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(Cinders McLeod/The Globe and Mail/Cinders McLeod/The Globe and Mail)

Nine To Five

Should I tell 'No Spring Chicken' her skirt is too short for the office? Add to ...

THE QUESTION

I work in a pretty relaxed environment in regards to dressing for work. We are somewhat a conservative bunch. Some people wear jeans, others wear suits and most people are somewhere in between.

A colleague in my department wears pretty short skirts and dresses and high heels and she is no spring chicken. I think she is compromising herself and people kind of roll their eyes … Can she climb the ladder in high heels and short skirts? Should I say something?

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THE FIRST ANSWER

Barbara Atkin

Vice-president, fashion direction, Holt Renfrew

This is a common quandary. I appreciate that many companies are resistant to having a dress code, but it doesn’t have to be a Byzantine one. Business dress guidance can be quite straightforward and still celebrate individual style. Employees often appreciate having some guidance, and as a mentor and manager of people, I appreciate being able to refer to it as needed.

Without guidance, business dress practice can become a land mine of personal judgment calls. For example, when they wear jeans at the office, do some employees wear them too tight, or with holes?

As someone who works in fashion, I celebrate individual style, but as your question demonstrates, your colleague takes a risk that her super-short skirt might distract from her business achievements. You may want to suggest to management that they consider setting a code that reflects your corporate brand – and how your company wants to portray itself.

THE SECOND ANSWER

Heather MacKenzie

Principal, The Integrity Group

Like beauty, appropriate office attire – without an office dress code for guidance – is in the eye of the beholder: Ask this question to 10 people and you’re likely to get 10 different answers ranging from “She’s a Jezebel” (oh, that dates me) to “There’s no such thing as too short a skirt” (my husband’s standard response).

Ever wonder why the flesh-baring-attire question invariably comes up in relation to a woman and not a man? Part of that is socio-political – sorry, but we haven’t yet achieved the completely gender-neutral workplace that everyone pretends is out there – and part of it is due to the simple fact that male wardrobes just don’t offer as many options to raise eyebrows (except for that guy who wears brown socks with his sandals for Casual Day in the summer).

First, the fact that this woman is “no spring chicken” shouldn’t matter at all because we don’t have one dress code for the beautiful people with great legs, and another for the rest of us who may be more “mature” or weight-challenged.

Secondly, whether she is compromising herself isn’t really your business unless you’re her friend or mentor; she obviously likes what she sees in the mirror before she heads off to work.

If this behaviour truly offends you to the point of distracting you at work (or if, for example, it hurts the company’s reputation with the public or customers), then you can raise it with your supervisor or manager as diplomatically as possible.

Doing it on your own is a no-win situation for you, since No Spring Chicken will likely become offended and defensive, and you will now be on her “I’ll Fix Her Little Red Wagon List.” When a person feels singled out like that, you can find yourself at the receiving end of a harassment complaint that might not be legitimate but is nonetheless an unenviable place to be.

This is a prime example of instances where people can get into trouble by interfering in the lives of their colleagues. Remember, it’s up to the boss to set a dress code for the office, not the workers. Besides, if No Spring Chicken can’t make it up the corporate ladder, it just leaves more room for you.

Are you facing a burning issue at work? Need help navigating that minefield? Let our Nine To Five experts help solve your dilemma. E-mail your questions to ninetofive@globeandmail.com. Confidentiality ensured. Weigh in with your view at tgam.ca/careers.

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