How to deliver feedback on an employee’s appearance

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Delivering feedback on appearance can be an exceptionally awkward task for even the most seasoned supervisor or HR professional.

Such feedback can come across as petty and vindictive, but executive coach Rebecca Zucker believes that an employee’s appearance is a critical and often ignored aspect in their professional success.

“Personal appearance is one important facet of executive presence, the lack of which can hold someone back, regardless of the individual’s competence level or mastery of his or her job function,” she wrote in Forbes.

Zucker – who also co-founded leadership development firm Next Step Partners – said there are five things you need to watch out for when delivering sensitive feedback:

  1. The intent should be positive – Sometimes individuals are just unable to see how their appearance could be an issue and Zucker said you can use that blind spot to gain their confidence by framing the conversation in the context that you would like to help them succeed.
  2. Use descriptions not evaluations – Be specific about what it is that you think they need to improve on such as baggy clothes or wearing too much perfume instead of calling them out for looking unprofessional.
  3. Ask them open-ended questions – Make it a two-way conversation by engaging them early on and share their thoughts on the issue.
  4. ‘Describe the impact’ – Explain to the employee how their appearance could be derailing their progress because it diminishes their presence, for example, said Zucker.
  5. ‘Discuss ideas for improvement’ – Suggest ways that you think they could improve on their appearance such as providing helpful resources or online research.

Have you ever had to provide an employee with feedback on their appearance? Post your comments here.

 

 

  • New Manager on 2017-02-15 9:47:52 AM

    The way you have described the approach could work with someone genuinely interested in progressing. It will need to be even more creative in situations where the individual has no ambition to progress for various reasons. In that case would one even need to address it if there are no health or other performance? The challenge is even greater in a government workplace.

  • Michelle on 2017-02-15 10:39:56 AM

    No one denies that appearance is important. But what is missing here is recognizing the potential for unconscious biases and prejudices when judging one's appearance. For example, when women of colour are seen as "unprofessional" when wearing their hair natural.

  • Nancy Fisher on 2017-02-15 4:35:30 PM

    I agree with the comments about barriers to this discussion. It's different than talking to an employee about poor personal hygiene which goes beyond "presence" (or perceptions of it) to unpleasant work environment. A more difficult but necessary discussion to have.

  • Sue Daharry, CHRL on 2017-02-17 4:03:45 PM

    I have had opportunities to discuss both personal hygiene and unprofessional appearance in the workplace. In each situation the individual welcomed and appreciated the discussion. Some employees are honestly not aware, so bringing it to their attention can be a positive experience as opposed finger pointing and gossiping at the water cooler.

    In my experience when done with tact and sensitivity, it can be a positive experience all around.

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