Joseph Grenny is author of three bestselling books, Influencer, Crucial Conversations, and Crucial Confrontations.
Dear Crucial Skills,
I need advice on how to have a conversation with a subordinate about her provocative attire. It’s tricky because her clothes are clean and very nice—just more revealing than is appropriate for our office. To make it more complicated, I’m a man and I’m wondering if that should make the conversation any different than if she had a female supervisor. Her attire is holding her back from progressing and limiting how management can use and develop her skills. I’m nervous about discrimination and harassment accusations that could result if I handle this wrong. And yet, I know I need to have a conversation with her.
Since you’re in a legally sensitive area, I asked Jaclyn, our HR Manager, for some advice. Between Jaclyn and myself, we’ll give you our best thoughts.
1. This is about policy not preference. The first thing you have to do is ensure your company has a clear dress and grooming standard in place. If they don’t, you are on shaky legal ground if you approach a specific employee and make this an issue of personal judgment. If the policy was implemented correctly, it should already have been communicated to all employees, and even signed by them to acknowledge their understanding and commitment. If this step is done right, your conversation will be much easier to hold. So, address any gaps in the policy deployment before opening your mouth with your employee.
2. Just the facts. When you sit down with her to explain where she’s out of compliance, be sure you scrupulously avoid mixing any of your judgments or “stories” into your description of the problem. For example, if you said, “Some of your clothes are a bit more provocative than appropriate for an office setting” you would cross the line into judgments. Rather, refer factually to the gap between what she wears at times and what the policy says. For example, “Our policy says ‘clothing should not be form-fitting or revealing of large portions of the legs, chest . . .” After sharing the relevant excerpts, you could ask how she thought her outfit yesterday, for example, compared to the requirements. Once again, the focus is not on judgments but on facts.
3. Make It Motivating. Mention that part of your interest in holding this conversation is a concern for her potential in the organization. Be sure to mention that. Let her know that a key reason for her to comply is to keep doors of advancement open. Using her career as motivation could help her to keep her commitment while also ensuring she understands your goodwill toward her.
4. Make It Safe. You’re likely to feel uncomfortable in the conversation because it is an area of sensitivity and you’ll be worried she’ll be offended or hold a grudge against you. That’s where make it safe skills come in. I’d encourage you to use contrasting after having shared your concerns to help her understand your motives and respect for her.
For example, you might say, “You and I have worked well together in the past and I want you to know that I do not want that to change. I have a great regard for the quality of your work and have no concerns in any area other than this. This is an uncomfortable conversation for me just as it is for you. I was nervous that you would misunderstand my reasons for holding it and hope you know it is only to ensure I’m doing right by the company while contributing to your development as well.” Using contrasting in this way can help her understand you are not simply doing this to be a prude or to make life hard for her.
You also asked about whether the conversation should be any different given that you are a man speaking with a woman. Jaclyn and I agree that it should not. Your mindset in this conversation is that you have an employee who is out of compliance with a clear policy. Period. You should describe the gap between her current practice and the existing policy factually and respectfully. Then conclude by both confirming her understanding and asking for her commitment to comply in the future.
On a personal note, as I wrote this to you, I reflected back on my first really sensitive conversation with an employee. I was an entrepreneur in a small company and had a half dozen people working for me. One had a tremendous hygiene problem that was offending customers. Sal was 25 years old. I was 17. He was a good friend. I hardly slept for a week as I obsessed over whether and how to deal with the problem. When I finally had the crucial conversation, my stomach was in knots, so I know how easy it is to turn inward when these challenges face us.
And that’s the idea I want to leave you with. The reason we do so poorly in so many of our crucial conversations is that we’re more concerned with how the problem and conversation affect us than we are with how they affect the other person. My selfishness in the situation with my employee made me more worried and less effective than if I had kept my attention on what I really wanted to do for Sal, my customers, and my colleagues.
At last I had the conversation. I don’t recall well enough what I said to be a judge of whether or not I was skillful. But I do remember what happened. Sal began bathing. He bought some new clothes. He got some badly needed dental care. His circle of friends increased. In the next year he got married—something he had longed to do for some time. Now, I don’t take credit for all of that. But in my quiet moments when I deliberate about whether or not to talk to someone I care about, I try to get outside of myself and focus on what I really want for those I care about.