can I tell my coworker to dress more professionally?

A reader writes:

I work at a smallish (600 students, 40 or so full-time employees) private for-profit educational institution. Our classes are generally M-Tu-Th, but potential students (customers!) and other members of the community are on campus all day every day. Culture and policy here is that it’s OK to wear jeans on Fridays. Recently, some staff and faculty (including the president) have started dressing down on Wednesdays as well.

One of my colleagues, who works with potential new students and current students throughout the day five days per week, has taken to wearing jeans and an untucked t-shirt on Wednesdays. It’s important to me to dress professionally – ties or sweaters on class days, oxford-style shirts W and F – and I feel like my colleague’s dress is unprofessional, presents a poor image to new students and the community, and, in a small but real way, makes it harder for us to pursue our mission of helping students move from paycheck-to-paycheck living to a career.

I’m debating whether it would be best to ignore it, speak to my colleague directly, or speak to my manager or hers. I’d love your thoughts.

You’re both peers, right? I’d let it go.

If her manager has a problem with it, she’ll address with your coworker. It sounds like she probably doesn’t object, and so therefore it’s not really appropriate for you to butt in.

Now, if you weren’t peers and she were under you in the hierarchy, it wouldn’t be totally inappropriate to discreetly mention to her manager that you think she could use some pointers on what level of professional dress is expected. Or if this person saw you as a mentor, it could be appropriate to mention it directly to her, in a kind way. But neither of these sounds like the case here.

Rather, it sounds like the culture there is one where what she’s wearing is actually okay. You don’t need to like that or dress that way yourself, but she’s doing something that’s allowed.

Look at this another way: How would you take it if your colleague came to you and said, “I know that we’re not required to be here until 9:00, but I like to come in at 7:00 and really think that you should do the same.” You’d probably prefer she focus on herself and let you manage your own behavior, right? Same thing here.

This isn’t to say that you should never approach a coworker with suggestions directly; there are plenty of times where that’s appropriate and even necessary. But this one doesn’t rise to that level.

{ 11 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    This is really your managers problem to deal with. That said, there is a sales issue here. You are trying to advertise that by enrolling in your institution, you can move clients out of the T-shirt and jeans culture into something more career oriented. By having the staff dress the same as their clients, they are essentially saying that taking classes in your school won't change their status one bit! I would think that your staff should dress as how graduates of your program would dress in their "real" new jobs. That sends a success oriented message. I would go to your manager and bring it up as an image/advertising issue for the whole comapany. Most businesses operate that way – people that are in direct contact with cutomers usually have to dress nicer for "advertising" purposes.

  2. Anonymous*

    You have a high standard set for yourself, and you think that others should follow suit. That's not the case, however.

    I agree with Anon above that you do have a sales issue. Perhaps it needs to be looked over by everyone since you say it's a 5 day a week operation, and Fridays have become "dress down". It won't hurt anyone to dress professionally everyday; it might come a time that every day is "Casual Friday." Is there a way you can anonymously mention this to management and your opinion on it sending the wrong message to potential clients?

    As for right now, you did mention that a few were creating "Casual Wednesday." Your colleague is not breaking rules if that's the case, and it would be inappropriate for you to address the issue with your colleague since he is not breaking any rules. It'll make you look stuck up and a non-participant in the office environment.

    So either discreetly get the message across to management without naming names or start having clients come in on M, T, and Th only.

  3. Anonymous*

    I for one, question the validity of the logic that jeans (assuming nice condition) and a t-shirt (again assuming) in any way presents an unprofessional appearance to your customers. Indeed, I would wager that it makes the new students feel somewhat more comfortable that their "admissions advisers" (aka sales rep) are approachable.

    Mind you I have a strong bias here; I briefly attended a school that matched the description you provide. This practically reeks of Heald or a similar "school." I assure you that all of the ITTs, Kaplans, Healds, etc. are nothing more than glorified diploma mills. I've been a student and I've worked professionally with their graduates. With very few exceptions, I remain singularly unimpressed.

    Trust me when I say that if you work at such a campus, you aren't doing the students any favors regardless of how you dress. If your campus is not such a school, well then I still refer back to my first paragraph.

  4. Anonymous*

    Anon @ 1:50am

    What's the validity of the logic that wearing a t-shirt and jeans is professional in the workplace – school or otherwise? If you think it doesn't present unprofessionalism, then why can't we all wear jeans and t-shirts to all of our jobs? Of course there are jobs that it is appropriate but in many other places, it is seen as "dress down" rather than the norm.

    People in the school workplace can make their clients feel comfortable without having to dress down. It's how you come across in words and actions. Plus, if you dress down to meet the potential students appearance, then you are not raising the bar for what they will become once they go through the institution. If I went to my college interview and saw the woman sitting across from me wearing a t-shirt and jeans, I might question it a bit. I believe the presentation of those the clients first come in contact can truly reflect the image of the institution.

    I cannot comment further on the campuses you have named for I don't have any experience with them.

  5. Anonymous*

    If I were the casual dresser, I would tell this letter-writer to stick it where the sun don't shine.

    The only person whose opinion matters is my boss. No matter what the job is.

  6. TheLabRat*

    While I see why the writer is asking, there is something about the tone in combination with the specific question I find really, really off putting. I can't put my finger on it but it's making it hard to consider the question seriously.

    Also, I agree with the anon about the mad vocational scam school vibes; "paycheck-to-paycheck living to a career" is almost straight out of the sales pitch I got from those schools when I was looking into picking up extra certs for my freelance admin work. So I guess I could just be having bias problems, too.

    Trying to be objective, I guess I just don't see the big deal, given that the president of the school has set the tone for this. On the flip side of that, depending on the curriculum, and therefore the careers your institution is preparing people for, perhaps the pres. doesn't realize the potential conflict he is causing.

    IF you do decide to broach the subject the way the first poster suggests, I would be very careful about your word choices. If whatever-it-is about your letter that is getting under my skin translates to how you speak in person, you could wind up sounding pretentious when you're just trying to clear up a policy issue that could have an impact on your company's mission.

  7. Anonymous*

    Is it your job to manage this person?

    Is it hurting your work?


    Then MYOB.

    Unless, of course, you'd love for all your coworkers to spend the rest of your employment here sniggering behind your back about the giant stick in your ass.

  8. Brian*

    wait, wait – the stick goes "in"?

    I always thought it was supposed to go "up"…?

    (I'm here all week – try the veal!)

  9. Anonymous*

    This is an issue of organizational culture. Every organization has a different culture regarding the dress code and what it has decided is acceptable. Companies like Google are very casual and their employees wear jeans and tee-shirts, whereas other companies expect their employees to dress in business casual or even business professional, who�s to say that one organization is more successful than another because of the way the regard their dress code policy or what their culture is. What works for them works for them, so to speak.

    One of the most important aspects of being a successful employee is organizational fit. How does the employee�s attitudes, customs and beliefs fit with the organizations�? If they fit well it�s a good indicator that they will be successful with the organization, if they don�t fit then all the knowledge, skills, and abilities they have probably won�t make much of a difference and they probably won�t be successful with the organization.

    It�s entirely possible that the OPs cultural beliefs about the dress code don�t fit, or no longer fit, with the organizations�. Complaining to a manager or even the underdressed employee (though, like the previous advice, this would be unwise) won�t make a difference and will probably get the OP marked as a problem employee.

    The OP may want to obtain clarification about the proper dress code from someone in a position to make a decision and if that decision isn�t a fit for the OP they should either adapt to the new culture or seek employment with an organization that would be a better fit. If the decision maker indicates that jeans and tee-shirts are not acceptable except on casual Friday�s then the OP should continue with their current dress code and not worry about what other people are doing, complaining about it or pointing it out to a manager could very easily backfire and give the OP a black mark in the eyes of management. People don�t like a complainer, which this could be seen as, and pointing it out to management could be seen as an indictment that they are failing to do their job as managers, which isn�t a good thing for the OP.

  10. raskal*

    Can I tell my coworker to dress more professionally?

    Sure. Not everything relative to free speech runs the course of common sense, status quo or actual responsibility. btw if you do tell them, you run the risk of being assaulted physically, mentally or via work efforts since precadent deems their dress okay.

    You probably think I don't feel the way a person dresses is important , but I agree that the way a person carries themself is critical to their success. That manner can vary dependent on profession.

    In your situation it will take a significant loss (perhaps a new boss?) for the inst to realize the effect on their unannounced, unauthorized mid week dress down.

    Talk to the boss, share your concerns and see where it leads. Keep in mind, not every job is a good fit.

  11. Productivity Guy*

    Two things:

    1. Dressing down does not imply unprofessionalism. I see what the writer is saying, but there are plenty of schools that have highly respected professors who don't dress all that much differently from the students.

    2. If a coworker came up to me and told me to dress more professionally (I wear business clothes some days and jeans and a hoodie other days, depending on what I feel like), I'd be pissed off and make a habit of not following her request.

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