How to Handle the Fashion Offender in the Workplace

When employees' attire is less than appropriate, managers have to step in to make sure the office environment stays professional.

NEW YORK ( MainStreet) -- Most companies allow employees a little leeway when it comes to fashion -- especially on Fridays, holidays or bad weather. For employees, getting out of a suit or high heels for a day can be a real relief, but what's a manager to do when every day at the office starts to look like a day at the beach? When workers start dressing inappropriately, experts say it's time to step in for what may be a difficult conversation. Whether an employee is dressing too casually, too skimpily or just downright unacceptably, we've got tips on how to handle the situation without overstepping your bounds.

Fashion may be an individual choice, but when discussing wardrobe issues, managers have to be careful "not to let the conversation get personal," says Robert Hosking, executive director of staffing firm OfficeTeam.

Any discussion about attire must remain business-focused, Hosking says, but before an employee is addressed one on one, managers need to ensure that their company dress code is clear and specific enough that employees know what is expected. If the dress code is laid out plainly in the company handbook, a manager's next step should be to post a memo for all staff members to review.

When gentle reminders don't seem to work and a specific individual needs to be addressed, it's wise to get the HR department involved, "as they can provide advice to help you manage that conversation," Hosking says.

"Companies need to be diligent about enforcing the dress code," he says. "If one employee gets away with ignoring the dress code, others will soon follow, or they will resent the employee for breaking the rules and getting away with it. Either way, it's best to address the issue immediately to avoid escalation."

According to a recent OfficeTeam survey, 80% of executives say that clothing choices either "significantly" or "somewhat" affect an employee's chances of earning a promotion. That may be the only point a manager needs to bring up when addressing workplace attire, says Dana Manciagli, career expert and author of Cut the Crap, Get a Job.

"All employees want to get promoted, make more money and be treated with respect at work. It is safest to provide attire feedback when positioned against these objectives," Manciagli says. "You can even start the conversation by asking 'John, are you interested in getting promoted or taking on more responsibility, leading to higher earnings?'"

Even if the conversation is one you'd rather not have, Manciagli says it's a manager's role to engage in this type of discussion.

"Ask them, 'Can I give you feedback about ways I think you can move up faster?'" she says. "Incorporate attire, but add something else, too. 'Sue, you have a great smile and I encourage you to use that in your interactions so people see your friendlier side. And what we wear influences the perceptions that people have about us. Have you considered altering your work attire slightly to send the message that you want to move up?'"

No matter how you approach the initial conversation, John Greene, president of CSB Training and chief operating officer of Collaborative Consulting, says that it's best to deal with the situation swiftly.

"Make sure you tell them what the consequences are if they don't do what you're asking," Greene says. "Stick to it. If you tell them they will be fired if they don't clean up their act, and then they don't clean up their act -- fire them. This may sound harsh, but you will lose credibility if you back down and let them get their way."

Greene says it's best to err on the side of caution when managers are addressing employees of a different sex.

"It's better to have women confront women or men confront men on issues of skimpy or revealing clothing, not just because they relate better on dress but also from an HR perspective -- it helps keep the company out of potential legal hot water," Greene says.

No matter if the employee in question is male or female, Greene says it's important to be honest.

"Explain to them why it's inappropriate, makes people feel uncomfortable and hurts performance," he says. "It's never fun but, as a manager in these situations, you are not your employee's friend -- you are looking out for the performance of the company and for the other workers who are affected."

Keep in mind that not all employees with attire issues are trying to be relaxed or fashionable, says Robyn Dizes, manager of career development services at Peirce College in Philadelphia.

"In some cases, there may be certain issues that need to be addressed. These could include financial constraints that are withholding the employee from dressing the way they should or may wish they could," Dizes says.

Also, keep in mind that some employees have religious beliefs that may require they dress a certain way. Because of this, conversations about attire should be never be conducted in a group setting, Dizes says, and in some cases, visual examples may need to be shared about what is and isn't appropriate.

"Emphasize to the employee that the recommended attire is in line with the company's mission statement and culture," she says. "These methods will allow you to illustrate the importance of perception and what is expected and necessary to convey the right level of professionalism in a given workplace."

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