Avoid the Flip-Flop Flap and Join the Well-Heeled

By Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 21, 2006

The sunshine has returned.

Sidewalk cafes are tempting us into long lunch breaks.

Thoughts of coming beach trips are distracting us in our slow afternoons.

And speaking of distractions, it's also that time of year in which we have to persuade a misguided chunk of our young workforce that unless they are employed as lifeguards or gym-locker patrols, flip-flops are simply not suitable for work.

Yes, this is my flip-flop rant.

I admit, they drive me nuts. I can't stand the thwack-thwack they make as their wearers scoot down the hall. Or the way they ruin an otherwise sharp outfit, as if the wearer almost got dressed this morning, except for this one small detail. (Sorry, boss, looks as if I forgot my shoes!)

I'm not particularly interested in hearing accusations that I just don't understand kids today and their hip fashions. I'm only 28, and I have plenty of funky clothes -- which I wear after work. But not offending me shouldn't be your concern anyway. There's a more important group of people who you should be worried about: your supervisors. Alas, most of the them are full-fledged adults. They absolutely care what you look like, at interviews and on the job.

A survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that 49 percent of employers considered "nontraditional" attire -- a category for which flip-flops certainly qualify -- as a strong influence on their perception of a prospective worker. If you have hopes of getting a good job or moving up at the one you have, buy some real shoes.

Flip-flop defenders like to point to how comfortable they are. You know what? So are pajamas. And bathrobes. But you don't see your co-workers rolling up to the office in tank tops and flannel pants, do you?

Clothing choices that made you look relaxed and vaguely insolent in a college classroom just make you look immature in a professional setting. Not an aura you want to create when you're trying to prove yourself.

And it doesn't matter how much you spent on those flip-flops. Whether they've got diamonds on the strap and a designer label attached or you picked them up at Wal-Mart on your way to Ocean City last year, they're still off-limits for work.

Besides, your choices in footwear are not limited to Jimmy Buffett or Jimmy Choo. Shoe stores across the country are filled with non-pinching, low-heeled, non-binding options that don't precariously rely on a single thong strap to stay attached to your feet. If classic pumps aren't your thing, you could always pick up a comfy pair of leather Mary Janes.

Other sandals can be appropriate, depending on how laid back your office culture is. For guidance, look to your boss, or to people just a few years older who seem to be moving their way up. If sandals appear to be acceptable, pick something classic that won't make that horrid noise when you walk down the hall. And get your toes done. Your colleagues will thank you.

This seems to be one of those fashion issues in which women are hampered by their plethora of choices -- I can't say I've ever seen a young man in Washington wear a suit and flip-flops, a look that plenty of young women on the Metro and at downtown coffee shops are sporting. (I know at least a few of them switch into real shoes before they arrive at office, a strategy I am more sympathetic to.)

The guys seem to instinctively know which clothing shows they are serious, down to the footwear. They might have shuffled around campus for four years in dirty sweatshirts and shower shoes, but before they show up on the Hill, they've made a stop at the Men's Wearhouse. No, their neckties aren't comfortable, but neither is explaining to Mom and Dad why they can't seem to get hired after any of their internships.

The Perfect Job

What does it involve? Is it lots of money, or something else? Pick the one thing that is most important to your satisfaction at work, and send me an e-mail at slayterme@washpost.com . Please include your full name and daytime telephone number.

Join Mary Ellen Slayter for Career Track Live, an online discussion of issues affecting young workers, at 2 p.m. tomorrow athttp://www.washingtonpost.com.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company