Dress Code Advice from “The Reference Desk”


Now that the Charlotte School of Law has relocated to the heart of the banking and legal services industry, it’s appropriate to address the topic of professional attire.

“The Reference Desk” is a regular column featured in the AALL Spectrum.  The column below originally appeared in the February 2011 issue and is reprinted here with permission.

Q: One of our reference librarians wears somewhat low-cut tops— not the plunging deep neckline type, but, still, when she leans over the reference desk to help a patron, she shows a lot of cleavage. I fear she doesn’t realize that in leaning forward she leaves her personal space and enters the patron’s personal space, thus potentially creating the impression she’s flirting with him. I don’t know how to tell her.

A: I understand why you have reservations. Clothing is a personal expression and commenting on another’s fashion choices can be a sensitive subject.  With the move toward “business casual,” most formal dress codes have gone by the wayside. The ones that remain often address bare arms (no sleeveless tops) and bare feet (no opentoed shoes) and therefore aren’t much help in this instance.

What’s also gone by the wayside is the “Bunny Dip.” I never thought that in these days and within our profession I would invoke Hugh Hefner, but even Gloria Steinem and Barbara Walters, for purposes of their respective journalist assignments, mastered the move. For those who are too young to know what the “Bunny Dip” is, it’s a bow executed primarily with the legs, rather than the waist. With shoulders thrown back and the spine straight, the waitress would bend at the knees while serving customers and was able to keep her “personal space” to herself.

All that aside, I commend you for wanting to find an appropriate way to discuss this matter. You assume that your colleague is unaware of the impression she is creating. I would further presume that she would like to know what view she is providing and remedy it, just as most people would like to know if something is unbuttoned that needs to be buttoned, unzipped that should be zipped, or caught somewhere (for example, a skirt caught in the waist band of pantyhose) that shouldn’t be caught somewhere. The trick lies in finding a diplomatic way to tell the individual.

I’m making a second assumption that this woman is your colleague and not someone you supervise. The best way to address this would be to do it privately, person to person. Keep your tone light and possibly put it in the context of what I referenced above, i.e., “If your dress were unbuttoned in the back, I think you would want to know, so…” If you aren’t comfortable being the messenger, determine whether there is someone on the staff to whom you could turn.  Her best friend in the workplace? A female supervisor? An “older” woman who could offer her some “big sister” advice?) I think you would be doing her a favor by telling her.

I wanted to provide a second opinion, so I’ve contacted Linda G. Will, owner of Will Legal Resources, and asked for her advice. Linda has been not only the director of major law firm libraries but has also worked as a consultant with major legal firms, court and government libraries, and legal information vendors.

According to Will: “In all seriousness, Susan has covered all the bases. If the woman in discussion is a colleague, you truly need to address the situation in a different manner than if she is a supervised staff member. The conundrum is that with all the new ‘casual Fridays,’ which have bled over into all the other days of the week, where do you draw the line (or the neck line so to speak)? By the way, do any male staff who interact with the public keep their shirts unbuttoned a notch too low? Taking a canvass before ‘the talk’ would be a precaution so that no one is being singled out.

“Maybe this would require an entire staff conversation in which dress code can be addressed in a more global fashion. I believe that discussing the image being used to market the research center should be positive. This image should project scholarship, authority, and of course reliability. You need to not just set an image as a department, but as a profession. This is truly essential for firm and court libraries, which are going through difficult staffing times. Staffing positions are becoming almost a privilege.”

~Susan Catterall~

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