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Posted: August 04, 2009

T&A: The new standard for work attire? No thanks!

Remember the catchy, albeit raunchy, song about "T’s and A-s" from the musical “Chorus Line?” It seems to have helped set a new standard in unprofessional attire for some workers.

Theresa M. Szczurek

Remember the catchy, albeit raunchy, song about "T’s and A-s" from the musical “Chorus Line?”  It seems to have helped set a new standard in unprofessional attire for some workers.

Recently I was interviewing a college student for a possible internship with my consulting firm.  She arrived in a revealing low-cut tank top with bra straps and much more hanging out, tight shorts and flip flops. This was shocking and distracting.

Needless to say, she did not get the position.

Unfortunately this situation is not uncommon. Last night I picked up will-call tickets for a concert. The young woman working in the ticket box office wore a strapless top without a bra, which she repeatedly had to pull up so it did not fall down. On stage, while the male orchestra performers wore relaxed summer attire without ties or jackets, they looked professional with long-sleeve white shirts that were buttoned up and tucked in their slacks. 

A few of the female performers however did not uphold this standard — in fact, every time one female violinist leaned forward to turn the sheet-music page, her entire back-end hung out. Here was the 'plumber's butt' syndrome on stage — ugh!

It was clearly distracting her and the audience. Other parts of that same organization had set a reasonable standard —regardless of gender, ushers were dressed quite appropriately with non-revealing white blouses/shirts and black pants. The ushers appeared to be more mature and perhaps had learned from experience. Why is there such inconsistency?

Men are not immune to this syndrome of unprofessional attire and should be equally aware of the importance of portraying a professional image.

Organizations that do not set, communicate or and uphold a consistent and professional standard for work attire are doing a disservice to their customers, employees and their own image.  Employees are not as productive in such settings. Customers get a poor impression of your business.

It begs the question: What are parents, schools, businesses and the fashion industry teaching people about professional appearance? What kind of judgment (or lack thereof) do employees and employers have?  It appears that the offenders don't even realize they are doing something inappropriate.

A few practical pointers for employees:

  • Choose modesty over revealing clothes, not only for an interview but also for work.
  • Become aware. Look at what people in positions you aspire to attain are wearing — what is appropriate and what is not? Identify a role model after which you can model your attire.
  • When in doubt, get an opinion from a teacher, parent, business coach or another respected person in the community.
  • Take a course. Alice Swanson offers a workshop called "Learn to Earn" which is designed to help students make the transition from college to career. Swanson states, "I DRILL professional attire into my students. I dress professionally every day that I teach so they can see what is appropriate."

And for employers

  • Set a written standard for professional attire in your work environment. Be specific and clear. Ensure there is no double standard — insist that both women and men dress professionally.
  • Communicate your standard on an ongoing basis. Share it during orientation sessions. Have your managers be role models. 
  • Uphold your standard. Send people home and dock their pay if they do not meet the standard. Include professional image in performance reviews. Do not accept less.

Together we can move beyond “T&A” as accepted work attire. Take on the pursuit of professional image as part of your passionate purpose. The result will be better business and career performance.

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Theresa M. Szczurek, Ph.D., co-founder and CEO of Radish Systems, is a serial technology entrepreneur. The story of her last start-up, which sold for more than $40 million in less than six years, is included, along with her strategies for success, in the Amazon-bestseller Pursuit of Passionate Purpose: Success Strategies for a Rewarding Personal and Business Life., and @TheresaSzczurek on twitter.

Enjoy this article? Sign up to get ColoradoBiz Exclusives. The opinions expressed in this article are solely that of the author and do not represent ColoradoBiz magazine. Comments on articles will be removed if they include personal attacks.

Readers Respond

Thanks for your feedback. I am pleased to hear from you and others that the vast majority of business people agree -- professional attire is needed and wanted in the work environment. Thanks for doing your part in setting a high standard. By Theresa Szczurek on 2009 11 03
Dear Theresa, Thank you for writing about this. After the first incident of a female employee arriving at my office dressed inappropriately, she was detained from attending a meeting with a husband-wife client. Her motto she said was,'if you have it flaunt it'. Little did she know comments at the construction site were opposite of how she perceived the attention. Rude comments behind a woman's back are not empowering. We were forced to initiate a dress code (she laughed calling us fuddy duddies) and we soon found a reason to discontinue her employment. Perhaps the reason she's been unable to find a job in her profession and we bet she's not laughing now. As a reminder to these ladies - this isn't Hollywood. By Gayle on 2009 10 12
Thank you for addressing this issue. I'm so sick of looking a boys & mens underwear and seeing girls and women with their body parts STUFFED into their cloths. The sad part is that they think they are Gods gift to the world. I was in a nice recently and a lady was sitting across from me and her thong showed as well as other T&A. I got up and left. The fashion industry designs these clothes and people buy "because". I don't understand why as it promotes dis-respect and sloppiness! You dress sloppy, you act sloppy!! Again, thank you for this article. It is time to revolt against the disgusting T&A that one sees EVERYWHERE, ALL THE TIME! By Ann Anderson on 2009 09 28
Thanks for speaking out on this subject. I now have my own business, and let my workers know that if they are in a public place, they speak with indoor voicees, dress appropriately and say - I apologize instead of 'sorry bout that' as so many people feel free to say now. There is no place for slang, inappropate dress or language in the work place. Thanks for bringing up this weary topic. By Dorothy on 2009 09 14
Laney - No one said anything about "Burkas"...just leave the club wear at home and keep it professional at the office... Why is it that so many women jump to the ridiculous alternative...professional does NOT mean frumpy OR unattractive... There IS a happy medium... By Doug on 2009 08 18
If it makes you uncomfortable, look away. Women make 60% of what men make in the states. Yet they have more expenses and are expected to hold themselves to a higher standard. Women's clothing costs more. They are expected to change several times aday based on these outdated standards. Some women are more comfortable in fitting clothes. There is no reason why in 2009 in the USA we should be expected to dress in Burkas. If you want modesty, go to Iran. By Laney on 2009 08 13
Our company picnic was amazing. Even though this was a casual, social event, seeing so much of a certain coworker's figure was a bit disturbing, even if she is impressive after having four children. I saw tatoos and piercings and more of some people's skin than I ever wished to. By Lane on 2009 08 12
Yes, thanks Theresa for writing about this. As a PR professional, I know the importance of "knowing your audience." Regardless of our age and shape, we all need to remember that what might work on a Saturday night at the dance club, etc. does not necessarily translate to the workplace. When in doubt, err on the side of caution. Rosanne Gain, Gain-Stovall, Inc. By Events Submit on 2009 08 04
THANK YOU for taking a stand on this... For some reason, some women seem to feel that they "own their own power" by trying to use their sensuality to some kind of advantage in the workplace. I've had multiple conversations with several women about this topic, and the responses have been along the line of this being their way of "leveling the playing field" and "using whatever resources we have to" to get ahead in the workplace. Maybe it's the conflicting messages that are propagated by the general media where women are objectified and valued for their looks more than their brains... You need to take this message out to the world at large, but good luck stemming the slide in contemporary cultural mores... By Doug Dennison on 2009 08 04

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