Thursday, April 17, 2008

Dress Codes

The wheels of my longboard whir along the asphalt with the occasional tinkling of the loose bolt holding my board together. As I approach the building, I slam my cupped hand holding my employee badge into the post with the badge reader. This serves both to help slow me down and to gain access to the building. This is a daily process and humorous to those who see it for the first time because it always seems that I’m going to barrel right through the glass window that is feet away from the post. But I never have, and today is no different. As for my board, that’s a different story. Up until today, my board has never so much as tapped the glass. My fingers come up empty as I grasp for my board. It continues and is stopped by a thud against the glass. To my exhilaration, the glass doesn’t even chip and I have avoided any possible negative consequences of a broken window.

“You’re fired,” jokes the security guard.
I take his ribbing in stride partly because we’re friends and partly because I’m running predictably late. As I reach the top of the stairs, my eyes scan the second floor for any associate directors, supervisors or the head honcho who has recently gone out of his way to make small talk with me. Seeing nobody in my direct path, I make a move for my desk careful to not let my feet make that enjoying smack against the leather of my flip flops.

This would blow my cover you see because I’m not supposed to be wearing flip flops. I hurry down the rows of neatly lined cubicles with my heels covered by the bottom of my pants. This unorthodox fashion statement is a silencer for the familiar flip flop patter. My desk is right next to the aisle on the way to the restrooms so in order to disguise my dress code violation, I promptly take my seat and neatly tuck my feet away under my desk.

Throughout the day I will need to discuss certain matters with my supervisor, Ben, but when he’s not around, I find the next available supervisor. Most of the time, the next available supervisor is a woman. It is in these circumstances that I find myself faced with a most interesting dichotomy. I approach the female supervisor careful to position myself far enough away from her desk so that the computer blocks my view of the cleavage spilling out of her top but close enough that I meet her eye to eye. This strategic positioning has the secondary benefit of keeping my feet from her view. By walking back to my desk, I’m exposing my indiscretion in footwear choice and I know that she may take me to task for my dress code violation.

Ben returns from his break and my previous encounter prompts an open discussion of the dress code.
“Flip flops aren’t nearly as bad as some of the other dress code violations that go on around here,” I say. I’m careful to be fairly vague about it at first to see if the reaction is that of agreement or a challenge to come up with a specific example. The response is fairly neutral and that’s why I like Ben. Unlike most of management, he doesn’t necessarily see the point in mediating these insignificant issues. Other supervisors would jump at the opportunity to “resolve the concern” by applying a company model that is systematic and almost never genuine. I mention a conversation I had with another supervisor once that went something like this:
“I don’t see why I can’t wear a nice leather flip flop. Women wear flip flops with a raised heel and pass it off as a dress shoe and nobody cares.”
“Well it’s because flip flops aren’t safe.”
“They’re safer than a two inch heel. I can ride a skateboard in flip flops. I’d like to see a woman who can do that in heels.”
“Well they’re unsanitary.”
“How so?”
“You don’t wear socks with them.”
“Do you wear socks with a heel?”
“Well they’re not professional.”
“That’s totally subjective because it’s based in opinion. I disagree, but I can respect your opinion.”

Now there is a difference between subjective statements and objective statements when it comes to determining what is professional. Subjective statements are based in perception whereas objective statements about professionalism have substance behind them. The substance behind extreme cleavage in the workplace is contained in the phrase “hostile work environment.” I borrow this phrase from the landmark Supreme Court case which has given us the most current legal definition of sexual harassment, Vinson v. Meritor Savings Bank. Although many guys don’t consider showing skin a major contribution to a hostile work environment, I would argue that it is using two basic premises to support my argument.

The first is that professionally dressed women can be intimidated by their peers who seem to attract more attention due to real or perceived quid pro quo preferential treatment from male coworkers in positions of authority. To demonstrate the second way in which the cleavage factor creates a hostile work environment, I cite an episode of the popular American sitcom Seinfield. In one particular episode, George Costanza is caught checking out the cleavage of his boss’s daughter when she bends over to pick something off the floor. The boss’s daughter is significantly younger than George and naturally he is labeled as a pervert. In his defense, George makes the claim that he did nothing out of the ordinary. He draws the comparison of men looking at cleavage to looking at the sun during a solar eclipse. Even though you know you’re not supposed to look directly at the source, it’s almost inevitable that it’s going to happen.

Married men, single men who aren’t trying to get a peek, single men who are trying to get a peek and even gay men (probably) look at the blatant display of boob when it’s just out there for everybody to see. This creates a hostile work environment for the married men trying to stay faithful to their wives in both thought and action. It creates a hostile work environment for honorable men who are trying to keep their thoughts focused on the task at hand and off the objectifying of women in today’s society. For those men who don’t fit into the honorable category, married or single, they would be more likely to be the cause of the hostile work environment. This is certainly encouraged by seeing cleavage around every corner.

A hostile work environment is the cause of every major sexual harassment suit in the country. But I can’t wear flip flops because the opinions of some are that flip flops are unprofessional.

This double standard of the dress code is what prompted my initial question directed toward Ben. To further clarify what violations I notice on a regular basis, I continue, “I see women here all the time that walk around with half their boobs popping out, but since they are wearing a dress, nobody talks to them about it.”
“Yeah, it’s pretty bad.”
So I’ll continue to go to work wearing my flip flops all the while fearing some 30-40 something divorcee will come up to me with her boobs hanging halfway out of her shirt and tell me that I’m dressed inappropriately.