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Career Q&A | By Liz Reyer, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

Be businesslike in talk about colleague's business attire

Q We have a new team member who is just out of college, and she doesn't dress appropriately for the workplace. Some days she looks like she's going clubbing, and some days like she's off to the beach. I'm supposed to talk to her about it but feel very uncomfortable doing so. What do I do?

A: Conquer your nerves and take a calm and factual approach to giving her feedback.

First of all, figure out the reasons for your discomfort. If giving personal feedback is hard for you, consider what you might be concerned about. Worried that you'll embarrass her, or that she'll get angry and lash out at you? If so, what's the worst thing that could come of it? Realistically, her reaction won't harm you. And, though there may be some short-term repercussions, once she calms down, she may be able to respond appropriately.

If you're a new supervisor, assess your comfort level with giving direction to others. It's your role to be clear and consistent, but it's a skill that has to be developed over time. Think about how leaders you respect conduct themselves, measure yourself against them, and focus on this in the future, as needed.

To gain more comfort, put yourself in her place. If you were dressed inappropriately (or had hygiene issues, etc.), wouldn't you want someone to tell you?

Finally, be sure the expectations are clear. If your company doesn't have a dress code policy beyond the vague "appropriate," be sure that you know what the company is expecting. Also, take a second look to be sure the expectations you'll be enforcing are being consistently applied.

Get ready for the conversation by planning what you want to say. Have messages that are clear and focused on a positive message, such as, "Our workplace expects businesslike attire, such as . . . " You may also want to note what is not permitted: "Ripped jeans, flip-flops and revealing tops don't fit with the company's expectations."

Stay away from language that is emotional and use phrasing that emphasizes helping her make the transition to the business world. Instead of "You aren't dressing right for the workplace," try "Expectations in the workplace may be different than what you're used to." Assume that she wants to do the right thing; that will come through in your tone.

Get some practice before having the actual chat, asking a friend to stand in for the employee while you rehearse your approach. In particular, practice how you'll respond to different reactions: tears, anger or stony silence. If she takes an "I've got to be me" path, note the possible effect on her career in business.

But you can't practice forever. Eventually, you'll have to talk with her. Pick a private location, ask for a few minutes of her time, take some deep breaths and deliver the message. Offer to talk through any questions she has about guidelines for appropriate attire, and keep your body language and tone positive.

A clear message, adequate preparation and a respectful tone will help you be effective in delivering an uncomfortable message.

Liz Reyer is a credentialed coach with more than 20 years of business experience. Her company, Reyer Coaching & Consulting, offers services for organizations of all sizes.

Be businesslike in talk about colleague's business attire 11/10/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 10, 2010 3:30am]
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