Explaining Norms to Beginners

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Via Ask a Manager comes a question on professional attire, a topic near and dear to my heart -- as well as a reminder that I, too was once in the dark on the subject. The letter-writer is a new manager whose interns have no idea how to dress for work in their fashion-conservative office. Part of the answer is ingenious:

Image courtesy of Pixabay.
... First and foremost, you can minimize the number of dress-code conversations you need to have by setting really clear expectations from the very start, when interns first start working for you. Don't just give them a copy of your employee handbook and mention that there's a dress code in there; that's not enough guidance. Most office dress codes assume a certain knowledge of professional dress is already in place, so they tend to talk in broad categories -- like no shorts, no T-shirts, etc. That makes sense for experienced professionals, when it would actually be pretty condescending to spell out "no visible underwear." But for people who are brand new to the work world, broad categories can leave a ton of room for misinterpretation, which is why your interns may genuinely not know that cutout tops and visible underwear are issues. [bold added]
And, a bit later:
You can make this easier on everyone by presenting it as a subject where it's completely normal for people to need guidance at the start of their careers. Frame the initial discussion with something like this: "This stuff can be tricky to figure out when you're new to working in an office and it might be very different from dress codes that you're used to before now, so I'm going to be very detailed about what is and isn't work-appropriate here." You could even add something like, "If you're not sure about a particular outfit or clothing item, please feel free to come talk to me. It might not always be intuitive, and you shouldn't feel weird about that." [bold added]
I am old enough that going around practically in underwear hadn't been normalized yet, so I was in no danger of that -- so I made another faux pas instead, showing this advice to be spot-on: In my first job after college, there was to be a work-related social function at the boss's house. Although I asked about what to wear, I took "casual" to mean that a tee shirt and jeans would be fine. I would have greatly preferred not to have had embarrassment be the clue that I needed to recalibrate my conception of what casual attire was.

What I like about Green's advice here is that it takes into account the possible unfamiliarity of the audience with the subject matter, but doesn't saddle anyone with the burden of omniscience. The boss is to hit on common problem areas, which ought to take care of many of the problems she has encountered, but leave a friendly door open for further questions from anyone in doubt.

-- CAV

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