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How Much Cleavage is Too Much at Work?

How Much Cleavage is Too Much at Work?

Suzanne Gleason | Little Pink Book

Few of us can forget the “flip-flop flap” a few years ago, when members of the Northwestern University women’s lacrosse team shocked the nation by wearing, well, flip-flops for their visit with President Bush at the White House.

If, however, you supervise a staff – particularly a youngish one – chances are you didn’t bat an eye. Georgia Donovan, a Bucks County, Pa., image consultant, once saw a woman walk into a telecommunications company cafeteria wearing cutoff shorts, flip-flops and a halter top. “That was her version of business casual for the summer,” Donovan says. “If she’d worked for me, I would have sent her home and docked her pay until she showed up in something presentable.”

Blame it, perhaps, on a culture in which it’s OK to attend the opera in jeans, and the nubile policewomen on TV are hard to distinguish from the hookers they’ve arrested. But somewhere along the line, many twenty- and thirtysomethings began to equate appropriate officewear with straitjackets, fearing that standards of dress would stifle self-expression and creativity. “If I want to flaunt what I’ve got, I’ll do it, and I don’t care if some old-fashioned or overweight female employees can’t handle it,” says Karen Feldman, a 27-year-old junior account executive at a Los Angeles advertising agency who wore hot pants to work last summer. “I do a great job, and that’s all that matters. This is who I am.”

Not so fast, says Barbara Peters, who just retired from her post as chief financial officer at a Seattle architectural firm she helped catapult from $3.3 million to $40 million in revenue in the last decade. “When you accept a job, it’s a given that your paycheck comes with some reasonable expectations, including giving up a small portion of your wardrobe’s individuality,” Peters says. “You may smoke, but you don’t smoke at the office. You may sleep in on weekends, but you get to work by 8. And you may wear tank tops and shorts at home, but not in an office setting. There’s always give and take.”

Michele King, a vice president at the real estate company Trammell Crow, boils it down even further: “I will not promote anyone who doesn’t dress appropriately. I consider it a factor in her decision-making skills.”

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