Reader: My workplace is casual, by design. Our dress code is vague at best: “Appropriate office attire is required. Be guided by common sense and good taste.”
There are a couple of 20-something women just out of college, and they’re still dressing like they’re at school. Super-skinny jeans; tops that expose shoulders, back, chest, upper arm; stiletto heels; sheer garments; very short shorts and skirts. I am not their supervisor, but I am senior management and am aware of the image that we need to present to the public.
One of our male employees was asked by his female supervisor to stop coming to work in sweatpants. He complied, and that was the end of it.
I’ve spoken to HR about my concerns. HR is concerned that in light of the #MeToo movement, any counseling of these women would be viewed as hostile and sexist.
Karla: For those who haven’t heard, #MeToo refers to a social movement sparked by unprecedented numbers of sexual assault victims — mostly women — going public with stories of how powerful celebrities, executives and other professionals harassed and assaulted them, often sabotaging their careers in the process. I’m not entirely clear, however, why your HR department is worried that advising employees to cover their bare arms is comparable to the abuse revealed by #MeToo.
In addition to making clear the pervasiveness of sexual aggression and assault and empowering its victims, #MeToo has also inspired employers and individuals to examine their own behavior and assumptions and ask, “Am I doing my part to prevent this?” But, according to surveys from the Pew Research Center, LeanIn and Survey Monkey, and NBC News, #MeToo has also been cited as an excuse for inaction or overreaction, with men expressing reluctance to mentor, hire or even talk one-on-one with women out of fear they’ll be accused of misconduct. Evidently, citing #MeToo is how your HR department rationalizes failing to do its job.
As I’ve said in previous columns, employers have the right — and obligation — to impose and enforce a dress code in line with their business purposes. The more detailed the do’s and don’ts, the easier it is to detect and discipline violations consistently. (And, of course, the dress code can’t impose unlawfully discriminatory rules on employees of different sexes, faiths or races; deny reasonable medical or religious accommodations; or be based on gender stereotypes.)
I don’t know how much clout, if any, you have in persuading HR to tailor its loosely defined standards to better fit your casual-but-not-collegiate workplace. But since fostering gender equality is paramount in light of the #MeToo movement — right? — HR might consider the problems that could arise if anyone thinks to question why a casually clad male employee — but not his equally underdressed female colleagues — was singled out for a dressing-down.
PRO TIP: Whether you’re a policymaker or organization leader looking to combat the culture of sexual harassment, or a victim or bystander wondering what to do, check out #NowWhat: The Sexual Harassment Solutions Toolkit, a comprehensive and practical blueprint from the Better Life Lab at New America.
Thanks to employment law partner Amy Epstein Gluck, FisherBroyles.