BBC Capital

Work Ethic

How revealing should your work clothing really be?

About the author

Chana is a journalist based in New York City, writing about business, finance, and workplace life. She has written for The Wall Street Journal and spent more than a decade at Forbes, including three years as a Tokyo-based foreign correspondent.

(Thinkstock)

(Thinkstock)

Q: I sometimes appear on television, in an official capacity. I had taken my suit jacket off while waiting for one such appearance when the show’s producer came by and suggested I go on camera wearing just my camisole. I wasn’t comfortable with this idea but she hinted strongly that I would be less likely to be invited back if I insisted on putting my jacket back on. Was it okay for her to push me to appear in a skimpy tank top? What should I have done?

A: It’s easy to start fuming about the gender double standard at work here.

A producer would be very unlikely to insist that a man take off his suit jacket and appear on camera in his shirtsleeves. And why, if you’ve been invited to expound on your area of professional expertise, would it matter if you look sexy or not? Wouldn’t it make more sense for the show to want you to look competent?

The dilemma stems from the fact that you are caught between two goals that conflict: you want to be invited to appear on TV to advance your career and you also want to look credible and trustworthy. In this case, you’re forced to choose between appearing without a jacket, which you think will hurt your credibility, and not being asked to return, which could reduce your exposure and have negative implications for your career, said Kimberly Dienes, an assistant professor of psychology at Roosevelt University in Chicago, Illinois.

This quandary is more widespread than it sounds. Though few of us appear on camera, we all have to choose what we wear, and how we present ourselves, each day when we get ready for work. The same issues apply when a saleswoman is encouraged to wear shorter skirts or higher heels when calling on clients, or when a marketer is nudged to dress more attractively when giving a presentation.

Was it ethical for the producer to make this request of you? No, Dienes said: “She should understand that your attractiveness to TV audiences as an expert should be based on what you say and not on how you look.”

You shouldn’t give in to such tactics — unless you feel that your professional image will benefit. In that case, you must be comfortable with the trade-off. In some fields, it’s in your interest to amp up your looks. If you want the public, as well as your customers and colleagues, to see you and think, “She’s smart — and sexy!” then go ahead, leave your jacket off.

In the end, it is a question of personal choice. Pick the outcome that will make you feel better about yourself when you wake up the next morning.

“Many people have chosen to dress more provocatively to be more attractive to TV audiences, and that is a choice you are free to make,” Dienes said. But it should be your choice.

The lesson holds true for other apparel issues. You can pick out a shorter skirt for client visits if you decide it’s worth it, after considering both how your clients and co-workers will view your outfit and the chances this could lead to better business results for you.

Since there are potential negative consequences of each option, Dienes suggested considering the downside: “Which is worse for you: missing out on a professional opportunity, or compromising your sense of professional presentation and conduct?”

Work Ethic is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the ethical and interpersonal dilemmas that workers face around the world. We welcome knotty questions from readers at workethic@bbc.com.