Addressing Physical Appearances with Remote Employees
I manage a team of 15 people. Before COVID, we all worked in our local corporate office together. Now my team is completely remote. On some of our video conference calls, upper management will decide to join unexpectedly. We also regularly have video calls with clients and partners. Because of this, I encourage everyone to treat their appearance and dress on video calls as if they were still coming into the office every day. I am a middle-aged man and I have several women on my team. I know they are balancing a lot, especially those taking care of their children in the house while working from home. There have been some repeat situations where my team members have joined a video call looking a little rough. It’s gotten to the point where upper management or clients have made comments.
How do I respectfully have conversations with these women about their appearance? They typically wore makeup every day in the office but now wear no makeup and their hair is often unkempt compared to how it used to be pre-COVID. As a man – this is something I cannot relate to. The last thing I want to do is make them feel uncomfortable or self-conscious. I’d appreciate any advice you may have!
As I often do, I’m going to pull apart the different threads within your question. One thread has to do with the issue of an official dress code. Does your company have an official dress code (for all employees)? Has that been revised for COVID-19/remote working? Your answer has potential legal implications: Employers should have gender-neutral dress codes and “grooming standards” that do not impose greater burdens on employees of one sex (in this case, women) and are equally enforced among all employees. Thus, one question is whether men are also less groomed during the pandemic and if so, whether their grooming habits will also be a focus for discussion with managers. If you have a dress code, but men’s informal attire and grooming isn’t seen as an issue, then you may want to think twice about raising it as an issue for women. If there isn’t a dress code and you want your employees to appear a certain way on videocalls, you may want to consider whether to institute one—a gender-neutral one. Thus, check with folks in HR before urging the women to groom themselves more.
Another thread is about expectations during the pandemic. One survey found that only 6% of teleworking respondents wear business attire during their workday. And 17% work in their pajamas, while 60% wear sweatpants every day. Are your colleagues and customers simply noticing that some women are now without makeup and their hair is in its “natural” state rather than coiffed? (The more “made up” a woman was before, the more striking the difference can be when she isn’t made up.) Or are they commenting on it because they’re concerned? What expectations do employees and customers have about appearance during the pandemic and work-from-home? Of course, some industries and companies may explicitly want their employees to be in that 6%. In that case, a formal dress code (and an explanation why) might be useful. Are employees equitably resourced to provide that?
Another thread is about the cost of women’s appearance—in both time and money. Did you know that women’s “grooming” takes longer and typically costs more than that of men? In one pre-COVID study, women spend almost 2 hours more/week than men on their appearance (spending 55 minutes/day and costing $8/day in hair and skin products, according to another pre-COVID study). That’s an average of about 25 minutes per day difference to look the way they used to look at the office. Thought of this way, you can probably see why those 25 minutes each day are precious and can be better spent in any number of ways, including getting more of their work done.
The final thread I want to address is your question about how to talk to the women, but not about their appearance. Rather, be caring and compassionate; if you know that they are swamped, ask how you can help lighten their load. Working women have been harder hit by the pandemic, and its effects on family, than have working men.
Disclaimer: This question and response is provided for informational purposes only, and you should not act or refrain from acting on the basis of this content. It is strongly recommended that you immediately seek legal or other professional advice if you believe you are experiencing a problem requiring professional assistance. Robin Rosenberg and Live in Their World, Inc. disclaim all liability for actions you take or fail to take based on Dear Robin content.