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Can you ever wear shorts to work?

A detailed investigation into the most contentious of workplace clothing items.

Can you ever wear shorts to work?
[Photo: Samuel Zeller/Unsplash]

“Business casual” takes on different meanings across industries and companies, but the question of whether shorts can ever be appropriate in the workplace is a question for the ages. Is it merely dependent on industry? What makes shorts more casual than, say, a skirt that shows a similar amount of exposed leg? Is it considered more acceptable for women to wear shorts in the workplace than men?

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The unsatisfying answer to the shorts dilemma is this: it depends on the culture and the field, says Eric Holmes, who teaches career and professional skills at Purdue University Global. “If you’re working in athletic apparel in a more casual part of the country—like the Pacific Northwest, where Nike is headquartered—clean and on-brand athletic shorts can be completely appropriate. I wouldn’t recommend wearing shorts if making a big pitch, meeting with clients, but for a day in the office in that environment, shorts can be appropriate.”

“Shorts are perfect if your company makes golf, tennis, or other sports or fitness apparel,” says clothing designer Dara Lamb. If you aren’t in those industries, however, you might skip them as work wear. “Wearing shorts is a norm in the tech industry, but depending on your culture, isn’t always a great idea,” says Trisha Degg, vice president of talent programs for the Illinois Technology Association. “There are still plenty of leaders who have the mentality of ‘dress for the job you want, not the job you have.’ Your dress tends to reflect your level of professionalism and any impressions you give.”

In fact, in a study from OfficeTeam, 86% of workers and 80% of managers surveyed said clothing choices affect a person’s chances of being promoted. The research found that jeans, tennis shoes, and leggings have increased in acceptability for work as compared to five years ago, while shorts have become less acceptable.

“While your employer may allow shorts at work, our research shows that many managers have become less tolerant of this clothing item in recent years,” says OfficeTeam executive director Stephanie Naznitsky. “I’d recommend sticking to a polished pair of capris or full-length pants in a business casual setting.”

Patricia Brown, chair of the Virginia Commonwealth University Department of Fashion Design and Merchandising, says shorts that are part of a suit could be appropriate. “They need to be long, creased, and polished,” she says. “Short suits are, at times, trending. But shorts in general send a message that you’re too casual and not so serious.”

Lamb agrees that shorts for women can be worn as part of a business suit. “Think a jacket and matched short, but no shorter than two to three inches above the knee, in a more formal menswear fabric,” she says.

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But the shorts you wear for field days or fun activities are still generally not accepted—even Bermuda shorts, says Claire Bissot, managing director of CBIZ, an HR services provider. “Generally, shorts, flip-flops, sun dresses, and other beach or vacation apparel should be avoided at work,” she says. “As a rule, the right answers will come if you stop for a minute to consider where you are in your career, where you want to go, who you need to influence to get there,” she says.

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