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A word from the fashion police

4 min read


Guest blogger Joseph Grenny recently tackled the topic of the human aversion to tough talks. He provided six great tips for having those difficult conversations. I would like to advocate that human resources staffers and managers everywhere take those tips to heart and use them to talk to employees about the way they are dressing for work.

I must disclose that I am one of those self-appointed members of the rogue fashion-police  who walk through life noticing everyone’s fashion foibles. It drives me nuts to see men running around in shorts with black socks jacked up nearly to their knees, and I go crazy every time I see a woman’s pantyhose peeking out of her peep-toe shoes. If I were just a bit bolder, I would carry tickets and issue fashion citations wherever I went.

But that’s not what I’m here to write about today. Those fashion crimes aren’t unprofessional, just awfully uncool.  As much as I’d like them to be, most offices aren’t fashion houses and don’t need to be. What they do need is to be filled with people who show up in professional, work-appropriate attire — something that doesn’t happen too much of the time.

Between commuting on the Metro and frequenting D.C.’s central business-area lunch spots, I see hundreds of people each week — most of whom, like me, are either coming from or going to work. Nearly every day, I see people sporting clothing choices that are grossly inappropriate for the workplace.

Of late, the most popular offense I’ve seen is the scandalously short skirt. This crime is commonly committed by younger workers, but don’t blame it all on Gen Y because there are plenty of Gen Xers and even some sad, sad Boomers who think it’s perfectly acceptable to show a lot of leg at the office. To this I say, “Not true, ladies!” Even if your legs could rival Tina Turner’s,  show them off after work, over the weekend or on vacation, not at the office. When you head to work, your skirt should be no more than an inch or two above your knee — no exceptions.

Other common crimes include revealing too much chest, stomach or rear; dressing in overly casual apparel; wearing articles with holes, rips, stains or excessive wrinkling; confusing flip-flops for shoes; and squeezing into too-small items. And never forget the many mishaps related to bras. Just last week I saw a woman who was wise enough to wear one, but unfortunately her pick was so flimsy it left absolutely nothing to the imagination. YIKES!

It would be great if we could count on our employees and co-workers to turn up dressed appropriately each day, but clearly that dream is not going to magically become reality. Still, there is something HR folks and bosses everywhere can do — have that scary conversation!

Inappropriate clothing choices can have a number of negative effects in the workplace, including:

  • Making co-workers and clients uncomfortable.
  • Taking people’s attention away from work.
  • Damaging relationships with clients.

Those are the business reasons to have the talk. And there’s another reason: His or her choices may be harming the fashion-offender’s ability to achieve their potential at work and advance as they would hope. So, while it may seem harsh or unpleasant to have a conversation in which you tell an employee that his or her clothing is inappropriate, it is in fact the kindest, most professional thing you can do.

So gather your courage, Joseph Grenny’s tips and a few of mine:

  • Talk in terms of work appropriateness, don’t make it about good/bad fashion.
  • Give specific examples of what the employee is wearing that’s inappropriate and why.
  • Give specific examples of clothing that would be better to wear for work.
  • Bear in mind that a suggestion to buy more clothes might stress out someone who is strapped for cash, so help brainstorm inexpensive ways to build a more appropriate wardrobe.

Image credit, emreogan, via iStock