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Warning: Too much cleavage can be hazardous to your career.

The past year brought us two high-profile cases involving women who were deemed too sexy for their jobs.

Harvard librarian Desiree Goodwin, who holds two advanced degrees from Cornell University, charged that she was passed over for promotion 16 times because of her attire and physical attractiveness. Goodwin claimed the jobs she sought were given to women with less experience and education and that a supervisor told her she was perceived as a "pretty girl" who wore "sexy outfits."

Meanwhile, on the shores of the Adriatic Sea, Caterina Bonci, a Roman Catholic religion teacher, said she was fired from her job at a state-run school for being too sexy. (The school principal said both parents and teachers complained about her high hemlines and ample décolletage.)

"In the 14 years I had this job, I have always been attacked by my female colleagues and the rest of the staff because of my attractiveness," Bonci was quoted as saying in Italian media.

"And if you consider that at our parent-teacher meetings it was always the fathers who came to see me, one can see why I have so often been at the center of attention and a target of gossip."

Bonci failed to win her job back; Goodwin not only lost her civil case, but also received a bill for Harvard's legal costs.

Fair or not, courts around the country are upholding employers' rights to ban "sexy" dressing in the workplace.

Just how do the courts define "sexy?" According to Eric Matusewitch, deputy director of the New York City Equal Employment Practices Commission, the courts consider "sexy" attire to be clothing that is particularly revealing and of extreme fit, as well as excessive use of makeup.

To those who argue that this discriminates against women, Matusewitch replies, "The code applies equally to both sexes. So, if employers require men to dress conservatively, they can require women to avoid tight, flashy and revealing outfits as well."

But forget legalities. The cases of Goodwin and Bonci illustrate what career experts have always known: Dressing provocatively is a surefire way to sabotage your credibility at the office.

"If you flaunt your figure in a professional setting, colleagues and clients may question your judgment or make unflattering assumptions about your character," warns Susan RoAne, lecturer, author and business etiquette expert, who adds that several clients have sought her advice on how to inform employees that their revealing attire detracts from the company's image.

"After all, who wants to entrust their child to a teacher who dresses as if she'd rather be clubbing or invest their money with a financial planner who looks like she should be swinging from a strippers' pole?"

With the current "skin is in" fashions and the media full of images that suggest provocative dress is acceptable -- even desirable -- in the workplace, how can you make sure you don't cross the line? Here are some guidelines:

  • Skirts: Too little is too much. Skirt lengths should be no more than one hand-width above the knee.
  • Tops: Make sure there is at least one inch of room between body and fabric and that it is long enough to conceal your midriff. Stomach, breasts, back and shoulders should be covered. Fabric should not be overly sheer and a bra should be worn (with no straps revealed).
  • Dresses: No halter tops or cleavage-baring necklines. Avoid overly snug fits. Hemlines should hit no more than one hand-width above the knee.
  • Pants: Shun overly tight or hip-hugger pants that expose the midriff. Stick with neutral colors.
  • Shoes: Heels should be no higher than two inches; toe should be closed. Avoid strappy styles, bright colors and patterns.
  • Hair: Keep your hair sleek and off your face. Avoid the teased, over-processed look.
  • Makeup: Keep it clean and natural. Avoid heavy eyeliner or evening lipsticks.
  • "Clothing and appearance are visual shorthand," RoAne concludes. "The point is to be noticed for your business skills, not your short skirts or push-up bra.

    "If you want a job, dress the part. If you want to show off your body... well, that's what your free time is for."

    © Copyright 2005. All rights reserved. The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast or otherwise distributed without the prior written authority
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