The Office Dress Code Debate: How Would You Deal With Katy Perry?

Who would have thought that pop singer Katy Perry would have kicked open a debate about what is appropriate dress in the workplace?

If you have been awake at all the past couple of years, you have probably seen Katy Perry in action somewhere — at the Grammy Awards, on her “I Kissed a Girl” video, or somewhere else. She’s over-the-top in her actions and her dress, and even her Wikipedia entry says that, “She became known for wearing unconventional style of dress, often combining bold colors and vintage fashion.”

Okay, Katy Perry has a pretty outrageous style. Anyone who has seen her knows that. So why were the producers of the PBS children’s show Sesame Street surprised when Perry showed up and performed as, well, Katy Perry on a segment for the show? And more to the point, why did they get cold feet AFTER it was taped and completed?

Here’s what happened, according to The New York Times Arts Beat blog:

Sesame Workshop, which produces the long-running PBS children’s show “Sesame Street,” said on Thursday morning that it would not show a music video planned for the coming 41st season of the series that features the pop singer Katy Perry, citing in its decision an outcry from viewers who had seen the suggestive video online.

The video features Ms. Perry singing a parody of her song “Hot ‘N Cold”  accompanied by the “Sesame Street” character Elmo. Ms. Perry, who is known for playful if sexually provocative videos like “California Gurls”, wears a low-cut dress in the “Sesame Street” video, and Elmo is seen running at the hem of her dress while they sing lyrics like, “How am I supposed to play with you?/You’re up and you’re down/You’re running around/You’re fast and you’re slow/You’re stop and you’re go.”

As any HR person could tell you, Katy Perry’s typical dress is probably not appropriate for Sesame Street. Judge for yourself from the video here.

What did the producers think they were getting?

But this raises two questions:

  1. Does Sesame Street and PBS have a dress code? Do they have standards for what performers can wear on a PBS program, and if they do, why wasn’t Katy Perry informed of this BEFORE her taping with Elmo?
  2. Didn’t the producers of Sesame Street know what they were getting when they hired Katy Perry? Have they seen her act? Don’t they know that she dresses provocatively? Did they think she would come dressed in conservative business attire? It’s like hiring someone who is heavily and visibly tattooed and then telling them when they report to work that tattoos aren’t allowed on the job.

Here’s what the producers said about their decision:

Sesame Street’ has a long history of working with celebrities across all genres, including athletes, actors, musicians and artists. ‘Sesame Street’ has always been written on two levels, for the child and adult. We use parodies and celebrity segments to interest adults in the show because we know that a child learns best when co-viewing with a parent or caregiver. We also value our viewers’ opinions and particularly those of parents. In light of the feedback we’ve received on the Katy Perry music video, which was released on YouTube only, we have decided we will not air the segment on the television broadcast of ‘Sesame Street,’ which is aimed at preschoolers. Katy Perry fans will still be able to view the video on YouTube.”

Here’s what we don’t know: did the producers of Sesame Street talk with the pop singer about her dress BEFORE she showed up for the taping? And if they did not, why not? If you book Katy Perry to appear on your show — whether it be the Grammys or Sesame Street — don’t you know what you’re getting? It’s not exactly a secret that Katy Perry is fond of wild fashions that appeal to her audience and prominently display her female assets.

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Producers get panned by PBS’s official critic

And here’s the surprise in all of that — if you watch the video that Sesame Street decided not to air, you’ll see that the pop singer actually toned down her appearance. She’s really dressed somewhat conservatively compared to her normal look, although she still is, unmistakeably, Katy Perry.

PBS ombudsman Michael Getler — who is employed by PBS to review and critique content decisions — pretty much said the same thing, although he admitted that “I didn’t know who Perry was” before this incident. He wrote:

(Perry) was dressed in a short, lime-green outfit and pronounced bustier on top that was widely characterized, and seen, as low cut; not movie star low cut, but low cut. On the other hand, if you take your child to any main shopping street or beach in America, not to mention the TV or Internet viewing they may do while you’re not around, they will see much more…

What I don’t understand, however, is how the video — which, in its cancellation, was reported on by virtually all major news organizations on all platforms and viewed probably a gazillion times on YouTube — got this far within Sesame Workshop management…

Sesame Street is not just any other children’s program; it is an iconic broadcast, often brilliant, provocative at times, and it does exist on multiple levels with parents watching along with their children. My guess is that another inch of dress on top would have produced a slightly more modestly dressed Perry and an entertaining segment that would not have produced this embarrassing controversy…

There is no way, in my opinion, that experienced producers viewing this segment as it was being shot would not realize immediately that it will offend a sizeable number of their parental viewers. Whether one considers those views to be wrong or old fashioned, why alienate them over something like this that would seem so easy to remedy in production?

I asked Workshop executives to “please explain to me how this happens and the thinking that went into the segment. Did the producer think, for example, that Ms. Perry’s outfit would not alienate some of the parents who value Sesame Street and would have watched this? If there was concern, why do it this way? Did you consider suggesting to Ms. Perry, or actually ask, that she appear in more modest attire?” If I get an answer, I’ll post it.”

Dress codes can be tricky, as any HR professional who ever had to enforce one knows all too well. There can be legal issues involved, and in my experience, they can be difficult to fairly and equitably apply throughout an organization.

More management issue than dress code problem

Do I think Katy Perry’s dress was too over the top? No, in fact it was relatively mild and sedate by Katy Perry’s usual standards. But that’s not the point. The point is that it wasn’t appropriate, at least for the producers of Sesame Street.

But this is less of a dress code problem and more of a management issue. Would you let a contractor or consultant you hire for your business come to work dressed like this, even if you knew ahead of time that this is their usual style and how they operate? How would you handle this as an HR professional since it may end up in your lap no matter what other managers in your organization did or didn’t do?

To her credit, Katy Perry tried to take the high road and not get into the politics surrounding all of this. A press representative for her wrote in an e-mail to The New York Times Arts Beat blog that, “Katy enjoyed working with ‘Sesame Street,’ Kevin Clash and playing dress up with Elmo.” On her Twitter account, Perry wrote, “Wow, looks like my play date with Elmo has been cut short!”

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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