Pajama pants in the office?

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Q:  I work for a tech firm in Waltham.  The company is fairly informal and casual.   We are in start-up mode.  My last employer was more structured, and not formal, but more professional in terms of dress code. I am getting used to working in a more casual, but fun and flexible environment.  I like my role and my employer.  I supervise (or “lead” as they call it) a few entry-level employees and interns.  They are all strong performers in their different roles.  I am happy to supervise them because it is a good experience for me.  Though my workplace is casual, I am often surprised by the dress of some of these newer employees.  During the pandemic, I know many were wearing little to no formal clothes while working remotely.  Now that we are back in the office a few days per week, I am shocked at what some employees are wearing.  Slippers, pajama pants, old sweatshirts seem to be the norm.  You probably see it, but it is in a line at a local coffee shop on a Sunday morning.  I am a bit uneasy about how some of these newer hires dress.  At my former company, HR would issue an email to outline what is acceptable dress in our workplace.  Should I even address it? 

A:  Most of us notice the people around us in a workplace.  There is often a dress code in our workplaces.  Maybe this policy is not printed anywhere, but if you look around, there is likely a dress code.

Here is what I see, from most formal to least formal, and some of it depends upon industry or location.

Law firms and other professional services firms.  These firms often still require employees to dress in what I would call “crisp business casual.”  My translation includes tailored dress shirts, dress pants, shoes (not sneakers) and maybe a blazer.  Sometimes, these firms still require a suit, particularly if a client is visiting or one of their employees is visiting a client.

Other companies are ok with collared shirts (think a golf shirt), dressier sweaters, pants, maybe even dark-colored jeans (with no holes, frayed hems, etc.).  Again, sometimes there may be a need to “step up” the dress on some days, depending upon visitors.

Still other companies are much more relaxed, and one step down on the level of formality.  T-shirts, jeans of any type, fleece vests and sweatshirts are ok.

Finally, I would describe the most casual environment is what you have described.  Sweatpants, pajama pants, t-shirts, hoodies, gym shorts and flip flops are all ok. Some employers pride themselves on offering a very casual environment.  Some others would bristle at gym shorts or pajama pants.

It is more difficult to address this concern, if no policy exists.  It might be worthwhile to talk with you manager about establishing some guidelines company-wide, so you are not the sole supervisor addressing these concerns. If you are struggling with the issue, it is probably reasonable to assume that other supervisors might also be facing this challenge.

Though there may be no written dress code, there is an “unwritten” dress code.  If you look around at what managers are wearing, that is often the dress code.  However, these newer hires may not have thought about what is acceptable and what is not.  Some of the norms and expectations are a bit harder to decipher if you have worked remotely for several years, or if no one has explicitly shared guidelines.

Some companies publish have very specific dress code requirements.  After talking to your supervisor, it might be worthwhile to discuss specific guidelines, but ensure that they are consistently enforced. If one supervisor is saying it is ok to wear torn jeans, and one is banning torn jeans, that is a slippery slope!

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.