Sloppy Appearance

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about grooming: She looks, in general, sloppy. Her clothes are wrinkly, not tucked in, and her hair is messy.

I work in a very small company, 30 employees. We have a staff member that follows the letter of the dress code, but not the spirit. For instance, if our dress code states that you can wear a polo shirt with slacks, she wears that, but she does not tuck the shirt in. She looks, in general, sloppy. Her clothes are wrinkly, not tucked in, and her hair is messy. She does not wear make-up, which is no big deal, but it contributes to her unprofessional appearance.

I feel uncomfortable saying something to her because she is currently going through some personal issues (this was a problem long before those issues) and I don’t want to upset her or think we are making a comment based on her weight (she is obese). I do, however, know that something needs to be said. How should I approach this subject with her? I want to be sensitive and get the point across that she needs to be neater in appearance. Thank you for whatever help you can provide.

Signed, Hesitant

Dear Hesitant:

You don’t say what is you position in this small company.¬† Are you a supervisor or coworker? Nor do you say what is the type of or quality of work performed by the employee or how long she has worked for your company, whom, you describe as sloppy, obese, and going through some personal problems. Since you don’t say, I’ll assume that the job she does is not related to customer contact, that her performance is adequate, and that she has been employed at the company for tenure beyond a probationary time. If these assumptions were not the case, she would be retrained or fired. I also assume that although your small company has a dress code that you don’t have a meaningful performance evaluation. If you did, such topics as grooming, appearance, health, and employee assistance with personal issues would be part of it. I further assume that even if you aren’t her supervisor, you feel that you have some credibility in her eyes.

There are indirect and direct ways to approach these kinds of issues. An indirect approach might be to anonymously send her a book on grooming; not the dress-for-success type but the motivational kind such as chicken soup but with a personal self-help theme. That would be akin to secretly sending a package of deodorant should she have hygiene problems. It might hurt, but help and she would only wonder who was upset with her. I mention this simply to say that whatever role you have, if you feel strongly enough that this employee’s appearance adversely affects the company, someone’s got to confront and counsel her. A related semi-indirect approach is to have a committee or upper manager clarify and enlarge the dress code to include good grooming, and to bring “look smart” consultant to speak to all employees and/or to counsel each individually.

My associate workplace doctor and the most winsome and savvy woman I know, Tina Lewis Rowe, is the kind of consultant who could shape up your whole company. If you click on her name on our home page, you will access her site and see the kind of “smarts” she could bring your people. Scan her many posts and contact her to learn how she can provide for staff and personal development. She has composed a grooming and hygiene code for a company such as yours. Bringing a consultant might be part of a health improvement program that could provide incentives for stopping smoking, losing weight, exercise, and medical examinations, and it could cut company health costs. Management could mandate this.

A workplace-wide program of cleanliness, value and service such as is required for fast food franchises like McDonald’s calls for proper grooming, clean uniforms, and sanitary practices. Management can mandate a company-wide shape up program. A more direct approach to Alice could entail an interpersonal intervention, such as a boss or coworker private talking with her, probably a series of talks. They could begin with an empathic yet candid confrontation, saying, “Alice, those of us who work with you sense that you are going through some personal problems, and we don’t want to be nosy, but we feel that you need help. You apparently are not happy and that affects all of us.”

Such a frank statement should open her to one sort or another response. And a conversation could follow. Ideally this kind of private talk by a superior with an employee is part of her/his job. A superior’s mentoring each employee is manifest in on-going conversations; conversations about how it is going, what might make each day better than the last, and what is good for the individual and the company. Good and great workplaces have superiors who demonstrate they care for each employee. They nurture her/his enlargement of skills and they think with each about their careers and dreams. Coworkers can speak to coworkers in like fashion, but it is a superior who has the job of and credibility to counsel.

Managers in the past might have just wanted a pair of hands to do a job and not have to be concerned about the personal lives and dreams of their employees. Smart managers in today’s economy want their company to survive and they know that they can do that best by seeing each employee as a whole person; one with needs and dreams. If you are not a supervisor or manager, you might speak to the superior responsible for Alice, if not her supervisor, someone who has a personnel function. Firmly state that Alice needs help and an ongoing program, not just a one-shot talking to.

Do any of these thoughts make sense? If they don’t apply to your situation, I hope they will prompt you to a creative way to help. Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS, and Alice and your egos both matter and merge when you have the concern and courage to communicate that. You become her cheerleader and in turn she can see how she too can do that for your company.

William Gorden