Dear GovLoop: How Do I Tell a Coworker They’re Dressing Inappropriately?

Welcome to Dear GovLoop, an occasional column where members of the GovLoop staff take your burning questions and give you advice on how to figure out answers to thorny questions and situations. We’ll be doling out advice on everything from how to advance in your government career to how to ease into telework to how to get along with a difficult coworker. Got a question you want us to answer? Shoot a note to [email protected] with your name, question, and any relevant information. All questions will be kept anonymous!

In today’s column, we’re answering this question: How do I tell a coworker that he or she is dressing inappropriately?

Dear GovLoop: I have a wonderful coworker who is smart, diligent and hardworker. The main problem? They dress completely inappropriately for the office – way too casually. I’m not this person’s manager but I want to help them out, but it seems like such a delicate topic with the potential to be really insulting. Can you help me out? How do I have this conversation with them? —Signed, Apprehensive About Attire

Dear Apprehensive About Attire: This IS a delicate situation, and one we think is ideal to kick off the Dear GovLoop column, because it’s about something that so many of us have to deal with on a regular basis at work: how to have a critical or difficult conversation with a colleague.

This reader could have written in any number of questions: How do I tell my coworker they have terrible breath? How do I talk to my boss about a personal and sensitive family matter? How do I have a conversation with a colleague about the fact they’re wearing too much perfume? How do I tell a junior employee they’re wearing a completely inappropriate outfit for the office? How do I… so on, and so forth.

So essentially, we’re going to answer this specific question with a broader view: how do I successfully have a critical conversation in the workplace?

There are several things to consider from the very beginning, the first being: what is the way you would want to be told that you are dressing inappropriately/wearing too much perfume/handling yourself in a negative way in the workplace? From the start, take an empathetic approach and try to think how you would want to receive difficult information, then use that approach to this conversation.

In a situation where somebody is dressing inappropriately for the workplace, if the person is not your direct report, you might want to have a conversation with their manager first about potentially addressing it. In that case, you could say something like this: “Hey Jane – your new employee Bob is a great worker, and I really love collaborating and communicating with him, and he has great ideas. But I have observed that he dresses way too casually for our office – yesterday he came in in cargo shorts and flip flops. I worry that this could negatively affect others’ perceptions of him in the office and impede his path here. Have you considered having a conversation with him about it?”

Ideally, if this person isn’t your direct report, you can consider the issue handled from there. But there are other things to think about. What if their manager is not sensitive and you think would address this topic inappropriately or inopportunely? What if the person who is dressing inappropriately is a woman, and her manager is a man who may not feel comfortable talking to her about this issue?

If that’s the case, here’s our recommendation: make sure the conversation is taking place privately, whether in your office, the person’s office, or at a one-on-one lunch or coffee outside of the office. Start off the conversation with the positives about a person’s work, and their potential. Then, when segueing into the difficult part of the conversation, you could say something like, “When I started in this workplace, somebody had this conversation with me, and it was so helpful that I wanted to make sure you knew about this issue, too – the dress code in this office is relatively strict, and some of the outfits you’ve been wearing haven’t adhered to it. For example, you wore flip flops and shorts the other day, but people generally are expected to wear slacks and button downs. I’m telling you this not so that you feel bad about that, but you’re aware of that distinction going forward so you can make sure that something as simple as the way you dress doesn’t negatively impact anybody’s opinion of you – because you do great work.”

You then may move on to examples of specific outfits or types of clothes that ARE appropriate to wear in the office, or specific examples of outfits the colleague has worn that were out of line, so that there is clarity around what should and shouldn’t be worn in the office.

For other topics of considering (B.O, loud phone calls, other difficult things you may have to bring up to a person) you can ideally rinse and repeat with the framework above.

Have you ever dealt with this issue? How did you handle it, and what did you say? Leave us a comment!

Interested in having Dear GovLoop answer your workplace or government question? Drop us a line at [email protected].

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

Jean Mayne

Having critical conversations with co-workers is a must. But you have to ask yourself–*IS this a critical conversation?* Will it change how they perform their duties? Will it change how they are received by coworkers and their specific customers? If your co-worker’s feelings will be hurt by the conversation, you have to ask yourself–is this issue worth bringing up at all?

Might there be good logic for wearing what they do. For example: sometimes I intentionally dress a little more casually because I’ll be working with small-town wastewater operators, ones that might come to the meeting in dirty overalls, steel-toed boots, and a baseball cap. I don’t want to intimidate or embarrass them. Also–for working in the field, wearing a dress/skirt/heels would be ridiculously impractical and unsafe.

I also find it a little condescending to approach someone about the social standards for the office–if they were really standards, i.e. EVERYONE else in the office is wearing slacks and button down–the guy who is wearing shorts and a tee is likely fully aware of it. But is it a COMPANY standard? If it were, a) it would have been brought up in first-day policy review, and b) it would be appropriate to hear about the policy violation from their boss, not a coworker.

Finally–do you ever compliment them when they look great? I’m not suggesting comments that border on sexual harassment–but do you note when they look sharp, put-together, professional? Have you ever said–I like that color on you! Or wow–where did you get that great tie? You might be better off to encourage the positive when it happens than criticize the negative. Your coworker would be pleased that you noticed a positive about them. And the more you notice the positives, the less the occasional negative will bother you, too.


This is an uncomfortable conversation to have and I can see this applying to my workplace. Our dress code is very casual– jeans are common. However, what if said offender is your supervisor?

Catherine Andrews

Interesting question! In that case, unfortunately, I think you either have to just ride it out, or perhaps have an informal conversation with your HR person. Given the fact that the offender is your supervisor, it wouldn’t be wise for your relationship to critique their appearance, even if your intentions are helpful and good. If what they are wearing truly borders on the offensive, then definitely bring it up to your HR department.


I had this problem with a manager who had terrible body odor and the other managers would not say anything to her. I went to HR and they stated it was reported and they addressed it. Well, the only thing they did was put air fresher all around the office. The person still had the odor. I thought if this was me, I would want someone to say something to me. I spoke to her one evening when I was working late and she was still there. She thanked me for it.