Dear Miss Manners:
The company I work for has a dress code that's quite casual as long as the dress is appropriate for the position and department of the employee. It can range from a polo shirt with company logo and khaki pants for executives to bluejeans and T-shirts for underlings.
They also have a policy of hiring the teenage or college-age children of employees for summer part-time help, which is good. But I have seen a trend among them that crosses the line for "casual dress."
The teenage daughters of one key executive and a department manager were hired for the summer for clerical and receptionist backup. Both are nice girls, but it was a shock to see one of them, a college student, sitting at the receptionist's desk one morning with a new hairstyle drastically different from her usual long light-brown hair. She had it chopped off in different layers, dyed almost black and streaked with neon blue. (When asked how I liked her new hairstyle, I merely asked if it glowed in the dark.)
The other, a high schooler with multiple body piercings and tattoos, sat up front in a crop top and hip-hugger bluejeans that defied gravity. Aside from full exposure of her navel, one notch less on her belt would have exposed the crack in her behind and her private areas. This was intentional, as it gave good exposure to the snakelike writhing tattoos she has around her hips.
I'm a firm believer that the initial impression a company gives to a potential customer or client is how the receptionist conveys herself to the general public. If full-time employees came to work like that, this would not be tolerated under any circumstances. They would be told to go home and change -- both their clothes and their hair. Fortunately, both full-time receptionists dress appropriately for their positions.
I was appalled at the appearance of both girls, but declined to openly criticize them due to the pecking order of their parents in the company.
I have also noticed similar casualness and outrageous attire when young women come in for interviews. They show up in jeans, T-shirts, sneakers or sandals, impossibly short skirts and crop tops, and three-inch-long fake nails to apply for positions that in former days would have required a suit or at least a nicely tailored pair of trousers. Then they wonder why, in spite of impressive resumes, they don't get hired.
So, Miss Manners, how would you approach these parents about their children's appearances, regardless of their only being there for the summer, without telling them bluntly that one looks like a vampire-movie wannabe and the other looks like a slut?
They already know that. They may even have told their daughters so -- only to be cowed by the argument that this, and not their silly polo shirts, is what "casual" now means.
If such is the case, Miss Manners would imagine the parents to be grateful for some tactful support. You might ask them whether they want instruction in professional dress to be part of the young ladies' orientation, and if so, whether they need some help.
It will not be easy, Miss Manners warns you. The difference between professional and casual clothing is clear; the difference between one kind of casual and another is not. You will have to explain it as one of the mysteries of the modern working world, as indeed it is.
Feeling incorrect? E-mail your etiquette questions to Miss Manners (who is distraught that she cannot reply personally) at MissManners@unitedmedia.com or mail to United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016.
(c) 2005, Judith Martin