Taking the Sting Out of Giving Feedback About Work-Appropriate Dress

The way we look is a very personal and sensitive matter. Yet, physical appearance defines our image – our brand – and influences the way others see us. It impacts our credibility and plays a significant role in opening and closing doors to opportunity. Talent will take you a long way, but if you don’t look the part, it will take a lot of regular, continual convincing to prove you belong in the role, IF you’re even given a shot.

Most people know and follow the rules – written and unwritten. They dress appropriately, in a way that’s consistent with the professional, self-respecting image they want to project and the company and customers expect. But occasionally, we encounter those whose daily appearance gives us cause for pause. We wonder, “Did he sleep in that shirt?” “Why is his hair is so long and messy?” “Why doesn’t someone tell her she’s showing too much cleavage, thigh or butt?”

These rule breakers are also often the people who question why they aren’t taken seriously, or haven’t been considered for the opportunity they want. It’s as if organizational and professional norms are invisible to them.

Giving feedback on dress can be a very uncomfortable position – even if you know it will be helpful. It can get complicated, and you might feel intimidated – particularly if the person is of a different gender, race, class or ethnicity. Yet, if you’re the person’s manager or mentor, it’s your responsibility to communicate the unspeakable.

Assuming that your goal is to support the success of your direct report, mentee, colleague or friend, and do no long-term harm to the relationship, there is a way to speak the unspeakable. Use FeedForward.

The basic idea of FeedForward is to focus on suggested changes for the future. That means you, the giver of feedback, are encouraged to make affirmative statements – statements that describe what to do. Focus on what the person needs to do going forward to better align their daily actions with their goals and increase their effectiveness. FeedForward allows you to step out of that awkward space of criticizing past behavior.

Here are some guidelines for an effective FeedForward session about dress.

Prepare: Clarify what you think the person needs to do, going forward. Write down your suggestions and make sure they are clear, specific and focused on suggested changes – to dos for the person to consider.

Practice: Conduct a confidential practice session with a trustworthy ally. Behave as if your practice partner is the recipient of the FeedForward. Practice and refine your approach, wording, tone and non-verbals until you get it right. Then, practice it once more. It’s worth the investment if you sincerely want to be helpful and maintain the relationship.

Set a Time to Talk: Tell the person you’d like to talk with them about something important. Ask, “Is now a good time or would you prefer another date and time?”

Speak Privately: Demonstrate respect by finding a private setting to insure confidentiality and decrease the likelihood of being interrupted. Consider using your office or theirs, a conference room, a secluded spot in a restaurant or coffee shop. Go for a walk or sit in the park.

Acknowledge Your Intention to Be Helpful: Start with, “I’m going to make a suggestion that I believe will be helpful to you in your career. I want to do it in a way that feels respectful and supportive of your success, and I want nothing to get in the way of our relationship. The topic is a sensitive one in that it deals with your appearance, the way you dress.”

Connect FeedForward with ambitions: This gives evidence of your intention to support the person’s success. It may also, perhaps apart from your conversation, give him or her a chance to consider how their current style of dress aligns with their career goals, as well as organizational and industry norms.

Learn more about Feedforward and Marshall Goldsmith, author and founder of the FeedForward coaching process, in which I’m certified.

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