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January 01, 2000
Provocative Clothes: Dress Code Issue, or Sex Harassment?
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From "What to Do About Personnel Problems (in Your State)"

In a recent issue of National News Update BLR published the comments of a customer who said, in part, "Any woman who dresses in very short skirts is advertising. It’s provocative." We asked for your reactions, and many of you faxed them back to us—interesting, thoughtful, widely varied, and occasionally very funny responses. Here’s an all-too-brief summary of your thoughts on the matter.

One of our suggestions was for HR to discuss the company’s dress code with the complainant, and that was the step more than half of you chose as the most appropriate. Most of those who did added that it would be wise to check out what the "offending" employee was wearing, as she might not be dressing in conformity with company policy. And, many of you also noted that whether or not her outfits suited the dress code, the complainant had better not react openly to her "provocation," or he might violate a policy himself—the one against sexual harassment. In other words, our respondents didn’t see the question in our headline as an either/or proposition. The prevailing answer was "both." Herewith, a variety of comments in that vein:

No matter what a woman wears, she does not deserve the responses he mentioned. I would tell him just that, and that his response could be viewed as harassment. If it is in the written dress code, I would address the female employee’s short skirts.
 —HR manager, New Hampshire

If the woman’s dress is unprofessional, speak with her and discuss the dress code, if it exists. Also, speak to the man. Tell him he may not approve but must not act on his opinion.
 —Midwestern HR consultant

Attention is required for both the commenter and the young lady described. He represents a time bomb just waiting to go off. Her dress as described appears to be nothing more than current fashion. But if a careful review of the rules indicates a [dress code] violation, the offender needs to be reminded of the rules.
 —HR director, North Carolina

A business is not the place for overly suggestive clothing. If you want respect from your co-workers, then dress properly. One can still look good without showing too much leg or cleavage.
 —Only woman employee, New England construction firm

The correct answer is that NOTHING "invites" sexual harassment, just as nothing invites rape nor does anything invite domestic violence. But is the person dressed professionally? Too revealing is not appropriate in the workplace.
 —California manager

We had a staff assistant wear skirts so short that men were following her upstairs. A longtime employee known for her ability to dress well talked with the staffer one-on-one, being very candid about the attention she was drawing to herself. As a result, her manner of dress changed dramatically.
 —Trade association manager,D.C.

And a different way of describing the same situation: No reasonable person I know would extend an invitation to be harassed. Often times, it’s a case of poor judgment and [lack of] discretion on the part of the receiver of attention.
 —HR manager, Texas educational institution

Reminds me of a female department director who complained about female clericals engaged in an ongoing fashion war as to who would wear the most provocative ensemble. Manager insisted skirts should be no more than 21/2" above the knee. When I inquired, "Fine, but who is going to measure?" she got the message and the dialogue ended in an updated, reasonable policy.
 —Health care HR manager, New York

This is certainly the $1 million question. I only wish there was a surefire way to resolve the dress code issue and everyone be pleased with it. To date, I’ve found it to be totally unfixable!
 —HR manager, Missouri

Among the other relatively popular responses on our survey were to discuss with the complainant which responses to short skirts are acceptable and which are not (nearly 20 percent of you voted for that one) and to tell him he can think what he likes but he may neither express nor act on his opinion at work (17 percent). A few of you voted to send him to a diversity course. And about an equal number asserted that the complainant was right. Here’s a sampling of those opinions:

Congratulate him on his understanding of the human condition.
 —"Married, AARP-eligible male," New England

What about the other side of this question?
Can someone’s dress create a hostile environment? Is that woman in very short skirts and low-cut blouses a victim or a perpetrator? What about the guy in pants so tight as to reveal his every thought?
 —SPHR, a Texas university

A harried Pennsylvania manager recounted that a young female employee understood her clothing was provocative and reserved the right to dress that way, but expected HR to protect her if men responded aggressively. There’s a lose/lose situation.

Here are some other cogent responses:

Keeping the focus on his behavior is appropriate. Despite the provocation, he is still 100% responsible for his behavior. Don’t encourage or permit him to pass judgment on her behavior.
 —HR manager, California rearch firm

As usual, conversations with people over emotionally charged issues can lead in many directions. A person who makes these kind of comments is frustrated sexually and should be monitored.
 —HR manager, multistate manufacturer

"I didn’t know you had free time to dwell on this. Let me discuss with your manager more appropriate things for you to do with your free time. Since you are obviously a keen observer, I’m sure we can keep you more focused on your job assignments."
 —HR manager, Arkansas manufacturer

Finally, we included these two suggested responses: "Tell him to get a life" and "Tell him he wears his slacks too short." A few of you commented that you’d love to respond to him that way but wouldn’t dare. Well, we wouldn’t either. We meant those suggestions to be taken lightly, as did one respondent who preceded her serious comments this way: "I’d beat him over the head with a baseball bat."

Thanks to all of you for sharing your wit and wisdom.

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This article reprinted with permission by the publisher Business and Legal Reports, Copyright 2001, BLR.

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