How to Edit Employees’ Wardrobes with Tact

It’s summer and that means that casual Fridays will soon start to bleed into other days of the week. Adding to this slippage is the arrival of summer interns who often either under dress or over dress the part in the workplace. This raises a critical question: How does one give feedback on an employee’s wardrobe in an appropriate and tactful manner?

Summer Workplace Dress Codes

In some workplaces, including many in the high-tech sector, dressing the part may already mean rolling into work in shorts, flip flops and a t-shirt. Notably, these are the same workplaces where employees are often encouraged to zoom around the office on scooters. As a result, showing up for work wearing an outfit that can easily transition to the beach or an all-weekend electronic music festival may not be a problem.

In most work environments, however, what you wear still matters and tends to lean toward the more rather than less conservative.  This means blouses, skirts (not too long or short) or slacks with dress shoes for women and dark suits (with or without a tie, depending on the occasion and context) and dress shoes for men. Casual Fridays usually mean a modified version of the same outfits (e.g., men can scrap the navy blue suit in tie for a pair of Dockers and possible untucked button-down shirt but only if it is wrinkle free and still leaning towards the conservative end of the attire spectrum).

To be clear, in the United States, employers can police what their employees wear unless an employee can prove they are being discriminated against.  Although employers can legally request that an employee alter his or her appearance, doing so in a tactful way is another story.

How and When to Intervene

As Amy Jen Su, author of Own the Room, explains ““It can be heartbreaking to see a person who does good work not succeed because of how they appear.”  But how do you let someone know that their facial piercings, crazy hair, army boots, crop tops, spandex, sandals or pants that start where most people’s undergarments end may not be sending the right message?

First, there is the question of when to intervene. As a rule, it is important to intervene if and when an established policy is being violated, if and when the employee’s attire is impacting their interactions with other employees, clients or customers, and if and when an employee’s attire is or could be perceived as offensive in any way (e.g., the employee is wearing a t-shirt with a provocative slogan). How to intervene, of course, is a bit trickier. In this week’s Harvard Business Review, Amy Gallo offers a series of tips on how one might handle an attire-focused conservation in the workplace:

  • Question your assumptions: Understand the real problem. Is it the clothing of something else? Is it just your personal taste? Do you have evidence that the employee’s clothing is impacting their work performance or negatively impacting client interactions?
  • Move beyond your discomfort: Be direct–if you have a problem, just say it.
  • Prepare: Go into any meeting with a clear agenda. Know what you want to address, why, and the desired outcome. If your workplace has a dress code, have the code on hand and share it with the employee in question. Also, if you failed to communicate the dress code at the time of the hire, own this as your own error and apologize for not being more upfront.
  • Give concrete advice: Don’t stay in the negative. Simply editing an employee’s attire without giving concrete advice on what would work and what is expected is not a productive approach. Also, try to be as collaborative as possible. If compromises are possible, explore them.
  • Listen: If you’re working with interns or new employees, you may discover that their appearance is part of a bigger problem (e.g., they may only own one suit). Try to explore ways to troubleshoot the problem with the employee or intern.


May 27, 2017   Updated :May 30, 2017      

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