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Approaching the co-worker makeover

By Kaitlin Madden, CareerBuilder.com
January 18, 2012 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Distracting outfits can do more damage at work than you think.
Distracting outfits can do more damage at work than you think.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • If clothing or grooming is distracting employees, managers have cause to question it
  • Remember that your goal is to help, not humiliate your co-worker
  • Be careful in how you phrase your critique

(CareerBuilder.com) -- Recently, I was watching "What Not to Wear," the TLC makeover show that ambushes unsuspecting, frumpy women in the hopes of swiftly taking them from mom-jeans to Miranda Kerr.

In this particular episode, the makeover subject was nominated for the show by her co-workers, who felt her unprofessional style was hindering her career. While the premise makes for entertaining television, I couldn't help but wonder how this whole scenario would play out in real life. I, for one, would not be too pleased if five of my well-meaning co-workers teamed up to tell me how dowdy I was.

Still, most of us can probably think of a colleague who could use a makeover: The intern who wears low-cut tops, the IT guy who lives in track pants, the boss who doesn't iron his shirts. This person may be a great employee, but his or her professional image could use some fine-tuning. And you might have an occasional itch to tell this co-worker to put a little more effort into his or her appearance -- for his or her own sake, of course.

But, outside of the realm of television, is it ever OK to advise a colleague on something as personal as appearance? Before you ever decide to dole out style or grooming recommendations to your office-mates, there are a few things to consider.

1. Do you have an obligation to say something? If you manage someone who is in violation of the company dress code, or whose cologne cloud gives the rest of the office a headache, then you should consider raising the concern.

"Managers need to ask, 'Is this person's clothing or grooming distracting other employees from the work at hand or offending customers?'" suggests Leigh Steere, co-founder of Managing People Better, LLC. "You may not like a worker's choice of attire, hair style or makeup, but has the employee crossed the line into becoming a distraction or an offense?"

Steere offers the following examples of attire-issues that may need addressing:

--Strong body odor -- It may create an offensive smell that permeates the office and disturbs other workers.

--Strong cologne can cause employees to sneeze repeatedly.

--Skirts that are too short or shirts that show too much cleavage may be causing employee eyes (and thoughts) to stray.

--Clothing that causes a conflict of interest, for example, Toyota logo apparel worn by a Ford employee.

One additional note in this instance: If you are a man and the problem is with a female employee, consider having another woman address the issue, and vice-versa.

2. How well do you know the person? Your best friend at work who is continually getting passed over for promotions because her wardrobe projects a bad image to clients is one thing. The new guy who hasn't quite found the balance between business and casual, however, is another.

"Unless it is really bothering you or you know the person well enough to care about how he or she is being perceived, it's risky, not to mention potentially not your place," says Donna Flagg, founder of The Krysalis Group, a business and management consulting firm in New York City. "The point being that it really depends on the relationship. I would never tell a client that their clothes were 'wrong,' unless I knew that person quite well and was doing it to help him or her."

3. Your goal is to help, not humiliate. If you decide to address the issue, remember that your goal is to be helpful.

"Perhaps the most important thing to remember as you approach such a highly sensitive topic is that you care about the other person and want to help him both address the issue and not feel humiliated in the process," says Kerry Patterson, co-author of the New York Times bestseller "Crucial Conversations." "Keeping this in mind will go a long way toward setting the tone and helping an awkward discussion go quickly and smoothly."

4. Be very careful in your use of terms. "While there is no word that doesn't carry with it a bit of a stigma, words like 'skanky' or 'offend,' certainly don't work," Patterson says. "Similarly, don't go for political or cute language such as 'wardrobe malfunction.' This isn't a laughing matter."

The bottom line is that personal appearance is a touchy subject. Unless you are in a position where you feel obligated to tell an employee his or her clothing is distracting to others or you're really trying to help a close friend at the office , it's better to stay out of your co-workers' closets.

© CareerBuilder.com 2011. All rights reserved. The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast or otherwise distributed without the prior written authority.

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