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.

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