A small business owner I know was recently lamenting the fact that one of his employees constantly brought two friends with her to work: her "girls."
"She happened to be very well endowed and thought it was a good idea to share her blessings with the rest of the office," my buddy Joe explained, a bit bewildered.
When the 23-year-old administrator had interviewed for the position, she'd worn a business suit, he said. But after she got the job, she came to work dressed as though she was making the walk of shame from the nearest nightclub: Six-inch-high strappy sandals. Gauzy white skirts, complete with red panties showing through. Low-cut tops that revealed "the girls pushed and pressed, saying 'howdy!'"
Worried that staff and clients of his four-person creative agency might be uncomfortable with his new hire's sexy summer wear, Joe solved the problem by instituting an employee dress code.
But his predicament was no anomaly, as anyone who's ever had a coworker or direct report under age 30 can attest. With "business casual" the de facto dress code in an increasing number of workplaces, and no one 100 percent sure what business casual means anyway, managers find themselves addressing more and more wardrobe malfunctions, especially during the sweltering summer months.
In fact, a June 2008 CareerBuilder.com survey of nearly 2,800 U.S. companies found that 35 percent of employers have sent home an "inappropriately dressed" worker so they could slip into something a little less comfortable.
Everyone knows that in a casual workplace you can get a lot of summertime mileage from a clean pair of khakis and short-sleeved polo shirt (grads, are you listening?). But what if your personal style doesn't lean toward Tiger Woods or Bill Gates? What threads can you get away with wearing to work when it's so hot out you're sweating 20 seconds after you step out of the shower? And which ensembles should you steer clear of no matter how high the mercury rises?
Your Office Is Not Studio 54
I know I sound like your grandmother, but unless you work as a lifeguard or bartender, cleavage and belly buttons shouldn't make an appearance at the office — even during the sticky summer months. Same goes for visible underwear, bra straps, lingerie, gold lame and anything else you'd normally don while sleeping, clubbing, or attempting to seduce someone.
"Bare shoulders can work, as long as there is some type of strap or sleeve," said fashion consultant Gretta Monahan, who co-hosts "Tim Gunn's Guide to Style" on Bravo. "If you are entertaining wearing your favorite low-cut top to the office, layer it with a camisole or tank underneath."
If you are a woman who works in an air-conditioned office, do yourself a favor and keep a sweater in your desk drawer. There's nothing worse than having to lead a meeting and have everybody realize that you are chilly, if you catch my drift.
While pantyhose have pretty much gone way of the dodo bird (sales have mercifully been sagging since the 1990s), that doesn't give you license to disregard the length of your skirt or dress.
For skirts that stop short of your knees, "Try the sitting test," Monahan said. "If you pull up a chair, attempt to sit, and your underwear is either exposed or touching the chair, you have your answer."
Of course there's an easy to solution to the "how short is too short?" dilemma: Put on a pair of lightweight pants or capris instead.
You Are Not a Cabana Boy
Female employees don't hold a monopoly on warm weather wardrobe malfunctions.
Joyce L. Gioia, CEO of The Herman Group, a business forecasting firm in Greensboro, N.C., once made the mistake of telling a male assistant he could wear whatever he wanted to the office.
"One day he showed up in a skimpy tank top and short shorts," she said. "That clearly did not work for me. It wasn't this great body, but it was so much flesh."
It's also too much armpit and chest hair, Monahan says.
"Tank tops are universally off limits for the gents, even in a casual setting," she says. "You can skip the collared shirt, but never the sleeve."
Instead, go for a cotton short-sleeved button down shirt, she says. But don't leave more than one or two buttons undone; remember, you're not at the beach or on a date.
Whether you add shorts to the ensemble depends on your department's dress code. (Hint: If your manager wears shorts, you can too. Ditto for T-shirts, as long as you don't wear the one you painted the house in.) If you have to ask if your shorts are too short, they are. As for bike shorts in the office, for the love of god, just say no.
Who Should Show Toe — and When
I don't have anything against flip-flops in the office (save for the fact you can hear a pair coming a mile away), but many employers do. According to CareerBuilder, 64 percent of employers have banned them.
And while a majority of women wear open-toed shoes to work — 79 percent, according to a January 2008 survey by office product company Quill Corporation — there seems to be a double standard at work with regard to men showing toe.
A number of managers and HR professionals I asked shuddered at the thought. ("Men's toes are never OK in the workplace," one said. "Neh-ver!") In fact, the Quill survey found that only 4 percent of men wear flip-flops to work and just 8 percent wear sandals — or what I like to call "mandals."
In the Pacific Northwest, where I live, babies of both sexes are born wearing Teva sandals. So for some fresh perspective, I asked etiquette guru Peter Post what he thought of this sandal double standard.
"I think it's ridiculous," said Post, the director of The Emily Post Institute and author of "The Etiquette Advantage in Business: Personal Skills for Professional Success." "I come to work wearing Tevas all summer long."
Post keeps a pair of loafers or dress shoes on hand at his 10-employee office so he can upgrade his ensemble any time he needs to meet with clients or give a presentation. (Note to grads: Big meetings and big toes — even painted ones — seldom mix.)
Have Change of Clothes, Will Travel
Just because it's hot enough out to fry an omelet on the sidewalk doesn't mean you should arrive to work looking (and smelling) like you just ran a marathon. Instead, get yourself some comfortable, breathable commuting shoes and duds and change when you get to the office.
"In the summer when it's 90 degrees out and the air conditioning on N.J. Transit is iffy, I wear shorts, a T-shirt and mandals to work, then change into the khakis, shirt and socks I carry in and the shoes and belt I leave here," says Stephen Power, senior editor at book publisher John Wiley & Sons in Hoboken, N.J.
When it comes to dressing for work during the summer, such practicality is the name of the game, Post says.
"It's about making an impression that people respond positively to," he adds. "If people think, 'What are they wearing that for?' you've made a mistake."
Considering that 41 percent of companies told CareerBuilder they're more likely to promote employees who dress professionally, looking sloppy, sweaty, or as though you came to work in your skivvies is one mistake you don't want to make.
This work is the opinion of the columnist, and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist, author and former cubicle dweller. Her books — "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube" and "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" (October 2008) — offer an irreverent take on the traditional career guide. More tips on career change, flex work and the freelance life can be found on her blog, Anti9to5Guide.com