Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about appearance: My supervisor has asked me to address one of my employees who dresses sloppy
I supervise eight employees. We work for a local government and have a lot of customer contact. My supervisor has asked me to address one of my employees who dresses sloppy. I don’t know how to professionally address this personal issue and need help initiating the conversation.
My employee has been here for over five years and is a “larger woman” who regularly dresses in very large, loose fitting clothes. Today my supervisor called them “pajama-like”. Currently, we have an appearance policy, however it is not addressed in everyone’s yearly evaluations. Help!
Signed, Dread The Conversation
Dear Dread The Conversation:
I can imagine this would be uncomfortable and awkward, but it can be handled without it being excessively unpleasant. The main thing is to just do it and get it over with so you can move on.This will be a lengthy message because this requires more than a few lines of advice! 1.) Unless your manager insists you talk to the employee immediately, talk to HR right away, followed soon after by a conversation with the employee. You want to ensure they are supporting you in this. The last thing you need is to say something, have her complain, and HR says you should have handled it differently. When you go to HR have some descriptive examples of the attire she is wearing (see if you can find an example on the Internet and print it out for them.) Show them your dress standard and explain what others wear. If there is more to it than loose clothing include all of it: Shoes that are beat down or too casual or anything else that is creating a poor appearance for a government office.I sometimes describe those as a customer service office or a customer-facing office. I also sometimes tell government office workers that they have a high impact job or work in a high impact office or high influence office. Those are terms you might want to use as well. They help explain why it is important to wear traditional fitting and appearing office attire. This has been going on for some time now and can wait until you get things lined up correctly. HR may also have had experience with this and can give you suggestions. For example, HR may say that the attire you describe is fine and if she complains they will have to support her. Or, they may give you suggestions for new dress standard. You may also want to let your boss know what you are doing. I would hope he would support it because it’s a very practical way to approach the problem.
2. Remember that you are perfectly within your area of responsibility to speak to this employee about her appearance and to guide her to change–then insist, if guiding isn’t enough. However, some situational issues will have an effect on it.a.) If other employees dress inappropriately, you can bet she will mention that–and understandably so. You don’t have to justify your instructions to her, but it would help if all employees were dressing appropriately and according to guidelines, whether they are evaluated on it or not.(And they should be.) b.) If she is having problems in other ways this issue may be viewed by her as piling it on. Again, you don’t have to justify it, but that is an issue to be aware about.c.) If you and she don’t have a good relationship, that may make this more awkward. If you have a good relationship it might be awkward but at least she knows you don’t mean badly by it. Either way, an open and non-judgmental tone will help.d.) If she is wearing now what she has worn all along, you can see why she would be shocked and hurt. This is a great example of how early intervention is beneficial. The first day she wore an outfit that looked like pajamas it would have been easier to say something.
3. If you talk to HR, tell them the approach you are planning on taking and get their agreement. Try this approach to the conversation with her, if you think it will work for you:Rather than tackle all the times she has dressed in outfits that are too loose and casual, start with the outfit she’s wearing that day that is too loose and casual and use it as an example of what is not acceptable. That will be easier on you and may be easier for her to accept.Instead of a closed door session where several years of issues are discussed, just tackle that day and treat the conversation in a business-like way as though you know she will understand. I’ll give you an example in a moment.*Resist the urge to start with an apology. At some point, she has looked in a mirror and decided an outfit was OK for work. If it seems obvious that it is NOT appropriate for work, she has used poor judgment and it’s your job to correct the situation. It doesn’t make her a bad person and likely she is not. But it does mean she needs to use better judgment. On the other hand, if after wearing that type of outfit for awhile, no one has said anything, she probably just thinks she’s lucky to be able to wear comfy clothes to work! Like a drapery sweatsuit!*You may find it easier to use what I refer to as a confidential tone, rather than a lecture tone. Talk in a normal voice instead of an authority voice. It will be more comfortable for you and less likely to cause unneeded bad feelings.*If, now and then, she has worn clothes that are appropriate and look good for the office, suggest she use that outfit as a guide. It may be that while some of her clothes are loose fitting they don’t fall into the too-casual look. So, you could use those examples as well.If she has NEVER worn appropriate clothes you may have to use your own clothing or the clothing of others as an example. If there is an office near you or a group with which she interacts, in which clothing is not like hers but is still business casual enough to be comfortable, you may want to suggest she look at their clothing choices. Don’t mention her size or use an overweight person who dresses correctly as an example.*Use unemotional words. Instead of saying something else looks better on her or that the way she dresses doesn’t look right, or that she looks too casual, focus on the outfit. (It looks too casual not SHE looks too casual.) *Don’t apologize for talking to her. It will make it seem like a reason for embarrassment. Just say it with a tone that implies you know she will see your concerns and will correct the situation on her own.The wrong way: “Jan, I’m SO sorry to have to say something about this to you and it’s really awkward for me. But, the things is….you tend to wear clothes that are too loose fitting and too casual for the office. I know we’ve never said anything but it’s something I’ve noticed quite a bit. For example, that outfit you wore yesterday was such a problem that Bill told me to talk to you. So, that’s what I’m doing. I don’t want to make you feel bad, but that’s the way it is.”She’ll probably be in tears or very angry and will storm off to HR!
Instead, “Come in to see me for a minute, will you?” Then say, “Jan, outfits like that look very loose and very comfy–but anything that looks like at-home attire or that fits really loose doesn’t look right for a government office. (Understanding smile, like, “You know what I mean.” Then, stop. Really, just stop. Don’t keep talking, but instead let her respond.) That requires you to only memorize or say about 20 seconds of text. Once you’ve said that you’re in the conversation and your nerves will go away. It’s just getting into it that’s so difficult!She may say OK. Or she may argue that it’s no more casual than many others wear or that she has worn similar things. Or she may say she just spent a lot of money on clothes and all of her clothes are going to look like that outfit. That’s difficult!You can reply, using the broken record technique to keep coming back to your main point: “Well, that outfit is so loose fitting and looks so casual, like at-home clothes, that it just doesn’t look right for a government office. We need to be wearing clothes that look like we’re here to work with the citizens that come in. The red dress the other day was perfect. So was the brown pants outfit. Something with a traditional fit is fine. But very loose fitting clothes or outfits that look more like at-home clothes are too relaxed looking for work.”If she asks why you’ve never said anything before, you can be partly honest about it, “Maybe I should have. But, I’m really noticing it now, so I’m telling you. As I said you have outfits that have a more traditional fit and look fine for the office. A very loose fit like that, doesn’t.” Stop again.If she says something else, stop the conversation and don’t keep discussing it. If HR has approved the conversation and will support you, you don’t need to fear a problem by simply saying, “Jan, you’re too good of an employee for us to have an unpleasant discussion. You and I have known each other for awhile so you know I wouldn’t be talking to you if I wasn’t serious about it. The situation is this: That outfit or any other outfit that is that loose or looks like at-home attire is too relaxed and casual for a government office like this one. I’m asking you to wear clothes that are more professional looking for our office, like the outfits you wear that have a more traditional fit and are not loose and casual.”If she insists upon continuing the argument and you don’t feel that she is adding new thoughts, tell her it might be better to have the discussion in the presence of your manager.
By that time it will warrant that level of involvement. Let him know ahead of time that you might be coming in and make sure he’ll be there!4. What if you talk to her and the next day she wears something equally loose or sloppy. Don’t let that day go by in the effort to avoid another conflict. Ask to talk to her the moment you see her. “Jan, this conversation is going to be like the one yesterday. Your outfit today is another one that is so loose and casual that it doesn’t look appropriate for a government office like ours. Let’s talk again about what is acceptable and what isn’t. Any outfit that is so loose that it drapes like that and looks like casual home attire isn’t acceptable here. Outfits that have a traditional fit and look like office attire is acceptable. You have worn those in the past, right?”This doesn’t have to be lengthy either. You just make your point and repeat it a few times. If she doesn’t seem to be clear about it or continues to argue, ask her if she would like to talk to HR about it. (Have that step approved by your manager and HR ahead of time. After this second discussion, you certainly should document the conversation. Many would say you should document the first conversation, but if it goes smoothly it seems to me that a note to your boss to record it is sufficient at that stage.) For documentation, send her an email. “Jan, I’m sending you this email to have a record of our conversation today in which we talked about what attire is appropriate for our office.
We discussed that traditional fit attire is appropriate for a customer service government office. Outfits that look very loose fitting and casual or like at-home attire, are not appropriate for an office such as ours.”You may need to give her some time to get new clothing, especially if money is a major issue. However, within a few weeks she should be dressing appropriately every day. I once suggested that a young woman add a couple of inexpensive outfits every pay day. It took her a a couple of months or so before she regularly wore appropriate clothes, but I knew we were on safer ground that way and also felt it was more fair to her financially.I know it seems almost impossible to deal with this without it being a terrible thing that will be a barrier between you two forever. However, you may find that your first confidential comment will take care of the problem.
If not, you may need to escalate this to a sanction for violating the dress standards or disobeying a directive. I hope not and I don’t think it will come to that. Whether or not it does, separate this issue from her other work. If her performance is effective in other ways, continue to value that and support it. But, don’t spend another day seeing her in something you wish she would stop wearing based on clothing standards or what you know to be reasonable for your office. It’s right for her, right for other employees and a good way to demonstrate your leadership of the workplace.If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens with this. Best wishes!
Tina Lewis Rowe