Ask a Boss: The Interns Don’t Know How to Dress Professionally!

Photo: Jamie Hodgson/Getty Images

Dear Boss,

I’m a new manager. Each year, the company I work for brings on college students as interns. One thing I have noticed is the lack of following the dress code and unprofessional outfits from the interns.

Our industry is on the conservative side and wearing suits and button-downs is expected for everyone, from the receptionist right up the C-suite. I’ve seen the odd issue with the male interns (one had swear words shaved into his hair and another would wear bright colored undershirts and t-shirts under his button-down shirt), but the problems I have noticed are almost exclusively from the female interns.

As a woman who has worked my way up to management in a field that is still male dominated, I want to guide these young women so their clothes don’t hold them back. In a perfect world, clothing and dress would not matter but in the current world it does matter immensely.

I understand most interns don’t have a large, functional work wardrobe yet, but some of the clothing I have seen is atrocious and definitely unprofessional. Some examples are skirts that are well above mid-thigh, visible thongs, sheer blouses or tank tops under jackets instead of button-down shirts, full smoky eye shadow with false lashes, and non-natural lip or hair colors. One of the interns we have this year wore a jacket and tank top that had pieces missing and showed the skin of her lower back and under her arms.

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Our policy is to send someone home if they are not conforming to the dress code and can’t change whatever it is that is breaking the code, and to escalate to write-ups and beyond if it happens several times. This is my first year as a manager and I have had to send several interns home for not following the code. I feel bad doing this because they are here to learn, but not dressing professionally could lead to them not being taken seriously once they start working after college. I figure it is better for them to find out now rather than once they’re in post-college jobs.

The dress code does state clearly that suits must be worn and employees must look professional, but I’m thinking that these interns are new to the working world and might not know what professional means, or they might have a different idea of it. How do I guide them without seeming condescending? How do I explain to them what is and is not professional? I don’t want to make them self-conscious when I talk to them, or have them think that they are in trouble and I’m upset with them. How would you handle this if you were in my shoes?

Well, good for you for being willing to talk to them about it. Too often managers find talking about dress to be so awkward they don’t bother doing it … which then can indeed lead to people, especially people new to the work world, being taken less seriously and having no idea why.

I think at least part of the reason why these conversations feel hard is that they feel personal, like you’re weighing in on someone’s fashion sense. So keep in mind that you’re not commenting on that at all: You’re just talking about what works for this particular office.

There’s also a piece of this where it can feel like you’re policing women’s dress in ways that come awfully close to policing their bodies. For example, bustier women are more likely to be told, “That shirt is too low-cut for this office,” than their less curvy co-workers whose shirts have similar necklines. Of course, managers can’t single-handedly change societal perceptions of this stuff, so that can leave them having to choose between playing right into those dynamics or not mentioning something that might truly impact how someone is perceived professionally.

Luckily, in your case it sounds like the issues are more straightforward than that. Visible underwear, sheer tops, and shirts with cutouts are pretty objectively unprofessional, which makes this easier to address.

So — how to talk about it? 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.

So at the start of their internships, get really specific — as in, “In the past, some of the things we’ve seen interns wear that aren’t work-appropriate are sheer shirts, anything that exposes your underwear, clothes with cutouts, and exposed shoulders.” You can even find some photos online and use those to illustrate your points! People aren’t born knowing what “professional” means, and ideally an internship is the time when they’ll learn it. And yes, you might feel like you’re being really remedial — but it’s so much kinder to give them this guidance at the start than to wait for them to mess up before you clue them in.

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.”

Also, if your office truly expects button-downs every day, be very clear about that. Don’t hope they’ll figure it out by observing others; that’s clearly not working, so do them the favor of letting them know from the start. (In fact, do them the favor of telling them before they start work, so they don’t show up in the wrong thing on their first day.)

Doing this is going to cut way down on the number of conversations you have to have afterwards. But if at some point someone does show up dressed inappropriately, just be straightforward: “That’s a great shirt but it’s outside of our dress code. Can you save it for the weekend?” And if it’s a pattern: “Your outfits haven’t been quite professional enough for our office. I know this can be an adjustment when you first start working in an office. Can we go over the dress code again?”

You also might consider advocating for your company to rethink its policy about sending people home to change. Being sent home is a pretty humiliating consequence, especially for someone who’s young and still learning these norms. Unless someone is dressed truly egregiously, a simple conversation is usually the better way to go.

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Ask a Boss: The Interns Don’t Dress Professionally!