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Dress codes

Is sexy office attire grounds for firing? Add to ...

No tight turtlenecks, no pencil skirts, no three-inch heels - and no Jessica Rabbit curves.

The story of Debrahlee Lorenzana, a chesty New York business banker who claims she was fired for distracting her male colleagues, is raising questions about corporate dress code policies, and whether co-workers who complain about the sexy ensembles of others are engaging in a special kind of sexual harassment.

Citibank fired Ms. Lorenzana last August, citing work performance. She fired back with a gender-discrimination suit, dismissed last month because her contract allows only private arbitration of disputes. She's now suing for wrongful dismissal.

"She was punished because her male bosses couldn't handle their libidos," Jack Tuckner, her lawyer, told the New York Post.

Photos he arranged show Ms. Lorenzana in a fitted navy jacket and knee-length pencil skirt, snake-skin three-inch heels, as well as a tight black wrap dress she wore to her interview.

None of it flies with Canadian business etiquette experts.

"Debrahlee Lorenzana looks like she'd fit in really well behind a retail counter of a cosmetic department. That's the key to credibility: When people look at you, do you represent your industry?" says Joanne Blake, Edmonton-based president of Style for Success.

Showing too much skin affects credibility, especially where finances are concerned, says Ms. Blake, who helps companies develop their dress guidelines. Her busiest time is now, with summer on the horizon.

"Women are taking their cues from celebrity dress and that's where there's confusion. We're bombarded with images from the media about what's acceptable. Sex and the City? All those women are professionals."

"The retail market and fashion setters who design clothes as if it's for the professional woman, most of those clothes are just not appropriate for work," says Linda Allan, a Toronto-based workplace specialist who looks at behaviours and dress in business.

("I shop where everyone else shops - at Zara!" Ms. Lorenzana told the Village Voice, recalling the day her bosses asked her to wear looser clothing, a request she refused, citing money trouble.)

When companies have vague dress codes thorny encounters will arise, experts say. Citibank forbids provocative clothing but gives managers wide discretion. While policies such as "dress in a professional manner" are too open to interpretation, others are too lengthy - and so go unread. Those that are too stringent are often met with rebellion.

"[Employees]think that it infringes on their personal rights and so on, but then you have to say that this is a larger issue. This is about the branding of an organization," Ms. Allan said.

Generations X and Y have particular trouble with dress policies on this front, Ms. Blake said.

"You'd think that by osmosis they might pick up on what's appropriate but they look at the boomer generation and they discount them because they come across as being too boring and bland."

Debrahlee Lorenzana

Men of all ages have it easier: There are far fewer places to go wrong.

"It's so much tougher for a woman to know what the guidelines are because for a man it's either a suit, shirt and tie or sports coat and shirt," said Ms. Allan, who coaches executives and those aspiring to move up the ladder, as well as writing dress code policies.

She thinks Ms. Lorenzana could have used some alterations.

"We as women have to understand our body type and we have to dress accordingly. If we cannot find clothes off the rack that fit, we had better use part of our salary to pay for alterations. If a size up fits her in the bust better or across the seat better but it's longer in the sleeves, she has to buy the larger size, so it's not a second skin."

And when a woman's fashion choices start sidetracking her cubicle mates, it often falls to another woman to correct her, says Erica Pinsky, a Vancouver-based author, speaker and consultant who focuses on building respectful workplaces.

Ms. Pinsky remembers visiting a corporate client - and the busty receptionist at the door.

"She was sitting down and I looked down and there was cleavage from here to Chicoutimi. I'm a woman, and I'm a straight woman and I couldn't focus."

The client told her that although he was well aware of the situation, he was "terrified" to speak with her for fear of a sexual harassment lawsuit.

Indeed, Ms. Pinsky said if Ms. Lorenzana wasn't under contract not to sue, she could have proceeded this way. Although none of her bosses' alleged comments constituted an advance, sexual harassment encompasses "all those unwanted comments or conduct that relate to your gender or sexuality," Ms. Pinsky said.

She suggests employers offer coaching about dress codes to incoming staff, not after things have gone south.

Ultimately, she said both men and women are accountable in such a situation.

"The argument here is that women need to cover themselves up so that men won't be sexually aroused by them. Where is the responsibility of men? Allegedly the difference between men and animals is that we are capable of conscious thought and therefore we can control our impulses."

In other words, "Some women are just sexy. Certainly the men might have found that off-putting. So? Get over it. Deal with it."

She says that involves making room for men at the table for the conversation.

"Corporations simply don't support the men in these kinds of situations. The men are often pushed into a corner where they're like, 'Well, we've got to get rid of her.' "

Editor's note: Jack Tuckner did not take the photographs of Debrahlee Lorenzana referenced in this story, as indicated in the original version of this article. This version has been corrected.

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