Say hello to the season of the shorts (yes, even at the office)

Image:
A model presents a casual office wear during a ‘Super Cool Biz’ fashion show, June 1, 2011. The government-sponsored event features outfits appropriate for the office yet cool enough to endure the sweltering heat expected this summer in Japan, which is facing a potential power crunch after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami crippled nuclear power plants.Itsuo Inouye / AP

Earlier this month, the Japanese government asked office workers — known for loving formal business attire — to dress down in an effort to deal with energy shortages that have resulted for the loss of a major nuclear power plant following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

In the United States, high-energy costs and a desire to be green are also driving some employers to ask the same of their employees. But dressing down in Japan looks more like dressing up when compared to American workplaces, with most Japanese still wearing slacks and button-down shirts, albeit short-sleeved.

So what does dressing down mean to U.S. workers this summer? Say hello to the season of the shorts — yes, even in the office.

Matthew Hars, managing director of Manhattan Space, a real estate company, just instituted a policy allowing employees — including agents — to wear shorts at work in an effort to save money as energy costs rise.

“Our agents’ shorts are not only fashionable, they save us hundreds on our electric bill and help the environment at the same time,” he explained. “On cooler summer days we don’t need to blast the AC and our agents are more than comfortable.”

Other employers are following suit, turning up the thermostat on the air conditioning in an effort to deal with high-energy costs and encouraging employees to don shorts to cope with the summer heat; and at the same time fashion magazines are filled with images of short suits and short outfits, for both male and female office dwellers. It’s a perfect storm for shorts in the workplace this summer, but be careful that you don’t make a poor shorts choice, as it could lead to a career wipeout.

“Retailers are showing suits this summer that include shorts, but most of these styles would fit the Gen X or Ys,” said Sarah Hathorn, an image consultant for Fortune 500 companies. “You have to be careful to read all of the unwritten rules on how to navigate dress code guidelines in the workplace so you don’t ruin your chances for career growth.”

At Raven Internet Marketing Tools in Nashville, Tenn., employees can wear shorts any day, but there are limits.

“It’s not acceptable to wear shorts that are too revealing,” said Arienne Holland, director of communications for the firm, adding that people still have to look tidy and “put together.”

Indeed, too much fashion flexibility can create a fashion faux pas, noted Ami Ahuja, the co-founder of Grandperfumes.com who also operates stores in malls. Last summer, she allowed her staff to wear shorts and ended up regretting her decision.

“In three weeks the shorts got shorter and then more casual, like denim with holes,” she recalled. “The girls were trying too hard to make sales showing legs instead of talking about benefits of investing in a certain perfume or cologne. That started attracting the wrong crowd, so I had to let go of that casual attire.”

The slippery slope is exactly what many employers are worried about, said Rosemary Gousman, an employment attorney with Fisher & Phillips. Most companies, she said, have dress codes that don’t allow shorts to be worn at all. But when they do, she added, “they say Bermuda-type shorts is all that’s allowed. And if someone comes in with short shorts on — unless they’re a waitress at Hooters — that’s generally not permitted in the workplace because of sexual harassment issues.”

Dawn Del Russo, a fashion expert and owner of Bella Dawn boutique in Union, N.J., notes that wearing shorts at work is becoming more acceptable today, especially with all the new styles available.

“Breaking up the traditional style of a suit by mixing and matching pieces — a dark navy blazer with khaki shorts or a white linen blazer with a navy short — is how women are doing the short suit trend this year; it’s stylish and classic,” she explained.

But, she added, the biggest challenge is length.

“Stay on the conservative side,” she advised. “For, let’s say a doctor’s office, it’s best to choose a knee-length, wide-hem short in linen or cotton.”

A strong sense of fashion and style doesn’t always count. Curt Barnes, systems administrator for Palo Alto Software Inc., based in Eugene, Ore., has worn shorts almost every day of his 10-plus years with the company, and his t-shirt and denim shorts probably won’t end up in a fashion spread any time soon. He actually turned down a job offer before coming to Palo Alto because he’d have to wear pants.

But have his fashion choices impacted his career?

“I ask myself, would I have made more money or been more successful at this other place? Possibly,” he explained. “But I think in the long run I have been more successful at Palo Alto Software because I don’t think I would have stayed as long working somewhere where, on a daily basis, I was not physically comfortable, just for a few extra dollars.”

At some companies allowing shorts as options is all about creating a relaxed environment.

“We’ve found that the more comfortable people are, the more productive they can be,” said Kalen Holliday, head of the New York office for online investing site Covestor.

As for the cost of running the air conditioner, the company rents space in a New York City office building where the cost of electricity is included, Holliday said.

“But we do allow shorts because whoever does [pay for the air conditioning] is pretty stingy,” she added.

Clearly, energy costs are getting employers to encourage workers to bypass pants, but many firms also see the high cost of energy as a great way to be greener.

“We work in a shared space, and being an energy conscious group we are focused on conserving resources and keeping costs low,” said Margaux Viola, community development manager for TeamSnap, a Boulder, Colo.-based Web and mobile app company.

“Rather than wear long sleeves and pants and blast the air conditioning, we would all prefer to be more comfortable in shorts,” Viola said.

Sander Daniels, co-founder of Thumbtack.com, an online search directory based in San Francisco, likes a more informal atmosphere in the office and allowing employees to wear shorts is a part of that. But getting people to stay cool at work is an even bigger priority this year because the company moved to a bigger space and has seen its energy costs double.

As a result, Daniels has pushed the shorts idea even harder. Alas, only about half of his 11 person staff has opted to wear shorts.

“For some people that’s just not their style,” he noted.

And sometimes shorts at work are limited even at laidback Thumbtack, Daniels said.

“If a special guest, like an investor, is coming in then we tell people the day before, ‘Hey maybe you shouldn’t wear running shorts to work.’”