What to do with the office peacock and the dress-down dude

Gareth Cartman

Gareth Cartman

A recent post by Kris Dunn reminded me of a common, unspoken problem in the workplace – the way people dress. I’ve seen HR departments visibly twitch at the low-cut tops and short skirts worn by ambitious members of otherwise anonymous departments. Equally, I’ve seen them not bat an eyelid at the suddenly sharp-suited marketer who, just last week, was practically wearing pyjamas to work.

We have two main problems: the office peacock, and the dress-down dude. We have Victoria Beckham and The Big Lebowski in our workplaces, side by side, and we need a plan.

The office peacock

There’s a dress code, and there’s a dress code. One is written, the other is unspoken. One is a simple, gender-neutral statement of policy. The other is an unconscious reflection of the culture you’ve built (or are trying to destroy, you choose).

It often comes from the top. If the MD doesn’t wear a tie, the lack of neckwear filters down through the board, to line managers and beyond. An unspoken dress code relies on those little glances in an employee’s first week, which say “the suit is too much”, or “I need to iron my trousers”. Whichever.

An unspoken dress code relies on an employee’s need to fit in.

The office peacock, however, is trying not to fit in. There may be various reasons for this. He or she may be calling out for your attention, silently screaming “look at me, I could do with a promotion” or “I judge myself more important than everyone else”. It may be a conscious effort to underline his or her leadership credentials, but if it’s out of line – what can you do?

Well, not much. If it’s within the confines of the official dress code, then it’s no reason to haul someone into an office and give them a ticking off. A shiny suit does not a quarrel make. Equally, if someone turns up to work in a suit on a dress-down day, what can you do? You’re not the fun police. You do not exist solely to ensure that everyone wears jeans on a Friday. But note that behaviour, it’s not against policy but it’s kinda weird.

It is worthwhile, however, to ascertain the reasons behind the change in behaviour. Flag this up to the potentially unaware line manager, and attempt to find out whether there has been any conflict within the team, or any performance issues that may have influenced the snazzy dressing. Underlying issues within the team may have influenced this employee’s decision to break out from the constraints of the unspoken dress code and change peoples’ perceptions.

The dress-down dude

While the peacock may just have bought a new suit, the dress-down dude has ditched the suit for more casual attire. He may not have shaved, if it is a he… She may not have bothered with the usual lipstick. Very often, these are subtle signs… indications that the usual grooming has fallen by the wayside.

The signs are there, but what do they mean?

Firstly, there may be issues at home. After all, getting ready is a lengthy enough process, so new parents can be excused for dressing down a little. There may be other issues, such as financial or bereavement, and it’s down to the sensitivities of the line manager to discern whether there are external pressures on the employee. If you’ve not trained your line managers to pick up on these signs, then it’s all your fault. Sorry.

Secondly, and more importantly there may be work issues. The dress-down dude has often given up, and it’s important to distinguish between someone who has given up and someone who is under pressure. Someone who has given up is effectively working the longest notice period possible. They’re potentially searching for jobs, or they’ve just resigned themselves to the fact that they’re going nowhere in your organisation, in which case, you’re the one to make that call, not them. Can you get them back? Or do you do what they’ve done – and give up?

You have a couple of options – number 1, you make that call. You decide they’re not going anywhere, and you performance manage them, potentially performance managing them out. Number 2, you take a more holistic approach and tackle the underlying issues first. If the dress code is being broken then yes, tackle that, but by resolving those underlying issues, you could resolve the dress-down issue as a consequence.

Imagine that. HR gets sartorial.

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