Bathing suits in the office?

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Q:  I am a new supervisor.  I oversee a small team of inside sales reps in a tech company.  I was their peer at one point. Our office is very casual, which is good mostly.  However, in the spring, it seems like things take a turn. Shabby tee shirts, old shorts (like the ones you would go to the gym in), flip flops (or even bare feet) and shockingly even bathing suits.  I was always taught to be casual, but what I would call a “crisp casual.”  My definition of “crisp casual” is a sweater, jeans (but no holes or rips), and maybe neat shorts on Fridays.  However, the shorts should not be gym shorts, or a bathing suit.   How do I communicate these sometimes these hard to grasp rules?  We don’t have a written policy on acceptable dress, but I thought most would understand it.

A: It sounds like you a building a team of professionals, with a few hiccups along the way.  Casual does not have to mean unprofessional.  The work environment, for most of us, is not the same as our apartment or home.  The lines have been blurred, as our offices have become more casual.  What I recommend is having a discussion about “ground rules.”  Discussing what is acceptable and what is not.  It is easier to set those ground rules in advance.  It is early February, so I would get ahead of this now. It is also sometimes helpful to give examples of what is acceptable and what is unacceptable.

Many companies, especially tech companies, have moved to a more casual environment with open office spaces.  With cubicles, some of these clothing choices may have slipped by a manager.  Open office environments expose a lot more of our habits.  I have worked with clients who have complained that their employees floss their teeth at work, paint their nails at their desk, video chat with their mom during the day and watch TikTok.  I find all of these behaviors cross the line into unprofessional conduct.  During the work day, employees are being paid to work.  Everyone is balancing personal lives, whether it is raising children, making a doctor’s appointment or even checking on an aging neighbor.

It may be worth addressing your team as a group and encouraging an open discussion about what is acceptable and what is not.  I think a text from a child who gets off a school bus is an acceptable interruption.  A Facetime conversation lasting 20 minutes or more, from that same child, is not acceptable in my view.

Walking around with bare feet is unacceptable in most offices.  Bathing suits, unless there is a company event, where this might be ok, would also be unacceptable.  Lengthy personal Facetime conversations would also be considered unacceptable in most office environments, even in tech.

I would also explain to your team that they will be serving as role models as others are hired.  This is probably quite true and they will understand that they “set the standard” for workplace behaviors and performance.

Pattie Hunt Sinacole is a human resources expert and works for First Beacon Group in Hopkinton, an HR consulting firm. She contributes weekly to Jobs and the Boston Sunday Globe Money & Careers section.

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