But I'd like your take on this issue. Do you think what a person wears to work affects his or her chances for promotion? Do you think clothes affect a person's performance? What's the strangest or most inappropriate outfit you've seen a co-worker wear around the office? And do you think business attire in general has become too casual?

Let me know what you think, and I'll share some of your responses in a future column.

Email your comments to kratzbalancingact@gmail.com or post them online at deseretnews.com. Follow me on Twitter at gkratzbalancing or on Facebook on my journalist page.

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