‘I Was Sent Home From Work Because Of My Outfit’

Kelly: Dammit, Meredith, where are your panties?
Meredith: It’s casual Friday. Happy?- The Office

Dress codes in the office have changed a lot over the years. Historians say it was in the 1960s that the rules for what to wear  began to disintegrate. But there are still some employers that are very set in their ways and always expect a certain uniform in the workplace which not everyone is aware of or wants to believe, especially when it is 85 degrees outside. Can you imagine being sent home from work on a hot summer day because you weren’t wearing pantyhose? Well, this has actually happened. We talked to some people who were sent from work because of their outfit.

What is appropriate in an office has changed  a lot since those glamorous Mad Men days. The concept of business casual didn’t really exist back then. There was dressed for work and then dressing for work if you worked in a lumber yard. There are still some industries (law, finance) that are very strict and old-fashioned requiring suits for men and nylons with skirts for women with no open-toed shoes.

Violations of those dress codes are clear. The problems seem to start with the more laid back, lenient dress codes. Casual Fridays can be a real mind field for some people. That episode of The Office where Meredith wore a bathing suit because it was casual Friday comes to mind. “There’s a difference between casual and sloppy,” says Sally Morrison, associate manager of Career Partners 3, a job search and career coaching firm. “It’s surprising to me what some people think is appropriate. “I think that when you allow casual dress, some people start to be more casual in the way they approach their work,” says Morrison. “I’m not saying people have to keep their jackets on all day long, but there’s a level of professionalism that comes with wearing the appropriate attire. It garners more respect. If you are dealing with clients, I think this is very important.”

Here are some real stories of dress code confusion resulting in employees being sent home.

The Skort Incident

Samantha Villegas, President of SaVi PRI, told The Grindstone about being sent home from her first job.

“It was 1993 and I was 23 working at a boutique PR agency. I was wearing a plaid skort and a sweater with socks and healed loafers (I know, but they were very “in” at the time). I thought it was okay because it was all very tailored and neat, and I was not planning to see any clients (we worked in a small, seven-person office of all women). The skort was pleated and reached mid-thigh like a mini. At the time, I weighed about 125 pounds (at 5’2″) and was very fit. My boss, a woman, sent me home. She thought the skort was too short. I was mortified, and cried the whole way home and back. I seriously considered not returning to work but I did. That episode stuck with me my whole career. Ever since I have been very traditional and very conservative in the way I dress for work and I find myself critical of other women who border on the sexy or too casual.”

That awkward thing called pregnancy

Ora Shtull, Executive Coach and author of the soon-to-be-released  The Glass Elevator: A Guide to Leadership Presence for Women on the Rise told The Grindstone:

“My first job (many years back, in the early 90s) right out of business school was at a cosmetics company that valued fashionable attire. I attended a corporate conference in Arizona in the early stages of pregnancy. I was at that awkward stage when I no longer could fit into my chic suits but was far from ready for maternity clothes. I showed up at the first event in an A-line jean dress with large colorful buttons, which was actually fashionable at the time. My male boss took one look at me and said, “Can you please go change your clothes?” But, I simply couldn’t! Needless to say, things went downhill from there.”

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    • Debra

      I’ll never forget the time in late October when I showed up in my chiropractor’s office for an adjustment. I was in so much pain, my whole back in spasms, not in the mood for silliness at all–just wanted to be back in alignment. Imagine my surprise when he and his whole office were decked out in Halloween costumes. He was dressed up like a honey bee or something–it was disgusting. I returned for a couple more appointments, but after that we found a different chiropractor–it creeped me out to see my chiro prancing around in black tights like that.

      There is a fine line between having fun at work and going too far and giving patients or clients or customers the willies and making them uncomfortable with you because of what you’ve chosen to wear.

    • Nancy

      It’s especially important for people who deal directly with customers. At a hotel (in a very small town) once, I remember the only person who seemed to be working there was the lady at the desk. And I remember she just had this huge, baggy, faded, DIRTY t-shirt on. I couldn’t believe it; I would never allow an employee working with customers to dress like that, it looks horrible!

    • Kerry

      I can’t imagine how humiliating it must be to be sent home from work – ouch! I’ve had a few times I’ve realised I’ve misjudged my work outfit, and I’ve seen people wearing some truly horrifying things where I work (short shorts, boob tube top and flip flops!) but people are far too English where I work to consider being direct about it! They would just mutter behind the persons back probably.

      FYI – mine field is a thing – mind field isn’t – sandles is a resort, sandals are shoes

    • Pyotr

      As much as I hate how casual or simple we have become as a society, I think this whole debate about right outfit or wrong outfit plays more into individual egos more than anything else. The other person might feel more insulted if he sees an individual he is meeting dressed more simply. He or she might feel mocked.

      The entire debate is now bordering on the absurd.

    • Laura

      I had the opposite experience. In college while interning for a big-name ad agency, I showed up one day in a pencil skirt, nice blouse, heels, and pearls, and was light-heartedly teased by my internship adviser for being “all dressed up.”

      Like you said, it just depends on the industry. When in doubt, ask your recruiter before your first day.

    • Jen Cameron

      I agree that a lot of companies don’t educate their new employees on dress code well enough. Unfortunately there are a lot of individuals who lack common sense in what is deemed acceptable attire. Yes, there is a big difference between casual and just plain sloppy. I see it every day. However, I do not believe “casual Fridays” (which I do not have) cripple professional America. When my pay was cut, but I was still required to dress professionally. One casual day per week would really help my clothing budget, cutting down wear/tear on my professional attire. But I suppose that’s what Goodwill is for. :/