HR dilemma: What’s appropriate holiday office party attire?

Question:  “Last year, a woman in our company wore a red satin corset, tight skirt and eight-inch platform heels to the holiday party. Although this outfit was not particularly revealing, one of the vice presidents thought it was “trashy looking.”  She believes employees should dress conservatively at business functions because they are still representing the company. Our executive team did not object to the “corset outfit” and prefers not to dictate what people should wear to office parties. However, the offended vice president, who is one of our top salespeople, refuses to attend any function where this type of dress is allowed. As the HR manager, I need some advice on how to resolve this issue.” —  Caught in the Middle

Marie’s Answer: To avoid being distracted by emotional reactions, you need to view this as a policy decision. Here are some suggestions:

•    Although your executives may wish to dodge the issue, they should consider providing dress and behavior guidelines. If spouses, guests or members of the general public observe offensive conduct, the company’s image will suffer.

•    Instead of creating a detailed dress code, draft a brief description of appropriate party attire— for example, “dressy but professional” — and help your executive team reach agreement on the meaning. Many employees will appreciate your including this guidance in the party announcement.

•    If Party Girl’s “corset” looks too much like an undergarment to fit these guidelines, help her understand the new expectations. But if her outfit seems appropriate, advise the sales VP of this conclusion. If she elects to boycott the party, that’s her choice. 

Having made a well-reasoned decision, you and the executives should then refuse to discuss the matter any further. 

To avoid holiday party pitfalls, see The Holiday Office Party: Career Builder or Career Killer?