Inappropriate workplace dress: should you just be more open?
I was sitting at lunch yesterday when my dining partner said something I’ve heard several times: “I feel like young employees have no idea what is appropriate and what isn’t in terms of workplace dress.” Friends and acquaintances will then go on to recount their own personal experiences of fashion faux pas, ranging from barefoot interns to visible tramp stamps on new hires. And lastly, this is the part I found most interesting, they always follow it up with self-blame. “Maybe I’m not being open enough, but I don’t think it’s appropriate”. “Maybe I’m just old fashioned and these things are acceptable now.” It wasn’t just my polished and very professional lunch buddy the other day who has relayed these thoughts to me. I hear it all the time, usually from middle aged or older women who hold very good positions within their companies. So what’s going on here?
Appropriate work dress in the 1940’s. If not much has changed in the last 75 years, then I guarantee things like tattoos, piercings, and athletic wear are not making an office debut anytime soon.
For one, it has nothing to do with you not being ‘open enough’ so stop blaming yourself. Period. Appropriate workplace attire hasn’t changed that much in the past several decades and it’s probably not going to change that much in the near future. Sure, trends and silhouettes change, but shoulder pads are not the same as neck tattoos. If you work in a corporate setting, the biggest sartorial change in the last 50 years is that it is more acceptable to not wear panty hose. That’s pretty much it. Even though miniskirts were big in the 60’s or tube tops ruled the 90’s, you still didn’t see these trends infiltrating the corporate workplace. Likewise, tattoos, sneakers, and multiple piercings may be acceptable in society, but that doesn’t mean they belong in a board room. We need to learn to segregate and compartmentalize what is acceptable in the workplace and what is acceptable in public in general. Should you scowl and shake your finger at every neck tattoo you see? No, that would be rude. Should you say something if you see that same neck tattoo in your corporate office? Yes, because the reputation of the company, and not just the individual, is now on the line. Which leads us to the next point- how to deal with inappropriate dress at work.
First of all, your workplace should have an up to date dress code. No matter how small your business is, having a policy in place when it comes to dress will help make confrontations smoother and more objective. Without a dress code, you will look like you are picking on people and critiquing them for their personal style. With a policy, you simply need to state what the company has defined as appropriate and ask the employee to stay within those bounds. Another key part, is to make sure your dress code is up to date. It may have been utterly unfathomable that anyone would come to work in a halter top fifty years ago when your dress code was first written. If you don’t make changes to update your policy, then you run the risk of having interns who think it’s okay to trod around the office barefoot. There are plenty of sample dress codes you can find online and make you own. If you’re business is bigger, you can always call upon an Image Consulting professional to help you draft an effective dress code for your company.
When you see inappropriate dress in the workplace, do something! If the person in question is not your direct report, contact their supervisor or human resources about your concerns. As I mentioned before, each employee not only represents themselves, but the company as a whole. In the most basic sense, when you are hired on with a company, they are paying you to carry out their values and beliefs. If you get hired as a barista at Starbucks, you are being paid to carry out their values of great coffee to the masses. If you are hired as the CEO of Google, you are being paid to advance the mission of Google at the top most level. It’s easy to forget that we are here for the employer rather than the employer being here for us. If our appearance doesn’t line up with the values we’re supposed to be representing, then something needs to change. If you don’t stand up against improper image in the workplace, the reputation of your organization might be at stake.
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If reading this makes you upset, don’t get all huffy and start ranting about stifling creativity and identity. Instead, find a company whose culture matches your values. If you feel taking your nose ring out compromises who you are, then don’t apply for a job at a large business consulting firm. Find a more boutique consulting firm that values individuality. You’ll be a better employee, a better representative of the company, and won’t get any judgmental looks from co-workers.
If you are a business struggling with inappropriately dressed employees, a new employee trying to make a good impression, or a company that needs a new dress code, I can help! Whether you’re the employer or employee, I’d love to hear the problems you or your company is facing and help you work towards a solution. Just send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org to start the conversation.
To your success,