Unpolished Problems

How to politely enforce your dresscode

Back Article Jan 5, 2015 By Suzanne Lucas

“We have a male employee whose large belly makes his shirt buttons pop open, leaving his skin exposed. We also have a female employee who has gained weight over time but has not purchased new clothing. Her tight clothing reveals her undergarments. This is a horribly awkward and uncomfortable situation, but their attire is not appropriate for the office. How should HR address this?”

Now, I confess that my immediate reaction is to say that whoever handles human resources for your company should just quit and find a new job because handling these issues is awful. It’s embarrassing for the HR person to bring it up, and it’s embarrassing for the employee to hear.

Good thing it’s not the HR person’s job. This is not because we’re wimpy. (Okay, maybe we’re a little wimpy.) It’s because, whenever possible, the manager should deal with these situations directly. It’s a manager’s job to manage, and part of managing is telling people that their clothes are inappropriate, or that they should shower more often or chew with their mouths shut. Yes, their parents should have taken care of that, but sometimes kids just don’t listen.

Of course, when an employee of the opposite gender has a clothing or personal hygiene issue, it can be more touchy. The last thing you want is for Steve the boss to say, “Hey Jane, your clothes are too tight,” and have Jane respond with a sexual harassment complaint because why is Steve looking at her chest anyway?

So, if the bosses are the same gender as the employee, the boss should handle the situation with HR support. If the boss is not the same gender, an HR person of the same gender should talk to the employee with the boss present.

Those are the logistics, but what to say? First, do you have a dress code? What does it say? Hopefully it says, “No tight or revealing clothing.”

If it does, then print a copy of the dress code and have it ready for the meeting. It doesn’t need to be a formal meeting. The manager and HR person should arrange a time when they know the employee will be in the office. The manager should stop by the person’s desk and say, “Hey John, can I see you for a minute?”

Then, no beating around the bush. Here’s your dialogue: Manager or HR person of the same gender as the employee says, “I’ve noticed that your wardrobe is often outside of company policy. Here’s a copy of the dress code (hand over paper copy). You’ll notice that tight clothing and clothing that reveals undergarments is prohibited. Do you have any questions or concerns?”

Hopefully at this point the employee will mumble, “No,” and you will never have this problem again. However, chances are good that he or she won’t have money to go out and buy a new wardrobe immediately. And if the person is always dressed inappropriately, it may be a long process that includes several reminders.

And now the cautions. Many times companies have these policies in writing, but if an employee is young, thin and beautiful no one cares. The policy may state, “No cleavage,” but the hot 22-year-old in accounting has her chest spilling out while you’re busy reprimanding the overweight 45-year-old in marketing.

You may find yourself with a legitimately outraged employee. Dress codes need to be body-type neutral. So before undertaking this adventure, ask yourself the following questions:

1. Are these the only people dressed inappropriately?

2. Does their mode of dress truly violate the dress code?

3. If there are other people violating the dress code, have they been spoken to? If not, talk to all dress code violators on the same day.

4. If it’s a big problem, consider sending out an email blast reminding everyone of the dress code, and give a date on which you’ll start enforcing. For instance, give two weeks notice and then every time you see a violation of the code, speak to the employee.

5 If it’s not a big problem, don’t do the email thing. It’s unlikely to solve the problem because you’re targeting everyone when you only have two violators. If 50 people are violating the dress code, the issue will become a topic of discussion and may just resolve itself.

If your company has no policy and doesn’t want to implement a policy, you can still talk to these inappropriately dressed employees. But don’t tell them they can’t dress the way they do currently. Instead, you say, “John, I really like your work, and I’m glad to have you on the team. I thought I’d bring something to your attention. The buttons on your clothes are often strained, revealing skin. It affects the impression people have of you. I’d hate to have people judge you based on your clothing rather than your actual skill. Can I suggest buying a few new shirts?”

Be factual and consistent. If the problem persists, keep bringing it up. If the employee states that she has no money for a new wardrobe, say that you understand but you expect her to work towards having a more appropriate wardrobe and that you’ll be following up in a month.

Keep in mind, in both of these situations, these people are not likely to be dressed in tight clothing because they enjoy it. They are either in denial about weight gain or lack the funds to buy new apparel.

Be sensitive, but do speak up. It’s part of the manager’s job.


Visitor (not verified)January 7, 2015 - 11:17pm

All great points, and I love your work across many sites. When talking about the conversation necessary between the manager and employee, I want to just point out that there is some gender/sexuality issues at work here that I would recommend you be more sensitive to when responding.
Just because someone is of the same gender does not mean this conversation is less likely to cause sexual harassment issues. If one or both of the individuals in this situation is not heterosexual/straight, there could just as easily be charges of sexual harassment stemming from this conversation. I know it sounds like I'm being really picky, but wouldn't it be better to have the same recommendation? I would say your first one was most appropriate: the manager should address this with the employee and have an HR representative present to help observe and step in if needed. Take gender out of it entirely. Always be cautious, clear and intentional in your wording, no matter the genders/sexualities of the parties.

Suzanne Lucas (not verified)January 13, 2015 - 6:48am

In an ideal world, the genders involved shouldn't make a difference. Of course, in an ideal world, no employee would be dressed inappropriately. There are definitely situations where a manager of an opposite gender can bring this type of stuff up with no problems, but unless you're confident, it's just less risky this way.

Regardless, get a witness so that the employee can't come back and accuse you of harassing when you just said, "you're violating the dress code."

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