How to address your intern’s inappropriate attire

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Last week, I read a post on LinkedIn about a man who confronted his intern for wearing shoes that weren’t deemed appropriate. Before visiting a client, a more presentable pair was purchased. The intern was named, tagged, and had a photo of his new shoes posted.

LinkedIn users were not impressed by this action. They found dress codes to be outdated and considered naming and shaming unnecessary. I agree with the latter. But how do you actually handle this situation? How do you address your intern about inappropriate clothing or shoes? And can you even do that? In this article, I’ll explain how to do it and what to consider.

How to address your intern's inappropriate attire
Photo: Pixabay

How to address your intern’s inappropriate attire

Let’s start at the beginning. And no, it’s not the intern, but the company itself. Many people don’t realize that before you address someone within the company, you must ensure that everyone knows what is expected of them. It’s still too common to assume that “people know what is appropriate.” This is a utopia. Just because you think it’s acceptable for men to wear shorts to work because women wear skirts, doesn’t mean your colleague agrees.

So, let me mention one of the most dreaded words of our time: dress code. I believe that every company wanting to address an employee needs this. It doesn’t have to be a thick manual, but it should contain a few key elements:

  • Clarity so everyone knows what is meant.
  • Contact person for any questions.
  • Written documentation.
  • Uniform application for everyone unless it clearly applies to a specific group, without discrimination based on age or gender.
  • Advance notification of the dress code.

This also applies if you don’t want people working in flip-flops or wearing crop tops in the office. No matter how obvious you think it is that this shouldn’t be done, without a clear dress code, it’s not fair to reprimand someone for it. Moreover, you’re treading on thin ice. If you reprimand one person but another colleague has worn the same thing, it can cause significant disputes.


Be discreet

Addressing someone about their clothing or shoes is quite challenging. Essentially, you’re telling someone that they failed to dress appropriately for the day, in your opinion. As mentioned earlier, a dress code is personal.

You’re commenting not only on someone’s choices but also on their personal taste. That person bought and wore something they liked. Keep in mind that someone spent money on something you say can’t be worn in that work environment. It’s not a drama, but it’s something to consider. While you may find ripped jeans hideous, they might be the intern’s favorite piece of clothing.

Be discreet. When you decide to address someone about their attire, take them aside. If they want to discuss it with a colleague later, that’s their decision. But don’t discuss it publicly with others afterward.


Room for feedback

After addressing someone about their appearance, it’s important to allow space for feedback. The person you speak to might say the dress code is unclear or may disagree with it. My advice is to listen to feedback rather than rigidly sticking to the policy. It’s normal for dress codes to be adjusted over time. Sometimes certain rules turn out to be impractical, vague, or even unnecessary.

If you’re part of a management team, I recommend discussing this within the group. Dress codes are too often seen as something employees must follow rather than something that helps them. It should provide clarity, not uncertainty. Otherwise, people won’t know what is and isn’t acceptable, leading to daily confusion over their wardrobe choices.


Example of inappropriate clothing

I’ve covered a lot of points that might seem obvious, but in practice, things often go wrong. Let me use myself as an example for this occasion.

In my teenage years, I worked at Joop van den Ende’s call center. I assisted customers ordering theater tickets in the evenings and on Saturdays. From the start, I was told to look presentable, meaning no jeans with holes or other shabby clothing. That was the only guideline given.

One summer Saturday, I arrived in a black dress with small white polka dots. The dress reached my knees and covered my shoulders and halfway down my arms. I wore black pumps with it. While chatting with colleagues before work, my manager called me aside. She informed me that there had been a complaint about my attire. A male colleague said I looked like I was going to a disco. According to policy, she had to address this with me. Although she liked my dress and style, it wasn’t relevant. Due to the complaint, I couldn’t wear the dress again.


Unclear rules

I pointed out that there was no clear rule that would have informed me of this. I also questioned why colleagues in old jeans could continue wearing them, while my dress, which was relatively new and in good condition, was deemed inappropriate. She shrugged and said it was just the way it was. When I asked to see the dress code, I was told it wasn’t available. It seemed it wasn’t even written down.

As I returned to my workstation, the male colleague publicly chastised me, loudly stating that I should have known better. I was around 17 or 18 years old at the time, working as a temp, while he was in his 50s or 60s and a permanent employee. Given my age and status, I felt too intimidated to respond. The conversation with my manager had already been unpleasant, but now I felt even more embarrassed.

My colleagues found the situation strange but didn’t dare to challenge him. Throughout the day, many came up to me to compliment my dress, which was a kind gesture, but the negative feeling lingered.


Taking responsibility

It wasn’t until I told my mother what happened on the bus ride home that I realized multiple mistakes had been made:

  1. The company should have had a clear dress code.
  2. The dress code should have been documented.
  3. The dress code should apply to everyone equally.
  4. Addressing someone about their clothing should be done discreetly.
  5. There should be openness to questions and feedback.
  6. Because the policy required addressing complaints despite the dress code being unclear, anyone could be reprimanded based on subjective judgments. This made the dress code arbitrary and dependent on employees’ tastes and moods.

Let me clarify that the company had no ill intentions with the dress code. However, it’s an example of what can go wrong if not handled carefully.

And no, it’s not a waste of time to spend a few hours on this. I once helped a crematorium establish a dress code, even though most wore uniforms. We spent an entire afternoon discussing what the dress code should entail. Drafting dress codes is something that requires thoughtful consideration.

So, before you address that intern, review your organization’s policies. It’s too easy to place the blame solely on the young person. And leave LinkedIn out of it. There’s no need to publicly shame someone after the conversation.



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