How to Tell an Employee to Stop Dressing Provocatively

I am a female partner at a small business. The only other woman at the company, our administrative assistant, wears very low-cut tops and blouses, sandals (sometimes even slippers), tight jeans, and extremely high spike heels or boots. The company has a relaxed, “business casual” atmosphere. I don’t want to seem petty or unreasonable, but this behavior is slowly starting to drive me a little crazy. If the male partners are all willing to look past this, should I let it go? —L.H., Chicago

First, it’s unlikely your male partners are “looking past” your receptionist’s provocative fashion choices. But while some of them may be more than happy to tolerate it, others may be profoundly uncomfortable. They may not mention it, however, because they worry about being accused of sexual harassment for even addressing the issue.

Even if your partners don’t object, your assistant’s provocative clothing may convey the wrong message to customers and vendors who visit your office expecting a professional company. And even if you have no visitors, if this issue is bothering you, you have a right to mention it, says David A. Weiman, a management psychologist in Wynnewood, Pa., who consults with small businesses on leadership development. “Your values should be taken into account at the firm because you’ve earned the right to have an impact on the culture there,” he says.

At the next partners’ meeting, suggest a review of the dress code, Weiman says. You might bring in some business casual guidelines published by groups like the Society for Human Resource Management, says Debra J. Cohen, senior vice-president of the membership organization for HR professionals.

Concern over dressing inappropriately is a frequent issue posed to SHRM, Cohen says: “We tell our members that they need to define business casual more specifically. For example, a reasonable standard of dress rules out tight or short pants, tank tops, low-cut or revealing blouses, halter tops, or any extreme in dress or accessory.”

If your discomfort with this situation is at odds with your partners, “it’s likely you don’t see eye to eye on other things, as well,” Weiman says. If that’s the case, you’ll need to be prepared to accept their lack of support or consider whether this company is the best place for you to contribute your talents.

If you find your partners share your concern, it will probably fall to you to speak with your assistant in a respectful way and encourage her to step up her fashion choices.

“As a partner and as the only other female in the firm, do her a favor and talk to her in confidence. Tell her that her attire is inappropriate, distracting, and unprofessional. Cleavage is fine for nightclubs, slippers belong at home, sandals are for the beach or boardwalk,” says Laurie Dea Owyang, a longtime HR consultant who recently retired from her Los Angeles consultancy.

Let your employee know that her work is valued but her look isn’t helping your business build credibility or helping her advance her own career. “The bottom line is that you need to be clear about what is appropriate and what is not. And even if it is uncomfortable, you need to have honest conversations with people,” Cohen says.