Posing that curly question

Can you impose a dress standard on someone who works for you, but doesn’t work for you, such as a contractor? By Jackie O’Fee.

I recently ran four sessions at a conference for a large Australasian corporate. I covered “Why the way you look matters” for two groups, a smaller break-out workshop with some of the men and a “How to look fabulous every day” with all of the teams. 

I’d also spent some time giving two of the female team-members a makeover: new clothes, a cut and colour at the hairdresser, along with make-up. It was great fun. Events like this are also a bit of a goldmine for ideas for these columns too, as the questions I get asked can often be the seed of an idea I can expand on. 

One particular question was posed by a member of the senior management team. She wondered how to deal with the dress standards of a contractor employed at her site. 

She explained that although she was comfortable with the standards of dress her team exhibited, this particular contractor was a total scruff and didn’t appear to either care or notice. 

This was a further challenge as the work the person undertook for her was quite specific so she couldn’t simply choose someone else.

As an aside, I guess one key thing you need to take from this is that if she had a choice, she would have given the business to someone else based on the way this person presented themselves. What business might you be missing out on because of how you present yourself?

Anyway, back to that super-curly question. Is there a way you can impose a dress standard on someone who works for you, but doesn’t work for you? And if you can, how do you do that?

I believe the answer is yes. Admittedly, it’s fairly easy when first engaging a contractor – you could simply state that you have a standard of dress that is required for all who work within your business, and then outline specifically what that is.

The tricky bit comes when that particular contractor has happily and obliviously worked in your environment for a period of time and no-one has ever said anything. So, what to do in that circumstance? Here’s a couple of options you could try:

• Write said contractor an email saying that your organisation had recently reviewed its workplace dress code and it was now a requirement that all staff and contractors adhere to a specific standard. Then outline what the standard is, and finish by saying that as part of their contracting team, they too were required to dress to those standards when on-site.

• Blame someone else. OK, so I know this is slightly passive-aggressive and reeks of the parental guilt approach I take with my 18-year-old, but choosing to shift the decision to a third party may be an easy way to remove yourself from what feels like a sensitive conversation. This is also a valid approach to use with an existing employee. Tell said contractor that someone had complained about how scruffy they were, and that the way they dressed made them question the quality of the work they did. You can even distance yourself from the feedback with an “I know it’s a bit strange, but we need to think of our clients. Can you perhaps dress slightly smarter when coming here?”

Sometimes we shy away from difficult conversations as we worry we will cause offence. Sadly, I think we often tend to build that offence up in our own minds, where a simple chat may in fact be no big deal to the recipient of the feedback. 

Be brave, and just have the conversation with honesty and from a place of care rather than correction and it may be easier than you think. 

Oh, and if you are on the receiving end of feedback like this, take it as a gift – remember feedback is like someone giving you the answers to the exam before you sit it.  M


Jackie O’Fee is the owner of personal style consultancy Signature Style. She works with both individuals and organisations. signaturestyle.co.nz

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