How To Tell An Employee Her Clothes Are R-Rated?

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about grooming: We have a young employee whose dress teeters on the line of provocative

We have a young employee whose dress teeters on the line of provocative. She is very, very, sensitive and does not take criticism well. Please advise me on how to address her about this situation.

Signed, Trying to Find A Way

Dear Trying to Find A Way:

You sent some additional information, which I will use to add to our answer about this situation. I can understand that it is awkward! There are several things to consider about this, some a bit more stern sounding than others!

I’ll start with those!1. If your Director has already mentioned attire to the employee and she has not complied, then her feelings aren’t quite such a concern as they might be if she has no reason to suppose there is a problem.Think how you would be if your boss talked to you when you were a relatively new employee. You would have gone overboard to ensure that you complied with the slightest suggestion. The fact that this employee hasn’t indicates she doesn’t choose to do so.Consider this as well: What if, during her job interview she would have been asked, “Melanie, sometimes you may do something that the Director or others think should be done differently or improved upon. How would you handle critique if it was given to you in a professional manner?”She wouldn’t have said,”Well, first I’d cry about it. Then, I probably just wouldn’t do what they asked me to and hope they didn’t ask again.” And if she would have said that, she wouldn’t have been hired! If she has the bright future you mention in your update message, she needs to learn to handle critique and she needs to dress professionally, according to the environment of the office where she works. That is not asking too much and it is possible for her to do.

2. I would imagine it will create some stress for you as well as for her, so let that strengthen your resolve. She is perfectly aware of what she is wearing, how she is bending over and the impact she has. If she is as smart as you say, she absolutely knows! What she wears is no accident. At some point she looks in a mirror, like we all do, and says, “This is how I want to present myself to people.”

Your job is to ensure that the way she presents herself represents the company in a highly professional way and is not distracting or embarrassing for others. That is your decision as a reflection of the decision of the Director, and not subject to debate. She may not agree but it’s up to her to find clothes that will get your approval, not up to you to give her a list of approved clothing. That DOES sound harsh, but you know it’s true!

3. If you’re in an organization that is large enough to have an HR section that provides advice, you may want to get their input. But, only do that if they have the expertise to help, not if they are essentially payroll and benefits staff, without a background in managerial support.

4. Keep your focus on the link to work. Nothing you are asking is because of your personal taste in clothing, it is because you are responsible for ensuring the work of the office is done well and without distractions. If the Director cares enough to be involved, this is important enough to handle quickly and permanently. One employee’s sensitivities do not outweigh the good of the business–or your own reputation for being able to deal with things.

5. You can approach the conversation in a couple of ways: You can call her in and have a formal talk about it, where it is clear you have planned the conversation. Or, you can wait until she wears a problem outfit and make the conversation seem more impromptu. Either will work, according to how serious the problem is and how you want to do it.On the other hand, you also don’t want to be so casual it doesn’t seem significant, and you don’t want to sound apologetic for talking to her about it.

For example, some people might say, “Melanie, I know this is going to be awkward, and it’s not a serious thing, but I think I need to tell you that your tank top is a bit too low. I’m sure you don’t mean to show so much, but when you lean over it can be a bit of a problem. So, you really should try to not wear tops that are so low cut, etc. etc. etc.”Instead, consider being very to the point, in a big sister kind of way.

Not reprimanding just practical and breezy, but clear enough that she understand this isn’t an option, she can’t wear those tank tops anymore. Don’t let her wiggle out of it with saying she’ll try to find something better. Make it clear she cannot wear those anymore. You can do that without ordering her about or sounding mean, just be clear in your choice of words. I’m going to give you a bunch of possible phrases that might work, although the style might not be like yours. Likely you will have to say a variety of things in the course of the conversation, according to how it develops.”Melanie, I noticed when I came in today that you are wearing a tank top that shows more than you want to show.

You’re going to have to save your low cut tops and short skirts for away from the office. (Smile in a friendly way) (Your facial expression and overall tone can keep this from being  embarrassed or frustrated, as a defensive reaction. You could respond, “Here’s what we want and don’t want in the office: We don’t want a lot of the upper part of your body showing, especially when you bend over. And, we want skirts and pants to fit correctly and not be so short or tight that they attract attention in an inappropriate way. A couple of your skirts are too short and those tanks and a couple of other tops are too low cut or too tight. The red shirt you wore the other day, or a shirt like mine or Carol’s is fine. But not what you’re wearing today or anything like it.” Or, you might say, if she becomes emotional,”Hey, I know it’s frustrating and a bit embarrassing to go through this, but it’s just part of finding your way in a job. It’s no big deal as long as you take care of the situation. It will BE a big deal if you don’t, because then it looks like you’re purposely not following guidelines.”While you’re saying that, or something like it, work to keep your voice advisory, rather than bossy, or rather than sympathetic as though there is a reason for her to feel embarrassed. If she doesn’t comply you will have time to sound more stern, but for this first interview give the conversation more the tone of chatting about something that is easily taken care of and that could happen to anyone.

You might want to say, “Believe me, you are viewed as a sharp young professional woman with a great future. This is just one of those situations that can be corrected easily and you’ll move on without a hitch.” If she cries, stay brisk and understanding without being too sympathetic. “Here, grab a Kleenex. Look, I know this is awkward, but the important thing is for you to accept the critique, comply with the instructions and keep doing your usual good work. I’ll give you a few minutes to get back to your usual self, then we’ll get back to work.”If you feel you need to admonish because of her reactions or responses you might say, “Melanie, the Director spoke to you about this already, didn’t he? If you had taken his suggestions then, we wouldn’t be talking about this now. So, this is your chance to make up for that. It’s awkward, but nothing unique in a workplace. Let’s take care of it and move on.”

I don’t think she will push back too much on this, but if she does, do not react emotionally to it. Let her talk, then say, “I’m sorry you’re not handling this in the professional way I had hoped. I’m going to give you one more chance to make it right. Starting tomorrow, make sure your clothing fits the guidelines I mentioned. No tops that are low and no skirts that are too high or too tight. If you need to be told exactly what to wear, I can do that in a memo to you, but I’ll have to send that to the Director first.”

6. Keep this in mind: The conversation will be over in about twenty minutes, maybe less or maybe a bit more. But it will be over soon and you’ll have it off your mind! Try to have the conversation in the morning or mid-day, so the employee doesn’t go home and stew about it. Also, that will give you time to have positive interactions with her, even if they are a bit awkward. A conversation like this can go a variety of ways, but however it happens your most important task is to ensure she knows what she can’t do again, what she can do instead and what should stay the same about her clothes. And while you’re doing it, use a tone and demeanor that conveys friendly support.You may have to adapt all of this, but I do know this much…it is possible for this employee to dress appropriately and it is appropriate for you to ask her to do so.Best wishes with this. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.