How to Tactfully Ask an Employee to Dress More Professionally


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Thursday, June 22, 2023

What can you do when an employee isn’t dressing appropriately? Here’s some advice on how you can tell them to look more professional - without hurting their feelings.

Article 5 Minutes
How to Tactfully Ask an Employee to Dress More Professionally

For most of us, professional dress for when we're working in the office is a standard part of our working lives. Although Steve Jobs always wore jeans and Richard Branson famously eschewed a necktie, most of us mere mortals would accept that smart clothing choices are expected when we set out to do our 9 to 5.

After all, research has shown that professional presentation in the workplace can promote self-confidence and competence.

Although the standards of smartness may have decreased since the late 1980s and early 1990s when suits were de rigueur - especially since the introduction of 'business casual' and working from home - most people have a good grasp of what's suitable in a professional setting.

What if some employees don't get it?

But what happens when you're a manager and you realize that someone just isn't getting it? A time may arise when one company employee - or more - is taking Dress-Down Friday too far with inappropriate dress every day of the week.

How are you going to address the issue without hurting the person's feelings and sounding like you're attacking their personality?

Don't delay and hope the problem will go away, because this is likely to make things worse in the long run. If you let the employee come to work every day looking the same, chances are they'll be embarrassed when you do finally bite the bullet and bring it up - and they could even get defensive.

Here are some top tips on addressing the issue of dressing appropriately:

1. Make sure it's not just you

Before you start, it's really important to take a look at your own values and ensure this is a problem that lies with them and not you. Are you certain you're not creating an issue where there isn't one simply because you dislike their sartorial choices?

Remember that for you to have cause for complaint, the clothing must truly be inappropriate, in violation of the company's dress code, hindering their work, or even dangerous. Your having an irrational dislike of beige isn't going to cut it.

2. Preparation is key

Next, always ensure you're well-prepared and have concrete arguments to present to the employee in question. Although the idea of facing them may leave you wanting to squirm, this is a meeting you must hold in person, not via a memo or email. Also, consider asking a colleague to be present to act as a witness and avoid potential allegations of discrimination or harassment.

It's likely to be more helpful if you frame your points around positivity, too. For instance, you could start by saying that the person's work has been of a particularly high standard, so you would like to see their appearance more closely aligned with that.

Rather than criticizing the employee for not having professional attire or revealing too much flesh, suggest they could embrace a more polished or modest look during their working hours.

Remember too that some younger members of staff may still be adjusting to the world of work after college, so identifying with this could help. You could say, for example, that a mentor advised you on projecting a professional image when you were starting out and so you want to pass this on to a new generation of staff.

Other pointers that could assist you include:

  • Making the link between how clients and customers see staff reflecting on the company's products
  • Drawing attention to health and safety problems such as flip-flops being a trip hazard
  • Suggesting that it's easier to be taken seriously in the workplace if clothing projects a sense of confidence

Although you should be clear that you want your employees to be comfortable - and not to feel as though they need to shell out for designer business suits like they're competing on The Apprentice - you must also be firm about communicating the company's values. Don't back out and sugar-coat things in a way that might leave the employee unsure about what you mean just because this is an awkward conversation.

Always keep in mind that if this unkemptness is a sudden development, then it might point to underlying issues such as illness or something else that must be addressed first. Use your intuition and consider their previous record before you jump in.

3. Prevention is better than cure

Finally, if you want to avoid having such conversations again in future, it may be that you need to get together with HR and take a fresh look at your company's official dress code.

Perhaps there isn't clear enough communication at the recruitment stage about how exactly employees are expected to dress, which is leading to confusion. After all, buzz phrases like 'business casual' and 'Dress-Down Friday' aren't definitive and could easily be interpreted in different ways.

Having a tangible guide in the form of a flyer on the company's intranet could help in preventing future issues and everyone in the office is aligned with the company's core values. Training during orientation is also a good idea to underline this and take some of the guesswork out of first-day wardrobe decisions.

Having potentially difficult conversations with employees is something no manager is going to relish. However, doing so with tact and diplomacy should ensure that the elephant in the room is addressed before it has the chance to generate more problems elsewhere.

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Join the conversation...

25/07/2023 Mike Townsend
Great article, I find this is a difficult discussion, especially when you have people at work who have mental health issues. It is a balancing act and I guess decency is the core element to underline. Thanks for sharing this, it is a really current issue, especially after Covid and people coming back to work.