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How to Handle the Fashion Offender in the Workplace

When employees' attire is less than appropriate, managers have to step in to make sure the office environment stays professional.

NEW YORK (MainStreet) -- Most companies allow employees a little leeway when it comes to fashion -- especially on Fridays, holidays or bad weather. For employees, getting out of a suit or high heels for a day can be a real relief, but what's a manager to do when every day at the office starts to look like a day at the beach? When workers start dressing inappropriately, experts say it's time to step in for what may be a difficult conversation. Whether an employee is dressing too casually, too skimpily or just downright unacceptably, we've got tips on how to handle the situation without overstepping your bounds.

Fashion may be an individual choice, but when discussing wardrobe issues, managers have to be careful "not to let the conversation get personal," says Robert Hosking, executive director of staffing firm OfficeTeam.

Any discussion about attire must remain business-focused, Hosking says, but before an employee is addressed one on one, managers need to ensure that their company dress code is clear and specific enough that employees know what is expected. If the dress code is laid out plainly in the company handbook, a manager's next step should be to post a memo for all staff members to review.

When gentle reminders don't seem to work and a specific individual needs to be addressed, it's wise to get the HR department involved, "as they can provide advice to help you manage that conversation," Hosking says.

"Companies need to be diligent about enforcing the dress code," he says. "If one employee gets away with ignoring the dress code, others will soon follow, or they will resent the employee for breaking the rules and getting away with it. Either way, it's best to address the issue immediately to avoid escalation."

According to a recent OfficeTeam survey, 80% of executives say that clothing choices either "significantly" or "somewhat" affect an employee's chances of earning a promotion. That may be the only point a manager needs to bring up when addressing workplace attire, says Dana Manciagli, career expert and author of Cut the Crap, Get a Job.

"All employees want to get promoted, make more money and be treated with respect at work. It is safest to provide attire feedback when positioned against these objectives," Manciagli says. "You can even start the conversation by asking 'John, are you interested in getting promoted or taking on more responsibility, leading to higher earnings?'"

Even if the conversation is one you'd rather not have, Manciagli says it's a manager's role to engage in this type of discussion.