Dear Addi P.,
One of my employees regularly comes to work dressed inappropriately according to our dress code policy. They don't have a professional appearance, and they are client-facing. How do I have a productive conversation that will get this employee to adhere to our dress code?
— Covering Eyes in Illinois
Dear Covering Eyes,
Seeing an employee show up at the office in clothing more suited to a morning at the gym or a night out than to a day at work can certainly leave you scratching your head. While you may feel exasperated about the situation, it's important to approach it calmly and tactfully.
Make Your Case
Speak to the employee directly and say you'd like to meet one-on-one, or consider having an HR professional present. Don't call them out in front of coworkers or clients. No matter what you may be thinking about this employee's judgment in choosing what to wear to work, stick to a nonjudgmental tone when you address the issue.
Get right to the point. Say that this person's attire is unacceptable and that you need to discuss what can be done to fix it. Relate your points back to the company's written dress code, which can help prevent it from feeling like a personal attack. Have a copy of your employee handbook with you so you can review it with the employee. If you don't yet have a written dress code policy, now is certainly a good time to consider creating one.
If the employee immediately agrees and suggests a remedy — for example putting on a jacket, pulling a scarf or tie out of a desk drawer or going home to change — that's great. But if there is resistance, explain why you must insist that the dress code be followed. Remind them that clients often view employees' appearance as a reflection of a company's professionalism and competence. Coworkers might also find the employee's appearance distracting or a source of resentment.
If the situation can't be easily and quickly resolved, you may have to temporarily move the employee to a non-client-facing workspace or send them home for the day.
While your company should implement a dress code policy that's consistent with your brand and culture, you might consider whether there's room for a little flexibility. Cultural and generational attitudes about dress can differ. If these issues come up in the conversation, hear the employee out. There may be areas where you can compromise a bit without lowering your standards.
Make sure you're not being unnecessarily rigid because of your own personal tastes or biases. Ensure you eliminate any ethnic, religious or gender bias from your dress code. For instance, don't just have rules against miniskirts and giant dangling earrings for female employees if the guys can get away with showing chest hair and sporting neon-colored sneakers.
It's probably a good idea to show some leniency if this is the first time you've admonished this employee about the dress code. Only take disciplinary action in the case of repeated or excessive violations despite warnings. Still, even though you're giving the employee another chance to correct themselves, it's important to state your expectations clearly and firmly.
Emphasize the employee's value to the team and to the company's mission. Let them know how eager you are to ensure that clients see them in a way that reflects the talent and professionalism you know they possess.
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