What do you when … your employee is dressed inappropriately?

Sticky situations

Employee dress codes have definitely relaxed over the years, but what do you do when an employee’s choice of dress becomes a distraction in the workplace?

“Did he sleep in those clothes?”
“Check out the outfit on Patty today — can you believe it?”
“Are they coming to work or going out to do yard work?”

Unfortunately, many of the workers in today’s environment don’t know how to dress, or choose to make unfortunate clothing choices and it falls to us, the business owner, to help them to understand what it’s costing them, and what they need to do about it.

There are a number of different issues with the ways employees dress. There is the person whose appearance is a distraction — people who come to work dressed for the beach, nightclub or magazine photo shoot — or people who are just sloppy or overly casual. Then there are the rebels, those who need to express their individuality through their “look”. All are inappropriate for different reasons, but each has the same impact. Their appearance distracts from their ability to effectively influence others.

— Related content: What NOT to wear to the office

All of these scenarios create an unnecessary hurdle for the employee. Before people can hear how smart or effective they are (the thing that most people want to be “known for” in the workplace) people first have to get over appearances. How the employee looks is speaking so loudly that what they say isn’t getting across.

And if you make an issue out of what the employee is wearing, it can create a defensive reaction. Instead, employees need to hear that the way they look is holding them back. Can you have a discussion with them about, “Do you want to be remembered for your leather pants, or for you smarts and insights?” We need to help employees be more self-aware and understand how their dress is affecting the way others see them, and choices that we will make about their career. “We may not invite you to certain client meetings because your appearance could distract from the business we need to get done.” For most career-minded folks this conversation is enough, and they will see the light.

Improving Employee Relations: Solutions to 5 employee problems

For some folks, you need to be more direct. If someone’s appearance is distracting from the efficiency of the whole office and it’s all people are looking at or talking about, it’s appropriate to send that person home. “You are dressed in clothes that are designed to get people to pay attention to you, but we need them to pay attention to work. Please come back dressed in a more appropriate manner.”

But there may be people on your team who don’t know how to dress; they haven’t learned what business dress looks like. I have a client who keeps some catalogs around from conservative retailers and he will say to his team members, “These are some examples of office dress, clothes that won’t detract from your ability to influence clients and co-workers. Take a look at these clothes, stop by one of their retail locations and let the sales consultant help you pick out some different clothes.”

While clothes can be a barrier, some folks can pull off anything, like individuals who are so brilliant that after the conversation about their “rock star” look dies down, their ideas come to the forefront. It’s OK to tolerate a wider range of dress from them — they’ve earned the right to be different. But even they need to understand they are making it harder for themselves. The look means that they have to deliver at a very high level in order to overcome that first impression.

How do you handle different “looks” in your office?

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  1. Noemi Pripon says:

    can i ask something? Today my boss told me to dress like „a naughty school girl” (i work in a bar as a glass collector). All the girls will be dressed like that. I do not want to dress like that, with a short skirt and a nude belly…I am felt up by guys even in my normal uniform (t-shirt and jeans). My boss told me that I should reconsider my job, even if i told him i will work with pants on, not a short skirt. Am I the problem?

    • Noemi;

      You are not the problem.

      While your employer can ask you to wear a uniform, anything that makes you feel uncomfortable about the appropriateness of what you are wearing is not OK.

      What you are describing is a “hostile work environment” where the work place norms make you so uncomfortable that you cannot effectively work. While the law may provide you with some recourse in this situation it’s lengthy and often unsatisfying. Your boss has proven he doesn’t care how you feel; it might be best to just move on!

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