How to Handle Inappropriate Attire in the Workplace



“Are they headed to the office – or the beach?!”

If you’ve ever thought this when looking at an employee’s work outfit, today’s post is just for you.

While the fashion rules for the modern office have evolved over the years, most workplaces still have dress codes. And when the mercury rises, employees are more likely to test the limits of what’s considered “acceptable workplace attire.”

But before you call out a staff member for breaking your dress code:

  • Make sure you actually have one. If you want to enforce a policy, you should clearly define an employee dress code in your company handbook.
  • Make sure your employees understand the rules. Beyond broadly categorizing your dress code as “formal,” “professional” or “casual,” provide examples of acceptable and unacceptable attire. Clear guidelines with specific examples give your staff a better framework for making clothing decisions and leave less room for misinterpretation. Some organizations even put together a “look book” for employees to reference, so everyone can see what’s acceptable – and what’s not.
  • Be sure there’s a clear infraction. While an employee’s fashion faux pas might be tough on the eyes, there’s a big difference between an outfit you consider in poor taste and one that clearly violates policy.
  • Apply and enforce your policy consistently. Make sure you treat all employees in the same way.

Tips for Addressing Inappropriate Attire in the Workplace

Let’s say, for example, your office dress code is “professional,” but an employee shows up to work in cut-off jean shorts, a white tank top and flip flops. How should you handle the situation?

  • Have a private conversation. Call the employee into a closed-door room to discuss the situation; never call out an employee in public. If you have a concern about addressing the issue directly with the employee, ask your company’s HR manager for help.
  • Stick to the facts. Be tactful, sensitive and positive when you discuss the dress code violation. Provide a legitimate reason for why the outfit is inappropriate, based on your company’s policy (e.g., shorts are listed as an unacceptable clothing item).
  • Revisit your dress code. Review examples of what’s acceptable, so the employee is clear on your policy. Recommend that, in the future, they err on the side of caution when making work-related clothing decisions.
  • Find a solution together. Involve the employee in creating a practical solution (e.g., running home to change, or borrowing an extra shirt from a co-worker). If a simple solution isn’t readily available, and the infraction is minor, it may be best to get the employee’s assurance that they will abide by the rules moving forward – and simply send them back to work.
  • Handle repeat offenders appropriately. If, despite repeated warnings, an employee continually violates your dress code, consult with your HR manager or legal counsel to weigh your options – which may range from formal disciplinary action to termination.

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