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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Addressing Inappropriate Work Attire

Joseph Grenny is coauthor of the New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.Joseph Grenny is author of three bestselling books, Influencer, Crucial Conversations, and Crucial Confrontations.

Crucial ConversationsQDear Crucial Skills,

I need advice on how to have a conversation with a subordinate about her provocative attire. It’s tricky because her clothes are clean and very nice—just more revealing than is appropriate for our office. To make it more complicated, I’m a man and I’m wondering if that should make the conversation any different than if she had a female supervisor. Her attire is holding her back from progressing and limiting how management can use and develop her skills. I’m nervous about discrimination and harassment accusations that could result if I handle this wrong. And yet, I know I need to have a conversation with her.

Revealing Conversation

A Dear Revealing,

Since you’re in a legally sensitive area, I asked Jaclyn, our HR Manager, for some advice. Between Jaclyn and myself, we’ll give you our best thoughts.

1. This is about policy not preference. The first thing you have to do is ensure your company has a clear dress and grooming standard in place. If they don’t, you are on shaky legal ground if you approach a specific employee and make this an issue of personal judgment. If the policy was implemented correctly, it should already have been communicated to all employees, and even signed by them to acknowledge their understanding and commitment. If this step is done right, your conversation will be much easier to hold. So, address any gaps in the policy deployment before opening your mouth with your employee.

2. Just the facts. When you sit down with her to explain where she’s out of compliance, be sure you scrupulously avoid mixing any of your judgments or “stories” into your description of the problem. For example, if you said, “Some of your clothes are a bit more provocative than appropriate for an office setting” you would cross the line into judgments. Rather, refer factually to the gap between what she wears at times and what the policy says. For example, “Our policy says ‘clothing should not be form-fitting or revealing of large portions of the legs, chest . . .” After sharing the relevant excerpts, you could ask how she thought her outfit yesterday, for example, compared to the requirements. Once again, the focus is not on judgments but on facts.

3. Make It Motivating. Mention that part of your interest in holding this conversation is a concern for her potential in the organization. Be sure to mention that. Let her know that a key reason for her to comply is to keep doors of advancement open. Using her career as motivation could help her to keep her commitment while also ensuring she understands your goodwill toward her.

4. Make It Safe. You’re likely to feel uncomfortable in the conversation because it is an area of sensitivity and you’ll be worried she’ll be offended or hold a grudge against you. That’s where make it safe skills come in. I’d encourage you to use contrasting after having shared your concerns to help her understand your motives and respect for her.

For example, you might say, “You and I have worked well together in the past and I want you to know that I do not want that to change. I have a great regard for the quality of your work and have no concerns in any area other than this. This is an uncomfortable conversation for me just as it is for you. I was nervous that you would misunderstand my reasons for holding it and hope you know it is only to ensure I’m doing right by the company while contributing to your development as well.” Using contrasting in this way can help her understand you are not simply doing this to be a prude or to make life hard for her.

You also asked about whether the conversation should be any different given that you are a man speaking with a woman. Jaclyn and I agree that it should not. Your mindset in this conversation is that you have an employee who is out of compliance with a clear policy. Period. You should describe the gap between her current practice and the existing policy factually and respectfully. Then conclude by both confirming her understanding and asking for her commitment to comply in the future.

On a personal note, as I wrote this to you, I reflected back on my first really sensitive conversation with an employee. I was an entrepreneur in a small company and had a half dozen people working for me. One had a tremendous hygiene problem that was offending customers. Sal was 25 years old. I was 17. He was a good friend. I hardly slept for a week as I obsessed over whether and how to deal with the problem. When I finally had the crucial conversation, my stomach was in knots, so I know how easy it is to turn inward when these challenges face us.

And that’s the idea I want to leave you with. The reason we do so poorly in so many of our crucial conversations is that we’re more concerned with how the problem and conversation affect us than we are with how they affect the other person. My selfishness in the situation with my employee made me more worried and less effective than if I had kept my attention on what I really wanted to do for Sal, my customers, and my colleagues.

At last I had the conversation. I don’t recall well enough what I said to be a judge of whether or not I was skillful. But I do remember what happened. Sal began bathing. He bought some new clothes. He got some badly needed dental care. His circle of friends increased. In the next year he got married—something he had longed to do for some time. Now, I don’t take credit for all of that. But in my quiet moments when I deliberate about whether or not to talk to someone I care about, I try to get outside of myself and focus on what I really want for those I care about.

Best wishes,

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22 thoughts on “Addressing Inappropriate Work Attire”

  1. Sean Hicks

    It seems that I read the question differently than the way it was addressed by the responder. “Revealing” was clear in pointing out that the attire was not necessarily in violation but was, nonetheless perceived as being provocative. It wasn’t that she was out of compliance but that there was a concern that the revealing attire was holding the employee back and he felt he needed to provide that feedback.
    Whether I’ve read the question correctly or not, I am interested in what the advice would be for that situation. Would it be best coming from another woman or even someone who was more of a mentor than a direct supervisor? Or, are you saying that this is something that shouldn’t be addressed at all unless there is a clear compliance issue? I would tend to disagree with that position.


  2. Linda Kulp

    If your company doesn’t have a dress code that covers this for non-uniformed employees, is it best to leave it alone? Even with the uniformed employees, a male supervisor often wants a female supervisor to be in the room with him when he is discussing another female’s inappropriate dress.Good idea?

  3. Vince Johnson

    I look at this from a slightly different point of view than just strictly a compliance issue. First, we can assume that the young lady is not out of compliance because if she were, you would have said so. So to say that she is being held back because of her dress, you would confirm for her and her lawyer that she is being evaluated on things outside of her performance and ability. In Mr. Grenny’s example, Sal was hurting the business with his poor hygiene, this young lady is not. The way we dress is a direct reflection of level of self esteem. Your conversation will be one that says “The thing you like best about yourself is holding you back.”
    In my experience, you will want a female member of HR in the conversation, if not conducting it.

  4. bean

    “This is an uncomfortable conversation for me just as it is for you.”

    that’s not fair to her: unless she has expressed discomfort at a situation like this before, then telling her it’s uncomfortable for her is only going to make it uncomfortable if it wasn’t already: she’ll be thinking, “no, but should i be?” Attempting to sidestep responsibility for one’s perspective by assuming the other person has a similar one is at least ignorant of their view and at worst a subtle way to bully them into line (i.e. “she SHOULD be uncomfortable if she isn’t already”), especially if the “assum-er” is the one in power and conversations are already tense.

  5. Tess Anderson

    Having once, in my youth, been on the receiving end of this conversation I would have to say that both parties are on shaky ground if there are not clear guidelines.

    I was once called in about my attire when the only things in the dress code were no piercings, beyond ears, and no heavy makeup. Since I didn’t break either of those rules I was curious as to what the underlying cause was. In the end it turned out that it wasn’t about my clothes – it was about fitting in. And I didn’t fit in. If there are no clear guidelines I would recommend taking a cold hard look at the why behind your actions.

    This sounds a lot like the same thing. She doesn’t fit into the corporate vision. First off – does she want to? So often we promote people who are happy where they are so find out what her plans are. Second – give her the best advice I’ve ever been given about fitting in. If you want the job dress like the people who have it and the people above it. Then it is not a quesiton of revealing vs. non revealing but of what one wants. People hire and promote people who look like them, if she is delirious of a promotion this is a way in without making her hate coming to work every day because she thinks people are judging her.

  6. Sharon

    My concern is different. Young women watch TV and movies and see “professional” women, lawyers, doctors and the like, dressed most inappropriately. In fact, most of them are dressed more like women in another altogether different profession! This is clearly misleading influence that they are getting, and my guess is that the woman in question here actually believes from what she sees that she is appropriately dressed.

    Find out what her goals are at the company. If she wishes to advance, I would suggest that she spend some time researching how real women at and above her level in the company dress, and see if how she is dressed meets those standards. She might also benefit from discussing with high ranking women in the company the question of if her current dress is hurting her career. That would lead her to her own conclusions on how she wishes to present herself on the job.

    Suggesting that she watch “What not to wear” isn’t a bad idea, either. The show keeps hammering at the effect that slutty dressing has on both the personal and professional lives of the women who get onto the show.

    The focus needs to be on her career, of course.

  7. Lisa

    I was given the same speech, by my peers, years ago regarding my “provocative attire”. Apparently I wore my skirts shorter than everyone else. I bought my dress suits off the same rack as my co-workers… some of us even went shopping together during lunch.

    This situation ended when someone suggested measuring my skirts to see if they were within the city policy. They were. In fact they were the same length as my peers. What no one considered was the fact that my legs are extremely long, which made a normal skirt look short on me.

    I now wear pantsuits.

  8. Joseph Grenny

    These are great comments. I guess if there is no formal policy in place I would think the gentleman would be on very shaky ground legally if as a supervisor he expressed concerns about her manner of dress–even if he was doing it just to help her remove barriers from her career. If, for example, she got a less than stellar evaluation in the next performance review, he would be opening himself and the company up to a harassment accusation. If she were not promoted when an opportunity came up, she could reasonably conclude that his personal judgements about her clothing were at the heart of it.
    This may sound like a strange perspective coming from someone who advocates people hold crucial conversations–yet we always encourage people to consider both the risks of NOT speaking up as well as the risks of speaking up before they venture ahead.
    Now, if she were a close friend and there were a relationship of trust–and if he could have the conversation off duty in a less formal situation, I would think he was less than a friend if he DIDN’T give her the career feedback.
    That’s my two bits!

  9. Sandra

    I am in the similar situation because I was already pulled in by HR for my dress. I was told that some of my shirts were to low cut but with being busty than average it might be perceived this way. I have worked at the same company for five years and this is the first time that this has been brought up to me. We have no clear dress code so I am wondering how I am suppose to now what is appropriate or not without any clear guidlines. Any thoughts on this subject would be helpful

    I did send and e-mail to the HR rep that talked to me and she told me to I should ask my boss for advice since we have no formal dress code. I was told that if I question it I should just not wear it. I am thinking like TESS ANDERSON above there is more behind this than meets the eye.

    1. Emily

      If you’re ‘busty’, then you go one size UP on the blouse or you wear a form-fitting cami under the top so you have a bit more coverage in the bust area. It’s a very simple solution.

  10. Steve

    It’s obvious from this thread that the key is the policy. Without a legally defensible policy, you cannot say a thing. If you have the policy, then the Crucial Conversation advice makes some sense as long as it all fits in the context of the policy.

    There is a great danger that what the woman will hear is, “I find your dress sexually attractive.” See you in court!

  11. Nathan Dagley

    One of the problems that many organizations face regarding attire is the dreaded ‘Casual Friday’ request. Once implemented there are always individuals that cross the albeit grayed line. After discussing it in a meeting we determined that the problem was twofold first there are no defined rules and second the name is counterproductive to a work environment. Once we identified the issues we decided to fix it and then we had a writer put it in to a great article entitled, ‘The Rules of Accoutrement’. Please check it out here to see the new name for ‘Casual Friday’

  12. Christina

    I would want to know if I am out of compliance and if I am at variance because I do want to move forward and I will adjust if I need to move forward. – if I can afford it I will adjust. I am more likely to accept feedback from a man than a woman. I am a woman. This because I have seen these issues inaccurately applied to different employees. Some barely professional females will go sheer, expose midriffs, excessive makeup, and poorly fitted clothing and narely a word is said but a few others who are not socially favored albeit professionally positioned to go forward are really pillored because they do not mesh with the other set.
    But I have also seen concerns arise from ageism in another environment- someone older- a professional woman has a deep décolleté on a v there will be no issue. However, recent grad under 30 and within standard BMI is taken to task even if she is not ample endowed to fill the V of the décolleté.
    Let’s make sure this is really about appearances and not other mini social agendas filtered as professional concerns.

  13. Christina

    Keeping it positive and professional adds value. Defining acceptable norms of how that term Professional is construed in the work place by professionals that move forward helps.

  14. Chris

    Is it so difficult to dress so that cleavage doesn’t show? Or with appropriate dress lengths? Without wearing skin tight pants or skirts? I don’t think so. I’m a bit perplexed as to why females act like they don’t know what is appropriate.

  15. Robin Plummer

    It’s quite simple. If you don’t know how to dress to go to work, ask your mother. If that doesn’t work, then don’t expect to get promoted.

    People at work who dress in a manner against the grain are telling you that they have a problem with the company culture. So either make an effort to fit, or go and work somewhere where your style of dress is acceptable. If neither of those works, then find out why you don’t fit culturally and either fix it, or find out what to do to capitalize on the cultural misfit. There is plenty of scope for companies to capitalize on misfits, if they just knew how to do it.

    But the short answer is, if you want the job (or the promotion) then you have to wear the uniform.

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    […] At last I had the conversation. I don’t recall well enough what I said to be a judge of whether or not I was skillful. But I do remember what happened. Sal began bathing. He bought some new clothes. He got some badly needed dental care. His circle of friends increased. In the next year he got married—something he had longed to do for some time. Now, I don’t take credit for all of that. But in my quiet moments when I deliberate about whether or not to talk to someone I care about, I try to get outside of myself and focus on what I really want for those I care about.” ( […]

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  20. Tom

    Having given many management workshops on addressing performance concerns, I can verify that this is one conversation managers don’t want to have. I’m good with the advice: Have a policy and make the discussion about compliance with that policy. It doesn’t have to be punitive. Keep it positive.

  21. Lily Bridgers

    I am with you when you said that making sure your organization has a defined dress and grooming standard in place is the first thing you need to do. My dad manages a security service that answers calls in our neighborhood. I believe they should invest in a First responder level 3A vest because as you said, it has tons of benefits for the company’s branding and types of service.

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