Tina Lewis Rowe

Insights, Information & Inspiration

Work Attire–A Delicate Topic

There is plenty or material in magazines and on the Internet about appropriate attire in workplaces of all kinds. In spite of that, many supervisors have the challenge of deciding what, if anything, can be done to improve the clothing choices of employees.

What is the link to work? As with most other issues, the first step is to find a link to the work being done. Does the attire violate a safety or business rule that is clearly established and published to employees? Does the attire distract customers or other employees? Would a reasonable person find it offensive or distracting? Is work negatively affected in some way because of the attire? Those are all key questions that not only can be used to explain a concern to an employee, but also provide the necessary link if there are questions later, or if a grievance is filed about an organizational action.

Use resources. Male managers are often concerned about saying anything regarding a female’s attire. However, it is a valid area for supervisors and managers to observe and intervene about. If you work in an organization that is large enough to have an HR section, consult them about the best approach. Get input from several sources when possible. Do not take immediate action about attire unless you have a clear rules violation or an obviously problematic situation.

For example, a male supervisor saw a female employee wearing a tight knit top that showed her anatomy in great detail. He called her aside and told her she probably hadn’t realized the top would be revealing, and he would give her time to go home and change. She argued a bit, but went home and changed and hasn’t worn that top again. Some might disagree with me, but I think it would have abdicated that manager’s role for him to scout around to find a woman to talk to the employee. It’s a supervisor-employee issue, not a male-female issue.

In another case, a supervisor was approached by several employees who complained about how offensive it was to have a female coworker wearing a sleeveless, very cut-out blouse, that showed a lot of underarm hair as well as lingerie.  Without consulting anyone, the supervisor told the employee not to wear a blouse like that again. The resulting hassles lasted for weeks. The company eventually made the rule that females could not wear sleeveless blouses unless they also wore a sweater or jacket. (Many offices where females must reach or stretch a great deal have such a rule to prevent over-exposure.) If the supervisor had gotten assistance the matter could have been resolved more amicably.

Early intervention is easier. Attire is another of the many areas where the earlier and quicker you say something, the easier it is to deal with it. 

  • Say something the moment you notice someone is wearing something that is not appropriate or that presents a problem at work.
  • Be ready with the link to work, so you can explain why you are talking about it with the employee.
  • Keep your conversation to a few words and make it a gentle reminder.
  • Take the approach that the employee will want to know his or her clothing, while it might be fine for time away from work, is not a good choice for work.
  • Use as an example, something the employee has worn that is appropriate.
  • Do not make a bigger issue of it than it needs to be. For example, even though it might sound like a good idea to later compliment the employee when she dresses appropriately, it will probably only result in more embarassment. Focus on work and compliment that if you are want to reduce discomfort.  

What every employee thinks: At some point every employee has looked in a mirror at home and thought, “I look good enough to go to work and interact with coworkers, customers, clients and the public.” When you critique clothing you have also critiqued that person’s judgment about their appearance. That is what makes the matter so delicate. Just remember that if you approve poor judgment through your silence, it will probably happen again–and might be worse the next time.

October 15th, 2008 Posted by | Personal and Professional Development, Supervision and Management | 4 comments


  1. Good read, thanks for the information, it was really informative.

    Comment by Hillary Martin | October 20, 2008

  2. Hi Tina! Thanks for the great presentation at the Records Manager’s meeting! This topic of attire is one that comes up over and over, and this information will be helpful. I’m dealing with a problem the last supervisor let go for a long time and I’m going to make a point of talking about the link to the work and how it distracts people. Thank you again, please come and visit any time. Janet

    Comment by Janet K. | October 21, 2008

  3. Good information. Would like to see some more about personal appearance and that kind of thing. It has become a real problem in our office, especially since we seem to have competing groups: Sex in the City is one of them and Lost appears to be the other! Thanks much.

    Comment by Person in the middle | January 21, 2009

  4. I’m still learning from you, but I’m trying to reach my goals. I absolutely enjoy reading everything that is posted on your website.Keep the posts coming!

    Comment by celine phantom | July 1, 2013

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