“HELP! My new hire dresses like a slut!”

inappropriate dressIt happens again. The new front-desk attendant arrives to work in a low-cut, short, form fitting dress. She’s only been with the team for 3 months but everyone in the office has noticed.  Patients notice too. Some whisper about it in passing. Others make passive-aggressive comments out loud. The new girl doesn’t seem to notice. In fact, she seems completely oblivious to the issue.  What do you do?

There comes a point in every manager’s career when they have to have an uncomfortable conversation about workplace attire. Whether the concern is about clothing that is too revealing, too sloppy, or too casual, intervening tactfully is critical. Here are 10 keys to addressing inappropriate workplace dress.

Start with empathy.
Imagine that moments after reading this article you get called in to your boss’s office. S/he tells you that your workplace attire is inappropriate. It’s not professional enough, they say. Or it’s too revealing. How are you feeling? Shocked? Embarrassed? Confused? Paranoid? You might be thinking “that wouldn’t happen to me” and that’s my point.

You firmly believe that what you choose to wear to work is perfectly appropriate. If this conversation happened you’d feel blindsided. That’s important to keep in mind as you approach this conversation. The offending party probably sees no issue and will likely experience many of the emotions listed above.

Refer to policy.
Many organizations have dress code policies in place. If yours does, good, you’re on firmer legal ground. Pull it out, review it prior to your conversation, and be prepared to use policy language to express your concerns.

Don’t be passive-aggressive.
In management and leadership workshops I’m always amazed at the lengths people will go to to avoid these kinds of prickly conversations. Send an email, they say. Make a general announcement at a staff meeting. Ask one of her friends to say something to her. Tell her that a patient complained. Or the VP. I get it. This is an uncomfortable conversation. But there’s no getting around that. Accept it. You’re the manager. Sometimes the job calls for uncomfortable conversations. That’s why they pay you the not-so-big bucks. I recognize that these approaches are appealing because they seem to, in some small way, minimize the discomfort the employee will undoubtedly experience. But these kinds of approaches fail to address the issue at hand.  Instead plan to speak directly with the employee about your concerns.

Consult with HR.
This is an issue that is all too familiar to HR professionals from all walks of life. If you need to have one of these conversations with an employee reach out to your colleagues in HR for guidance. They can advise you on policy as well as on how to navigate the conversation. Additionally they can prepare you for appropriately documenting the conversation. This will be important if the behavior continues and HR needs to become more involved down the line.

Consider including a third party.
In some cases it may be necessary to ask a third party to act as a witness for the conversation. This should almost always be another person in a position of authority. In a medical practice I advise managers to have this conversation one-on-one whenever possible, but if a third party is necessary to utilize one of the physicians. It should never be a peer of the employee.  

Be direct and specific.
You can preserve the dignity of the party involved by being direct, being clear about your concerns, and acknowledging the mutual discomfort. Consider starting the conversation this way: “I need to speak with you about something that is difficult for me to say, and may be more difficult for you to hear.” Outline the specific ways the person’s dress does not align with workplace expectations.

Don’t make values judgments.
The sentiment expressed in the title of this piece (“my new hire dresses like a slut!”) is a values judgment. So too is telling someone to dress “less sexy” or “more conservative.” These kinds of descriptors are not only ambiguous, but leave you open to accusations of discrimination or harassment. Instead choose language that specifically details what they need to stop doing or start doing in accordance with the policy and workplace expectations.

Remember: don’t assume malice. In most cases the person isn’t lazy, or self-absorbed, or slovenly. They probably just have different tastes, styles, habits, and understanding of what is appropriate at work.

(Note: The title of this post is the word-for-word question I got from a front-line manager. I don’t mean to suggest for even a moment that anyone whose work attire doesn’t conform with policy deserves to be called names).

Confirm understanding.
Once you’ve outlined your concerns give the employee a chance to respond. Use open-ended questions whenever possible. For example, instead of asking “Do you understand?” (A YES/NO question) ask “What questions do you have for me?” This dialogue should allow you to determine whether or not the employee has heard and fully understood what needs to change.

Document.
Remember the old adage: Hope for the best, plan for the worst. While we certainly can hope that a single conversation will correct the issue, that’s not always the case. Appropriately documenting your conversation is an important step, should the issue continue.  Consult with human resources for your organization’s documentation protocols.  In general I advise sending an email to the employee immediately after the meeting summarizing what was discussed and including what specifically they have been asked to change.

Follow-up
Don’t make an awkward conversation more awkward by pretending it never happened. A gentle follow-up in the days after the initial conversation can go a long way to thawing the discomfort created by the issue. Ask the employee if they have any additional questions or concerns. If the employee received the feedback well consider thanking them for their professionalism.

And one more thing… Be sure you are addressing an inappropriate dress issue, and not just a difference in style. I had a colleague once who wore what others referred to as “track suits” to work every day. They weren’t very stylish, but they weren’t inappropriate either.

Help! Is a regularly occurring series of posts where I respond to real healthcare managers and the people management challenges they face every day. Do you want to submit a HELP! Question? Email me and I may feature your question on the blog!

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