When employees dress inappropriately

Ever been faced with an employee that came into the office dressed as if s/he was ready for a night on the town? Or perhaps the person jumped out of bed, rushed into work, and arrived in pajamas?

Several years ago, I was working with a client in the banking industry, and — this is a true story — the teller who worked behind a remote drive-through window wore her pajama bottoms to work. It wasn’t that she was rushed (which was my naive reaction, assuming perhaps she didn’t want to be late); she explained that the building she worked in was cold and since no one could see her sitting down, she opted for her snuggly, flannel pjs that morning.
Dogs don't have to worry about following the dress code. But wearing the right thing at the right time has its advantages, something employees should keep in mind when they resist wearing what would serve them the best, even if they don't like it. This bright orange vest could save Grace's life. When employees understand how their image impacts their effectiveness, it can help steer them to the right wardrobe choices, too.
Dogs don’t have to worry about following the dress code, but wearing the right thing at the right time has its advantages. Employees could benefit by understanding how their image impacts their effectiveness, which in turn could help steer them to the right wardrobe choices.

So that’s an extreme situation and most employees do grasp what is appropriate to wear and what’s not. Yet there seems to be the ongoing occasion when a manager needs to have that uncomfortable and awkward discussion that the outfit is out of line.

I got to thinking about this as I watched Grace run through the woods this week with her bright orange vest, designed to help others see her for what she really is (a dog, not a deer as it is hunting season in New England). This is an annual ritual for our fall walks, and we’ve found other benefits to her high visibility in the woods. Thankfully, Grace does not resist this attire, which probably seems quite odd to her. But if she did, I would insist she wear it, because I know it’s the right thing for the situation. That’s the decision for a manager, too. Even when you and an employee disagree on style, you need to be firm about the right choices for the position and the organizational needs.

We all know that the choices we make in our wardrobe reflect our personal style. Some individuals feel best in tailored, formal attire, while others lend towards casual and comfortable, and well, warm. So that bank teller that wore pajamas to work? I’d say it’s time for a talk.

As regular readers know, whenever possible, I encourage flexibility in these types of situations, allowing employees to make as many of their decisions as possible, without imposing strict and rigid rules that limit everyone, in an attempt to prevent the rare offending incident. But when the line is crossed, a manager needs to step in and re-align the boundaries, for everyone’s benefit.

Like any communication between a manager and employee that involves opposing views, the key is to work to understand the other view. Your job as a manager is to establish the expectations for what you want (in this case, professional attire), but to be effective, it’s best to enter the conversation with a curiosity about how the other person sees the same situation.

I’m not saying you need to bend (assuming that you are being reasonable). But until you understand more about the motives, it’s likely you won’t change the behavior. It could be they don’t have the same sensibility of professionalism; if that’s the case, you’ll need to help them see the differences in what you see and what you expect. In the pajama example, maybe the heat could be turned up a few degrees, but if it’s already within a normal temperature range, you need to hold the person accountable to find suitable warm clothes.

There could be a host of reasons why the person dressed the way they did. You might see their appearance akin to a Halloween costume (think pink hair), while they may find it completely acceptable. It’s not about right or wrong; it’s about what’s appropriate for the situation.

Perhaps the employee is struggling financially and that’s the reason she wears the same suit multiple times a week. Working together on a plan to address this will go a long way to create employee loyalty versus having a disgruntled or embarrassed employee.

The tastes and preferences of you and your employee may always remain on opposite ends of the spectrum. That’s ok, as long as the employee is able to see and fulfill the expectation needed for the role while at work. The goal is for the employee to understand how they fit — and how their appearance impacts that fit — to the needs of the organization and it’s clients.

What stresses you out about dress issues in your workplace? What advice would you give to a manager or an employee to work through this?

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