You Can’t Wear That! Dealing With An Employee Who Dresses Inappropriately

Sarita Harbour

If you’re a small business owner with staff, at some point you’re going to have to deal with a sticky, employee-related situation. Whether it’s an employee who’s always out sick, staff who look for sneaky ways to abuse benefit privileges or team members being careless on social media, your people may make choices that don’t suit your business—including what they wear to work.

It’s a situation no business owner wants to face, but you and your employees may not be on the same page when it comes to appropriate work attire. As workplace dress codes continue to get more casual across the country, business owners and their staff may struggle to determine what’s acceptable to wear at work and why.

Use these tips to determine how to communicate with staff when an employee dresses inappropriately.

1. Have an answer for ‘Why Can’t I Wear This?’

It’s important that all members of your staff understand why certain clothing items or styles aren’t acceptable in your workplace, and that sometimes it’s about more than just making a good impression. For instance, if you work in an environment with machinery, tools, heavy equipment or other potential dangers, inappropriate clothing may not adequately protect  your workers. Even worse, some clothing, such as wide, loose sleeves, may interfere with equipment and pose a safety hazard.

2. Send out reminders when necessary.

Sometimes, the best way to deal with a minor “wardrobe infraction” is to post a reminder list on the wall in the break room or send out a simple company-wide email reminding your staff of the expected dress code. This subtle reminder may be all that’s required to get the attention of the specific offender, plus any others who may be tempted to stray toward inappropriate clothing choices for work. If this doesn’t work, though, prepare to talk to the staff member in question.

3. Be really specific about acceptable work clothing.

When communicating to your employee about what is and isn’t acceptable attire, be as specific as possible. Explain that what they’re wearing isn’t safe while working at a lathe, for example. Also prepare to clearly explain what’s included in any terminology you use. Instead of saying that your employee should avoid “casual wear,” specify that they should avoid “weekend casual wear” and list the clothing items that are included in this category.

For example, your non-acceptable “weekend” casual wear list could include:

  • Athletic shoes
  • Flip-flops
  • Sweatpants or yoga pants
  • Hats
  • Hoodies and sweatshirts
  • Halter tops
  • Crop-tops (belly-baring shirts)
  • Jeans

And your acceptable “business casual” list could include:

  • Khakis
  • Cotton trousers
  • Skirts
  • Blouses
  • Polo shirts
  • Pullover sweaters
  • Cardigans

The key is to clearly communicate to all your staff what is and isn’t acceptable work attire.

4. Understand the do’s and don’ts for talking about inappropriate clothing.

Before you talk to your employee about his or her clothing choices, review this list of what to do and what to avoid.

Do

  • Make the conversation easier by preparing. Make sure you are well-versed on your company dress code, and more importantly, that your dress code is legally compliant.
  • Choose a private setting to talk to the staff member, so you can address the issue without embarrassing them in front of others.
  • Choose your words carefully. For example, “I’ve noticed your clothing choices, which, though they may be appropriate outside of our office/shop/business, are not in keeping with our dress code. I’d appreciate your cooperation in making some minor changes.”
  • Introduce your meeting as a time clarify your dress code and make sure your employee understands it.
  • Be specific about the problem. For example, “The shoes you’re wearing expose your toes, so they don’t meet the safety requirement of closed-toe shoes in our dress code.”

Don’t

  • Attend alone, especially when speaking with an opposite-sex employee. Bring in another staff member.
  • Make it a personal attack on the  person’s character. This is about the clothing they wear at work, not an attack on their lifestyle, religion or political choices.
  • Use the word “improve.” If you do, it may sound like you’re dealing with a performance issue.

5. Have “The Talk” with your employee.

If an employee wears something inappropriate after you’ve sent out a group email, it’s time to talk specifically to them. Keep in mind the information from tips three and four, and act quickly.

“Don’t delay taking action—even if just verbally and even if you learn of the infraction long after it occurs,” says human resources attorney and counselor Charles Krugel. Clearly point out any dress code violations plus how to remedy them.

Discussions about acceptable workplace clothing can be uncomfortable. They require a sensitive and delicate approach. To keep inappropriate clothing at work from becoming an extended issue, the best strategies are to head it off before it even starts and address any wardrobe infractions immediately.

Don’t miss more useful information: If you’re looking for creative ways to deal with employee issues as a small business owner, sign up for the weekly Small Biz Ahead Newsletter. You’ll receive helpful tips and smart strategies for managing and leading happy and productive employees.

23 Responses to "You Can’t Wear That! Dealing With An Employee Who Dresses Inappropriately"

    • George W. Langford | May 9, 2017 at 7:19 pm

      thank you

    • Mouse | April 18, 2018 at 9:45 pm

      While some of this may be acceptable advice, I would put much of this not the way to skillfully manage people.

      This is a bigger issue with your company, if this is how you address issues.

      As your employee, I would take huge offense to these approaches.

    • Richard Murray | April 18, 2018 at 10:31 pm

      I think you are coming at this in the wrong way – however, you didn’t need to tell us your five tips because they are pretty much typical and standard.

      I have found a different way that has worked for me, but can also get me into trouble with the opposite sex as times have changed, so I have to be careful

      1. Occasionally complement an employee on their new look or outfit and do this within ear shot of others.

      2. During team meetings indicate an appreciation of how professional everyone looked when a potential client made a visit and the value to the company of that visual.

      3. The way people look and dress depends on their particular job and the degree that they integrate with other employees and clients during the workday.

      4. Continually emphasize to employees the importance of their work to the success of the company. You don’t always have to mention appearance as it becomes an obvious aspect.

      5. Use your employment interview session to describe what is expected of each employee for the health and vitality of the company. You need to be clear about this and this is a time to outline the do’s and don’ts that make up a company’s success ratio.

      6. If casual wear can get the job done, why worry. If clients do not come to the office, relax a little. When an important client is scheduled to visit, let everyone know in advance.

      7. What you want in a productive office is harmony, production, efficiency, team spirit…dm

    • michelle | April 19, 2018 at 12:11 am

      This resonates with me but in a different way. I live in Portland, OR where work attire has become far too casual, even sloppy. I just signed some loan documents brought over by a bank employee who frankly looked horrible. Baggy jeans, dirty hiking shoes, crummy shirt, he wasn’t even clean shaven. I was appalled. I know his boss well, and I am a shareholder in this small community bank. How do I tell his boss I wasn’t impressed?

    • Sara Archer | April 19, 2018 at 6:34 am

      Thank you this was very helpful.

    • Deb | April 19, 2018 at 8:24 am

      How to address tattoos? We are a medical facility and our policy states – any visible tattoo must be covered. The staff wear long pants most of the time but occasionally wear capris – then the tattoo shows. I understand I need to talk to him/her but can you help me with the correct verbiage. Thank you

    • Mike McCarthy | April 19, 2018 at 9:45 am

      Decorum…it’s that simple.

      And while this may not fly everywhere, businesses of any size have background leaders whether they know it or not. They tend to fly above the fray and gossip, and are respected. But are more discreet, still in the grapevine and know things most managers don’t about a business’ underlying operation. The “corporals” of a platoon so to speak. They notice the little things…

      A quiet comment to this respected “corporal” who would be closer to the “offending” employee might bring about the necessary change without being so direct in a formal superior/subordinate relationship.

      Of course, this takes a tremendous amount of trust, and as I said might not fly everywhere. But I have found peer pressure works in places where more direct means would only make matters worse.

      MM

    • Sharon | April 19, 2018 at 10:02 am

      Deb: stick with the conversation that references the policy for your medical facility. I have run medical facilities for years and casual has been redfined by some, to sloppy, grungy by some generations. This is easy, no tattoo’s visible is NO TATTOO’S VISIBLE, period.

    • Romina | April 19, 2018 at 10:20 am

      These are great tips, but can anyone advise how to approach someone who’s clothes are appropriate but smells really bad?

    • Sharon | April 19, 2018 at 12:16 pm

      Actually I had an employee who’s smell was so severe, that we had moved her desk multiple times. When she was out of sight, employees would spray her chair with a neutral scent. No one would use the bathroom after she was in it, because of the smell. Here’s my experience, hang on tight, it’s a doozy, but may help you to expect the unexpected.

      I had a private conversation with her, complementing her dress, asking if her desk location was working for her, she said yes. I asked about how she was doing with everyone in the office. She said they don’t talk to me much. I then asked if I could talk to her sincerely and explain one concern.

      I relayed the smell concern and that I was worried about her health. I knew her mother was an uncontrolled diabetic and maybe she was too, but I didn’t say that. So for this conversation, knowing she was appearing clean daily, probability lead me down this path. She subsequently saw a physician, and returned to tell me to go to hell. She left shortly thereafter.

    • Linda | April 19, 2018 at 12:30 pm

      I have a “big/tall” employee who is working very hard to lose weight and now his pants are hanging off his butt most of the time with his crack exposed when he bends over. He is of the age when that style was popular when he was in high school so, I don’t think he is aware most of the time that he is “exposed”. I recently pointed out that he needed to pull up his pants and he chuckled and said sorry he was “smiling”. I know he is sensitive about his size and he is a great guy, I am just at odds as to how to address this further without embarrassing him. Has anyone had to deal with this issue and how did you approach your employee?

    • Catherine | April 19, 2018 at 12:36 pm

      I am practice manager for physician office in Plano, TX. When employee is hired, the physician and
      I advised the new employee that per our office policy they can not show any tattoo’s nor can they were
      any scrubs that are stained, torned (have holes) or have skull with cross and bones. We are in medical professional and we are the face of the office to the patients and should be professional in our appearance.

    • Marti | April 19, 2018 at 1:00 pm

      I am with Romina,
      We have a similar problem with odor. I have had others in the building comment about the odorous person. So far I clean constantly and use fragrance deodorants that you plug in the wall. I was hoping this might indirectly help the conscience kick in for this individual but to no avail.
      Help!

    • Lori A Yaphe-Delisle | April 19, 2018 at 2:40 pm

      I had this happen once years ago in an environment where everyone was expected to dress professionally. Suits were the norm.

      One of my employees frequently wore clothes with hems coming out, buttons missing, dirty cuffs, torn shoes etc… this was a sales position and although she was inside sales, it was still office professional.

      I counseled her, wrote her up, tried to motivate her with “gift cards” to nicer stores for meeting sales goals etc… then on a trip to Asia with my sister who was in the clothiing industry we had a conversation about this. She told me she had a similar employee and on casual Friday would wear super short shorts, when others were dressed in walking shorts. BTW she was an executive for an outdoor apparal co. … she said “I’ve come to the conclusion that what some people see in the mirror is not what I see when I look at them, so in this case I had to make a list of what she was “allowed” to wear and what she was not and then enforce it by sending her home if she didn’t follow it.”

      It can be very demotivating to have to do that for both the employer and the employee but sometimes you have to take that hard line. You cannot always worry about someone’s feelings when they just aren’t getting it. You don’t have to be mean but you do have to stress the importance of the dress code.

      And I am a big fan of the suggestion of discussing expectations in an interview up front, so everyone knows what is expected.

      Regarding “smells” that’s a tough one and is embarassing for the employee but it’s important to counsel them gently and let them know that it has come to your attention that there is offensive odors and possibly there needs to be a change of “deoderant brands”….that maybe this one is just not compatible with their chemistry.

    • Ronald Wohl | April 19, 2018 at 4:51 pm

      Employees must continually be made aware of what is appropriate to wear and what is not. This goes for regular employees and part-time and temporary employees, including those supplied by a temporary personnel agency or contract employer organization. Remember what is acceptable to one generation may be totally repulsive to another generation. It is better to have a descriptive policy that has been written and approved by your legal team in advance and posted on your employee bulletin board and in the employee personnel policy manual. The posting should give examples of what is appropriate and what is not. Everything should be written in clear sensitive plain English.

    • Michele | April 19, 2018 at 7:50 pm

      I run a financial services firm and have struggled with this for years. I have an extensive employee manual which lists appropriate and non-appropriate attire. If my policy is not followed, I write up an employee. Period.

      We have become far too slack with what is defined as appropriate work place attire. Client facing roles in particular need to present a certain level of decorum.

      I believe that if your employees don’t like the policies or are offended, as stated by Mouse, then they can seek employment elsewhere.

    • Jamie | April 19, 2018 at 10:53 pm

      michelle in Portland – tell the bank supervisor that you almost did not sign the paperwork that was delivered by the slovenly dressed person because you did not believe that he actually was a banking professional.

      I have needed to address these issues in Church (for my readers and other ministers), and I’ve found that it is SIGNIFICANTLY easier to have members of the same sex address clothing issues than to have the opposite sex criticize wardrobe choices.

    • Sherry | April 20, 2018 at 12:00 pm

      One possible solution …company purchased shirts with the logo! For an employee who may have a financial strain in upgrading their wardrobe, you have now provided a convenient solution. I run a small company so budget wise it really isn’t going to break the bank. Promote it as an additional benefit that allows for a team look! Have long and short sleeve options, not all the shirts have to be the exact same; style and color the employee can pick. Wearing the company shirts can be optional and when employees visit job sites it provides identification and advertising.

    • Monirah Bacnik | April 22, 2018 at 12:15 pm

      We see this a lot with our clients! I love this article. Often, it’s a matter of how you’re communicating the message. Why their attire matters, instead of “this is not allowed”. We create videos for employers to communicate hard topics like this with their employees. We have a specific video on this topic because it is a growing issue amongst the Millennial population especially.

      We build these videos so that employers can have a casual conversation with their employees to help them understand what is acceptable. I hope this helps some of you.

      What to wear in the workplace: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E7SGpqV15cI

      I saw some posts about employees who smell. I would suggest hiring a personal coach for these employees. Often it helps bringing in a third party to work with the employee and helping them understand how a certain behavior effects others and their own personal brand. I know a great coach who knows the corporate world very well; she also travels. I have her website below if anyone is interested.

    • Darla | April 23, 2018 at 11:13 am

      Regarding the smelly employee, my partner has had the talk on several occasions with different employees and usually says something in private like “I don’t know if you’ve changed brands or something but I think your deodorant is giving out on you during the day.” Very embarrassing but effective. I have a question regarding male employees wearing makeup (eyeliner and glitter perhaps not removed from after-hours activities) in a professional office environment where client interaction is common.

    • association executive | April 27, 2018 at 11:50 am

      “No flip-flops, work boots, bathing suits, torn or holey clothes (esp jeans), midriff-exposure or sexually-explicit/exposing attire. If the President of the United States or the Chairman of the Board of (our national professional society) stopped by unannounced, would I (your boss) be embarrassed by what you are wearing?”

      We also had another clothing-related policy that was implemented after repeated, unwanted comments about short, tight, new, pretty and/or frilly dresses: “When you are tempted to comment on someone’s attire, whether man or woman, say ‘I like your tie!'” No man has ever complained of sexual harassment when a co-worker admired his new silk tie! It always made people laugh.

    • Jim poesl | June 5, 2018 at 1:29 pm

      I have had this problem, and have gotten around it by requiring that everyone is clean and I have supplied company uniforms. I’ve let the employees pick out the style. I also have the added advantage of working in an industry that requires certain special clothing and have communicated the expectations well in advance before hiring.

    • Alphonse Nicolia | September 11, 2018 at 10:16 pm

      My brother is taking me for the first tattoo tomorrow so excited

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