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."