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Handling dress code issues in an SME environment: Hmmm, nice shorts

Unless you work in a uniformed environment, chances are that employees have quite a bit of autonomy over how to dress at your company. And quite right too. Whilst I have been involved with the occasional business that adopts a heavily word-smythed ‘dress policy’ (one even included illustrative diagrams), the majority simply allow their employees to wear what they want. And assume their staff can tell the difference between professional dressing and dressing like a professional. But what happens when it all goes a bit wrong? What’s the best way to tackle an employee with little or no dress (or common) sense?

First off, Keep Perspective (and a sense of humour!)

Sometimes senior management can find it difficult to get their heads round contemporary fashion choices. At one company I know, leather trousers where clearly en vogue at one point. This did not go unnoticed amongst others in the organisation. One manager was so moved that he exchanged a whole conversation and commentary about it with the CEO. This was in the early days of email and I am guessing that he had not meant the whole trail to be shared with all those referred to when accidentally he included several of them in one of the messages. I remember wondering if it was really worth all the agro, particularly when fashions change so quickly.

Despite everyone being able to dress in a gazillion different ways, amusingly the desire to fit in can mean many individuals start to dress like each other. I can think of one leadership team (all men) who wear the same matching outfits on a regular basis and even seem to have a universally favoured pink shirt just for Board day. Whilst, I don’t think they are consciously trying to emulate the CEO, it does seem the ASOS mentality isn’t just for teenagers.

Be Respectful – They Think They Look Great

I think it’s fair to say that my first boss didn’t really appreciate my particular sense of style. I was told that I was not allowed to wear a trouser suit or a dress to the office. But that it had to be a navy skirt suit. Can you just imagine saying this to a female employee these days? Besides, what sort of fashion advice is it to tell someone to dress like a bank clerk? I was also told to wear more makeup and offered a trip to a local hair dresser because (in their words) “you look like a mess”. Nice. Funnily enough our working relationship was never really the same after that.

Have the Guts To Have the Awkward Conversation

Two situations I’ve had to deal with however stand out as being slightly more ‘icky’. One where I was asked to ‘have a word’ with a developer about the length of his shorts at the height of summer. Another with a project manager, this time about the visibility of her suspenders. I thought initially that both of these were practical jokes. I mean it’s understandable to miss-judge your work attire in terms of shirtsleeve or hem length once in a while. But why would you willingly come to work looking like Seb Coe c.1985 unless you were doing it for charity? Or have your suspenders showing on such a regular basis that it causes someone to complain? These were no jokes however. And I spent all day working up to these difficult conversations. This is not covered in HR-school I can assure you.

In the end, I did the only things I could think of: I spoke to them individually away from everyone, I kept the conversations short and direct; I explained that it was felt that some of the clothing they wore was deemed to be unprofessional, in particular the length of short/ visibility of said-suspenders and then asked them if they could keep this in mind when they chose their next set of clothes. I explained that I did not wish to embarrass them and on the contrary, I did not want something such as dress sense detracting from otherwise stellar performance.

There is no getting around the fact that this was excruciating for both parties. If you ever have to do something like this then be prepared to accept that they will not like you for doing so. But the embarrassment soon faded and I was even given a weak smile and hello by one of the individuals. About six months later….


Photo Credit: 151133 by TaylorHerring