The Hill Life: How to Tell a Staffer Her Skirt is Too Short
Feb 22, 2012
A couple of weeks ago, I attended the CPAC convention to watch one of my bosses speak. I had never been before, so I didn’t really know what to expect, but nothing could have prepared me for the chaos of placing thousands of conservatives in a hotel-convention center with limited chairs. Especially when most of the attendees are under the age of 25 and surgically attached to their wireless devices.
I’d been warned by several CPAC veterans that the young women attending the event would be dressed improperly for a professional environment. And as they predicted, I saw my fair share of miniskirts, inappropriately high heels and halter tops. But I also saw an equal, if not greater, number of young women in suits, pencil skirts and work dresses.
Several days after CPAC, family members, readers and colleagues started e-mailing me copies of Melissa Clouthier’s blog post: CPAC, The Jersey-shorification of Our Young People. In it, Clouthier talks about some of the clothing choices that she saw at CPAC using words like slut and whore. She blames parents, academia, the media and women’s lib for the prevalence of miniskirts and stilettos at CPAC. And she speaks at length about the lascivious thoughts that men think when they see a woman dressed provocatively.
Frankly, I found her entire post to be little more than a graphic and tasteless exercise in slut shaming. If she had positive intentions (which I don’t doubt), they were lost in a pile of negativity and judgment.
Giving fashion advice to young women is a tricky mixture of encouragement, mentoring and aversion therapy. You need to be serious enough to let them know that what they’re wearing is inappropriate, but constructive and positive enough so they don’t feel like they’re being denigrated. It’s not always easy to strike that balance, and I’m not always successful, but that’s at least what I’m trying to do with CHS.
Yes, the clothing you wear conveys a message. And rightly or wrongly, people will judge you based on your appearance. So it’s important to be mindful of the non-verbal your clothing choices are emitting and whether that message hinders or advances your professional agenda. But getting down in the muck of calling young women tramps because they were tube dresses is beneath my dignity, not to mention that if my Mother saw a post like Clouthier’s on this site she’d take me to the woodshed for being so crude.
I can be outspoken. I can be snarky. I can even be a real bitch sometimes. You may not agree with all of my advice or all of my opinions, but I hope you know that when I write something that sounds a bit harsh, it’s not because I’m judging your moral fiber or personal character. I don’t know you, I just know the clothes you’re wearing and the message those clothes can convey in a professional setting. So how do you tell a younger employee/staffer that what she’s wearing is inappropriate?
Have a Dress Code. You can’t expect new employees or interns to know what clothing is considered professional in your office unless you tell them. You might assume that some edicts are universally known, but if you rely on assumptions, your office will be the one with interns who show up in minidresses and flip-flops. So write down what you expect–no flip-flops, no spaghetti straps, skirts must be three fingers above the knee or longer–and most people will deliver for you.
Also, if you can, send the dress code before people arrive in D.C. I’d hate for a young person to spend a few hundred dollars on “work” clothes only to show up day one and find out her new wardrobe is not appropriate for her office.
Enforce the Dress Code for Everyone. If your SA or intern sees the LD wearing a forbidden item, she’ll think that she can wear it too. So if flip flops are banned and a senior staffer shows up wearing them as soon as the weather warms, then, either the senior staffer needs to be brought into compliance or the dress code needs to be changed.
Never Gossip About a Staffer’s Attire. This is a mistake that I made a few years ago. If you talk about someone’s clothing choices behind her back, and she senses that you’re gossiping about her or what you said gets back to her, you’ve got a new problem to deal with. So before you talk to anyone else (unless you’re simply confirming with a higher-up that the attire requires intervention), talk to the fashion offender first.
Get Out of the Office. If you need to talk to a younger staffer about her clothing, take her for a cup of coffee. This serves two purposes. One, no one needs to see or hear this discussion but her. Two, when you chastise someone within the confines of the office, it can heighten emotions and make the situation feel more serious than it is. Getting out of the office allows for a bit of levity and gives the discussion a less official tone.
Make It a Conversation, Not a Verbal Beatdown. No one likes to get a bad review from their Boss, but you can blunt the sting if you keep it conversational. Say to the person, “How are you liking your internship/position? Is there anything you’re having trouble with or anything you want to ask me?” Give her a chance to talk to you about her possible questions or grievances before you air yours.
Then, compliment her, “I’ve been really impressed by your phone etiquette/writing skills/how much you’re learning.” And then, break the bad news, “There is just one area that I think needs improvement. As an employee, you’re the face of the office and some of the clothes you’re wearing to work aren’t showing the office or your abilities in the best light.” Lastly, tell her what you expect in the future, and if there are any pieces that she should never wear to the office again let her know.
Soften the Blow. No matter what you say or how you say it, you’re going to hurt her feelings a bit. It’s inevitable. But it will hurt her feelings less if you soften the blow by reiterating all the good work she’s done so far, and how you see a great future for her on the Hill if that is what she chooses to do. I also like to come back a few days later and compliment her on something she’s wearing. A simple “I like your hair like that,” or “I love the purse, who made it?” will go along way toward healing the damage.
What If She Doesn’t Get the Picture? If you provide the intern with a dress code and you tell her that her attire is not appropriate, and she still does not change, you need to talk to her in a more official way. Sit her down (in the office) and say, “We talked about your attire two weeks ago, and twice this week you’ve worn dresses that were too revealing. Is there some reason why you’re not following the dress code?” Who knows, maybe she can’t afford to buy anything else or she didn’t realize you were serious.
Then, let her know that next time there will be consequences, “You need to dress professionally for this job because what you wear reflects on the Boss and the office. If you don’t start dressing within the guidelines, I’ll have to send you home to change clothes.”
These conversations are never pleasant, but they need to happen, and they need to happen early on in someone’s career. Women can earn a bad reputation based on what they wear, but instead of judging them and speaking to them harshly like the blogger mentioned earlier, let’s help them with a bit of constructive advice. Believe me, they’ll thank you later.