How to tell a staff member they're dressed inappropriately

What's more awkward than having to pull someone aside and talk to them about their dress? Here's how it's done.

Whether you’re in a formal environment of suits and high heels, or a laid back jeans and polo workspace, there’s inevitably one person who doesn’t quite meet the required standards. So how do you tell them they’re under-dressed?

One HR leader considers inappropriate clothing at work a “pet peeve” and said it is important to be able to explain to an individual exactly what is inappropriate – whether their outfit is too revealing, too casual or a safety risk (such as high heels in a warehouse environment) – and illustrating your explanation.

“It’s a different approach for each one of those,” Manpower San Diego President Phil Blair said. “We suggest starting with explaining that management doesn’t think x is appropriate for the workplace, and they can have pictures of what is more appropriate, he added.

Manpower has a business casual dress code, but staff help temporary workers find jobs, so tend to set a higher standard to model professional clothing and behaviour to those clients.

But it works both ways – demanding staff look professional and neat but providing them with a tatty, worn-down office sends a mixed message and could cause resentment.

Kimberly Rodin, founder of Unconventional HR, spent 13 years working in HR in the financial services industry. Dress codes required shirts, ties and dress pants for men and pant suits or hosiery with skirts for women.

When a casual Friday was introduced for summer one staff member took “casual” a little far – wearing a belly-baring fringed t-shirt. It was time for HR to step in.

Roden stresses the importance of giving feedback in private, and not making it sound like a personal attack. The emphasis is on the clothing, not the person wearing it. An advantage for Roden in addressing the issue described above was having a clear policy to fall back on.

However, in some industries HR could do better things with their time than stress over dress, she says. Unless a certain level of dress is required for meeting clients or partners, people should be able to make their own judgement about what is appropriate.

“I do think it’s industry specific,” she said. “I don’t think what we wear to work impacts our ability to do a job. If business leaders are too focused on what people are wearing, they have their priorities in the wrong place.”

Another essential step is to make sure staff understand why the dress code has been set. Jack Smalley, from Express Employment Professionals, said they make it clear from the interview stage that their professional dress code is a way to set themselves apart, add credibility and present a professional image for the company as a whole.

“They know and understand the expectations from the start. It’s a preventative approach,” he said.

Express Employment Professionals also gives staff an annual clothing allowance of $600 as acknowledgement that keeping high standards can be pricey – an idea Roden seconds when she reminds business leaders that demanding high standards from their minimum wage receptionist could be considered unreasonable. Even the on-going dry-cleaning costs can add financial stress to already over-burdened staff.

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