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Leadership: Short Shorts and Mini Skirts

Leadership: Short Shorts and Mini Skirts

Fairly regularly, two or three times a year I get a call from managers asking me about the company dress code policy. These discussions, leadership, leadership lessonswhile starting with the dress code end up really being about leadership discretion and decision-making.

The call starts with a question that goes something like this:

"Suzie is wearing short shorts, is this a violation of the dress code policy?"

"Bob is wearing jeans, is this a violation of the dress code policy?"

"Sally is wearing a mini skirt, is this a violation of the dress code policy?"

"Tom is wearing torn cargo shorts, is this a violation of the dress code policy?"

Up to this point in this article, I have used the words "dress code" six times. Don't be surprised that these leadership discussions are not really about the dress code.

Whenever I discuss the dress code, it turns out the manager has a copy of the dress code. They know what the dress code says. Most dress codes I have used are relatively well written; they are generally easy to understand. In my opinion, the better policies allow for management discretion. The manager is struggling with how to decide what to do and how to address a behavior issue.

My favorite dress code policy states that, "employees must dress professionally, safely and appropriately for the work area."

This language is all about unit manager discretion, decision-making, and communication with others.

When I get a phone call from the manager of a work area and they ask about the dress code because of how a particular employee is dressing, I hear something different from the actual or specific words they are using.

What I hear is:

I need help understanding my discretion as a manager.

I need help making a decision that affects my team.

I need help communicating what may be a difficult message to one or more of my team.

There is nothing wrong with checking with your human resource professional to ensure the decision being made is consistent with other company decisions on the same matter, or does not violate other standards, most notably, safety standards. However, the last dozen or so calls I have taken involved short shorts, mini skirts, torn t-shirts, images and sayings on shirts, cut, torn and ripped jeans, sandals, flip flops, and other sundry super casual attire. Most of these examples do not directly involve an imminent threat to the safety of staff, with the possible exception of footwear.

These examples all involve the ability for a unit manager to exercise discretion, make a decision, communicate a standard, enforce that standard and get team buy-in and adherence to the standard.

A simple challenge to a dress code is an excellent opportunity for a manager to be a manager. What does this mean and how do you do it? It is important to understand that it does not matter if the issue to be addressed involves the dress code, it is a behavioral and performance matter that requires attention.

Some steps to follow are:

1. Articulate expectations. The appearance of inappropriate attire is a message to you as the manager that the expectation regarding attire requires articulation. If it has been explained, then explain it again. Document the date and names of those to whom this has been explained. Staff meetings are great opportunities for this.

2. Be reasonable and include reasons. Set expectations and standards that are reasonable. Support these standards with reasons that make sense to your office or shop, to the purpose for your business and to your customers. You will find that your staff will better understand the standards to which you hold them accountable when they know the reasons for the standards.

3. Reinforce the expectations and standards. Many times a manager explains things early in the relationship with an employee. However, as time passes our memories fade, or we are distracted by changes in the business environment, or and employee who missed the briefing violates the standard unknowingly. Periodically, reinforce the standard. Discuss your customers. Discuss workplace safety. Discuss desired outcomes. Appropriate attire may be just one of the topics to cover.

4. Hold staff accountable. When an expectation is not met or a standard is violated, make a point of bringing it to the employee’s attention. Do not give the benefit of the doubt, and hope those not meeting the standard will somehow spontaneously self-correct. They won't. It is your job as a manager to bring behavior and performance that does not meet the standard to the employee’s attention. If you do this politely, with tact, and connect it to the mission of your business unit and to your customers, your coaching will make sense.

5. Be persistent. Some employees will intentionally choose to not comply. Be persistent and coach as often as necessary. Document your coaching. If compliance is not delivered, then get with your human resource office and work how the best path to initiate formal corrective action.

Effective managers and leaders use their professional discretion to determine the most appropriate standards for their respective work areas. Do this. Consulting with others to ensure consistency across the company is a good practice, however, the ultimate responsibility does lie with the unit manager. Some companies are highly structured. For example a corporate group for franchises might articulate the standards. Notwithstanding what corporate says, the local manager has the responsibility for using their discretion in ensuring proper standards are met.

Use your discretion and decide the standards that are best for your work area. Communicate these standards to your staff. Hold them accountable by confronting those who fail to meet the standard. Consult with human resources as needed, knowing that human resources is not the best office for determining the most appropriate standard for your immediate work area.

As a leader, you will most likely need to comply with broader company level policy and perhaps with corporate level guidance. You can easily do this. Most company policies and corporate guidelines are written in plain English and are simple enough to follow.

If you call me and tell me "Suzie is wearing short shorts again" I will do my best to guide you so that as a manager you have the ability to use your discretion to make the necessary decisions about immediate next steps.

My goal is to work with leaders, assisting them by extending their capacity to manage and lead. The dress code is a simple way for staff to challenge your standards. It is an easy behavior for you to go after immediately.

Set appropriate standards. Articulate the standards. Explain them to your staff. Hold staff accountable. Coach them and then pursue other action if required.


Questions to ponder:

Have you set standards of behavior for your work area? Have you shared these standards with your team?

Do you reinforce these standards by holding staff accountable and discussing them on regular occasions?

Do you use your discretion and decision making ability to set and follow through on work area standards?

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Philip Espinosa partners with people to deliver value: People | Partnerships | Value serves as his tag line. As a strategic human resources leader, he believes that service starts with the customer. His book "Deliver Excellent Customer Service with a SNAP” helps others drive customer engagement using simple and consistent communication strategies. A second book titled "Focus On Your Success - 24 Simple Insights To Drive Daily Achievement" (ebook) helps working professionals view their daily choices through a different perspective. In addition to his writing, Philip works with strategic human capital initiatives and has delivered successful results over a career spanning more than 25 years.

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