As an employer, you may sometimes find yourself walking the fine line of needing to counsel an otherwise great employee on various aspects of their appearance, especially regarding the type of clothing they’ve chosen to wear. These conversations are never comfortable. While you might think it’s common sense that certain types of clothing shouldn’t be worn in the workplace, everyone clearly has different definitions of what qualifies as common sense. If you don’t have a clear-cut dress code and appearance policy, you could find yourself talking to your employees as if you’re their parent and not a boss.
I don’t care what the founders of Lululemon or Kate Hudson think are “so cute.” Some clothing, such as leggings and yoga pants, does not make a good impression when worn inappropriately or out of context. It is not workplace clothing unless you are a yoga instructor. Frankly, these types of overly casual clothes have become a modern form of bad manners.
If you’re allowing staff to wear these types of leisure and athletic wear to work, those employees are sending an unwanted message to the rest of your staff that it is acceptable. More importantly, those employees are sending a message to your customers that says “my personal comfort is more important than the experience you’re paying for.”
Instituting dress codes or requiring uniform attire in mainstream retail or other office settings serves many useful objectives. It allows customers to easily find employees. It conveys a team-like, professional presence among the staff. It reinforces your visual branding. It makes customers feel valued and respected. It allows customers to focus on their own purpose for visiting your business. Essentially, a well-executed appearance shows that you care. There are other reasons, but these are the primary ones.
As an employer, you need to make it clear from the get-go what types of clothing are and are not appropriate, especially if you are not providing a full uniform to your employees.
I was at the Denver airport a couple of months ago and, while I was sitting at my gate waiting for my flight, I noticed a woman working at a small sales kiosk. I found myself staring at her for far too long and not for a good reason. You see, this saleswoman had donned a nice blazer that stopped at the top of her waist, but also skintight and unintentionally translucent leggings. She wasn’t hiding anything. Even more distracting, she had a fairly sizeable snag on the back of the leggings that ran from her thigh to her exposed rump. I felt terrible for her. She obviously didn’t know she was putting on more than one kind of display while going about her job.
As someone who was a teenager in the ’80s (and therefore an expert on leggings), I must declare that skin-tight leggings ARE NOT PANTS. Leggings are meant to be topped with a large baggy sweater and a huge belt or some other form of decade-appropriate tunic, like a top or a jacket. Unlike actual pants, the top of leggings should remain covered.
While potentially less form-fitting than leggings, yoga pants are also not professional attire. They are leisure wear designed for doing yoga … or at least wearing at home while stretching to reach the remote control. When worn in a professional setting, such leisure wear screams, “I don’t care about my job and couldn’t be bothered to put on real pants” and “as a customer, you aren’t worth actually getting dressed for.”
Ripped jeans, cargo pants, too small or too tight jeans that put on a show no one wants to see when you sit down or bend over, any type of pants that fall below the rump, and too-short shorts all fall into the category of not-appropriate-at-work attire. The purpose of clothing in a work setting is to convey a professional message. This applies equally to men and women at work.
Based in Dallas, I fly American Airlines most of the time, and noticed how dated and shabby the flight attendant uniforms had become over the past few years. That shabbiness seemed to bleed into staff attitudes, as well. But, while boarding that same flight I’d been waiting for in Denver that I mentioned earlier, I happened to get in line with a couple of the American Airlines flight attendants. The first thing I noticed was their new uniforms. Boy, do they look snappy! The attendants instantly seemed more poised, professional and pleased to be wearing them. I complimented one of the attendants on the new look and she smiled and said, “I know. They are so much nicer, right? These fabrics fit us so much better and we have several style options. I actually like wearing them now.” Well, it certainly showed to this customer.
If your staff already has a uniform mandate but continues to wear inappropriate or too-comfortable leisure wear to work, it may very well be that the uniforms you’ve provided don’t fit them well or make them feel awkward or physically uncomfortable. Men and women need different types of clothing fits, and having more than one uniform option provides for different body types. Please stop forcing your female employees to wear the standard issue horticultural uniform of man-khakis and tucked in polo or golf shirts. Believe me, many of us are really not happy about trying wear that type of men’s clothing.
So, why not give employees a choice? What I really liked about the new AA uniforms was not just the updated designs, better fabric, and splash of color, but that there were several different styles and combinations of uniform clothing for the employees to choose from. Likewise, you might consider offering a few different styles of uniforms that allow different body types and personalities to feel comfortable, yet still coordinate with and represent your visual branding.
Putting together a dress code policy that is clear and specific will help you bypass inappropriate attire problems. Respecting different body types and providing uniform choices will help employees feel and look confident, comfortable and professional.