Shorts in the Office: Dress Code Tipping Point?

As heatwaves roil everywhere, over half of US workers want to wear shorts on the job. 

For decades, suits were the norm at white-collar offices. Then came along Generation X, the group following boomers who, in a host of fields, slowly canned suits in favor of a tie-and-button-down norm. More casual dress has followed but now comes a whole new concept: is it OK to wear shorts to the office?

A recent survey found that 58% of employees think it is appropriate for men to wear shorts to the office, signaling not just a shift in dress code norms, but a recalibration of professionals’ tone in the workplace. To some degree, the cry to toss the long pants is generational, and almost certainly tied to the brutal heat waves of late. In the survey, 57% of boomers were still anti-shorts, but that paled in comparison to the support for them from millennials. A full 75% consider them office-worthy.

“Shorts are a new threshold,” says human resources expert Ron Porter, a senior client partner at Korn Ferry. “It’s crossing a boundary of informality and casualness.”

Though it may seem that workplace clothing is driven by employee comfort, it is actually often determined by expectations of both nationality and professional culture, says James Bywater, a senior client partner and business psychologist at Korn Ferry. In the UK, where workplace dress codes are often formal and befitting of a cooler climate, the cultural expectations are even stronger. “Can my doctor or surgeon or chemist or financial adviser wear shorts?” he asks. The answer is, easily, no.

Prepandemic, workplace dress codes were loosening, due to both the hoodies of the tech industry and the casual leanings of young employees. Then came two years of largely remote arrangements, and employees’ tolerance for discomfort shifted further, particularly among young employees. Many of them don’t necessarily see a reason to pull on a different top for a video meeting. “This generation is going to be a lot less formal,” says Anu Gupta, a senior client partner at Korn Ferry.

Now, as companies are facing resistance in bringing workers back to the office, some are willing to reconsider dress codes. This is particularly true in climates where temperatures are unbearably warm, such as Phoenix, which recently logged 30 days over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and in cultures where dress code is more formal, such as in the UK, where the costs of maintaining a workplace wardrobe can be pricey.

“Perhaps a leader would prefer collared shirts and pants, but if it’ll get people into the office, it might make sense to relax the dress code,” says Dennis Deans, vice president for human resources at Korn Ferry. In turn, professional services firms are reflecting that shift, as they continue to follow their longstanding rule of thumb: dress like clients. 

Leaders commonly err in attempting to articulate a blanket rule, says Alma Derricks, senior client partner in the Culture, Change, and Communications practice at Korn Ferry. In reality, the messaging that a client-facing worker needs to sartorially project might be quite different from the needs of a back-room coder. “There is no one answer about who should be in shorts and who shouldn’t,” says Derricks, who adds that it is a branding choice for the company. “It’s up to the company to set the vision,” she says.

With weather patterns shifting so much lately, raising the cry to dress down, experts advise firms to proactively lay out dress code guidelines rather than reacting in retrospect to employees who do cross the line. Also, communicate the information widely so that managers are consistent. “You don’t want to be spending energy on a distraction like that,” says Porter.


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