As jeans and hoodies become more common in the office, those who cross the line from relaxed to slovenly could cause problems for firms looking to promote a professional image.

Editor's Note  (11 May 2016): We bring back this workwear etiquette story, first published January 27, after a London worker is 'sent home for not wearing heels'.

The older employees were not happy.

“Can you believe they wear this?” vented a group of Silicon Valley-based professionals in their late 30s and early 40s, to researcher Laura Sherbin. They were part of a focus group addressing generational issues in Silicon Valley, when frustrations about their younger colleagues, most in their 20s, took a surprising turn: dress code.

“Dress is the first filter,” said Sherbin, who is director of research at The Center for Talent Innovation, a New York-based think tank. “One thing dress signalled was lack of respect for the environment.”

Can you believe that they wear this?

Many companies have moved away from formal dress code policies in recent years, giving employees more freedom in what to put on for work. That trend towards casual wear is something that spans geographies and industries, said California-based consultant Jacob Morgan, author of The Future of Work. Bankers and lawyers are loosening their ties more frequently, while hoodies — made popular by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg — have become standard in the technology world.

“We used to live two different lives — work and home,” said Morgan. “As these things start to blend, we start to see dress codes get relaxed.”

But employees who take casual office attire too far could cause problems for companies that want to promote a more professional workplace culture or signal competence to clients.

That’s why many retailers such as Walmart and Starbucks continue to maintain dress codes even as they debate adding flexibility to their workwear rules.

“If you work in retail or in a restaurant, you come face-to-face with people who will make specific judgments about quality of product or service based on persona of the employee,” said Edward Yost, a human resources business partner at the Society for Human Resource Management.

Tell me what’s acceptable

Beyond being good for business, guidelines around workwear can also be a relief for employees. A lack of guidelines around what to wear can be challenging for employees who want to dress properly for their jobs.

“The broader the language in the policy, the more onus on the employee to make a good choice,” Yost said.

He said rather than specifying what to wear, many companies now have general guidelines asking employees to dress “appropriately”. But, said Yost, “that’s like defining art — it’s different to whoever is looking at it.”

Sherbin said that when people encounter problems in dressing down, it’s often because they don’t know better or just get busy.

Policing what’s acceptable can be awkward, especially across genders and cultures.

“Having a lot of variability around what to wear can make it difficult to figure out what to wear to fit in,” she said. They see others getting away with dressing down and gravitate towards that behaviour. “If it’s six in the morning and I... am thinking about what to wear, I might think ‘I saw her wear this the other day, oh I’ll be fine’.”

Being direct about expectations can also be a relief to employees who may not realise that others may judge them based on what they wear. “If there something I am supposed to wear, tell me,” Sherbin said. “Don’t make it an invisible test saying I’ve chosen the wrong thing.”

In addition, without a formal policy, managers bear the burden of policing what’s acceptable, which can be awkward, especially across genders and cultures. A male manager, for example, might not want to have a discussion with a female employee about tube tops or too-short hem lines.

Presenting an image

Rather than solving the problem of sloppy workwear by issuing standard suit-and-tie dress codes, experts advise employers to think about dress policies as a reflection of their overall workplace values.

“Just putting together guidelines can be an incredibly useful exercise,” Sherbin said. It helps companies figure out the image they want to convey to their target audience.  

Yost suggests that companies should start with their organisational philosophy. For client-facing companies, it helps to look at the image you want to present to clients coming through the door. “If you run a surf shop, it’s OK to wear the shorts and Billabong shirts that you sell there," he said.

Once companies get guidelines in place, they should communicate them as part of more general training, Sherbin said. She suggests starting with employees on their first day. Including dress guidelines in a new employee orientation, for example, stops workplace wear from becoming an issue before it starts.

To reinforce the message, she advises making conversations about dress part of larger discussions around professional behaviour in the workplace. For example, companies can include appearance as part of more holistic leadership trainings for high performers, alongside topics like communication and presence.

“Companies have tried to get away from saying, “do it because it’s in a handbook',” she said. Instead they are giving employees more context around why appearance is important. “Ideally, the message being, ‘if you want to telegraph professionalism, here is how you do it’.”

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