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Home No. 66: Lab tech dresses inappropriately — What should I do?

Feb 28

No. 66: Lab tech dresses inappropriately — What should I do?

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Lab tech dresses inappropriately — What should I do?

Reader question: The new lab tech we hired has multiple, visible body piercings and wears low-cut tops and even lower-cut jeans. This isn’t how she dressed during the interview when she apparently removed some of the piercings, too. I realize that disheveled scientists are nothing new. But in a serious workplace, where minds should be on science, aren't there minimal dress code requirements? Can I legally create and enforce a “dress code” for my own lab team?

Expert Comments:

Legally, you’re within your rights to develop and enforce a dress code for your lab, and that includes jewelry, such as piercings. Having said that, I encourage you to seek the guidance of your institution’s Human Resources department. HR may not be aware of how the individual is dressing, and it’s possible the body piercings could be a safety concern in a lab setting.

In fact, I think you should take the following steps:

  • Don’t have any conversations with the staff member without your HR department’s input. HR can show you the specific institutional policies that already exist, help you adapt those policies to your specific lab, and assist you to create an effective way to have the conversation with the employee.

  • Next, present your concerns to the employee. Explain why the clothing choices are inappropriate for the workplace. If you encounter resistance, explain the consequences if the person doesn't change their choice of dress. But don’t come down hard right away: It could be that the person wasn’t aware of the code or didn’t realize that there was something wrong with the way she is dressing. Remind the person that the dress code is to ensure that individuals are dressed professionally and acceptable at all times.

  • Make sure the code is consistent for all employees. You can’t treat one differently from another, and you can’t single out a specific person. You can't have one set of rules for someone because she has four earrings, and not for the person who only has two. There’s an overall expectation for everyone, and if someone deviates from it, then you handle it.

  • Use your institution’s guidelines and procedures if you have to enforce discipline. Solutions could include giving the individual a written warning letter — or even sending them home with instructions to return properly dressed. Remember that consistently enforcing policy is crucial. Otherwise, you provide lawyers with grounds for discrimination and retaliation lawsuits.

  • Another suggestion: Check, or develop, a dress code for your lab. It will partially depend on the current dress code at your institution, but may include safety or other specific lab-related concerns. At my college, we have a general dress code. We leave it up to each department to tailor the code to their specific requirements.

    For example, student affairs may wear jeans because they’re involved in various student events, plant operations must wear uniform pants and shirts, and in the administrative building, it’s professional dress. Fortunately, we’ve never had a problem. Our lab does not have a specific dress code, other than to be dressed professionally and appropriately for the task.

    Keep in mind that the dress code you’re developing shouldn’t be just for your lab. If you have multiple labs, such as a chemistry lab and a biology lab, the dress code should be the same in both labs. Again, keep the rules consistent. Once it’s developed, make sure your staff is aware of it, what the expectations are and what the repercussions will be if the code is violated.

    Expert Comments by Dr. Karen R. Stubaus, Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick, NJ

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Comments (30)
written by Franco-flummoxed Professor, February 20, 2011
If you thnk "dress code" is delicate, try guiding on "personal hygiene". We have a visiting postdoc from France, and apparently she never learned the American custom of frequent bathing, or use of deodorant. And this bitter winter, with a warm lab and all windows closed, it's been rough on the noses of the rest of us. Some of our younger females tried to give her some hints,but she thought they meant she should shave her underarms--which she now does. Do we respect these "cultural differences", and tough it out? We value Franco-American relations and want to be diplomatique.
written by Sauce for the Gander, February 20, 2011
We had a male lab tech who wore tight-crotch, low cut jeans reported to HR by a female co-worker for "sexual harassment". I doubt you can make this angle work in reverse.
written by , February 23, 2011
Depending on the work performed in your lab you can like find some relief and an easy, and legal, scapegoat in the requirements of OSHA and, if biological research, the BMBL. There may also be an institutional-specific dress requirement in your institution's safety divisions policies. In terms of dress you can require a lab coat in the lab proper and, for correct BSL2 containment, you must require a lab coat and that coat has to be closed, not open and flopping around to be protective. This will allow your tech to dress as she prefers yet be covered in the lab. If your assessment of lab hazards indicates that exposed skin due to low riding pants, open toed shoes, shorts or skirts may be present a chemical or other exposure risk, then you can require long pants, closed shoes, etc. to help deal with the issue in line with OSHA-required worker protection but remember that any rules imposed must apply to all.
Former Center Director
written by Been there done that, February 23, 2011
A condition of employment is acceptable behavior (with an emphasis on behavior). Acceptable behavior can mean avoiding dressing in a way that makes coworkers feel uncomfortable and/or can reasonably be expected to negatively effect the work performance of others. Dressing in a way that departs from accepted social norms for the work place is NOT legally protected behavior. In the context of work place dress, there is no mystery as to what that means. A manager of a research or university facility need not fear legal reproach from requiring acceptable dress. So REQUIRE IT! Schedule a meeting with the employee and talk to her. If she doesn't understand or refuses to accept your direction, put it in writing. Termination is a perfectly legal remedy if attempts to correct the problem by communication fail. I had a similar situation that was corrected by a single meeting with the employee.
written by Victor, February 23, 2011
Report her to HR and let them figure
written by simpleme, February 28, 2011
wow...i guess most of you folks work at some fairly prestigious institutions...as long as there are no safety issues, i think folks should be able to dress how they wish....as scientists, we are all quirky in our own way...i had a ph.d. advisor who always wore black and had multiple piercings of his own and he was/is a damn good scientist.....unless there is a SAFETY issue it seems a little anti-academia, anti-diversity, anti-expression to mandate a dress code...plus as mentioned in previous comments, the person should be wearing a lab coat anyway (and don't forget the stylish safety glasses)..no real dress codes in my lab --- but i am not at Harvard either ---- :-)
written by Eli, February 28, 2011
When I was an RA I didn't earn enough money to replace my student wardrobe. I took a paycut going from a waitressing job to a lab position. When my boss questioned the condition of some of my clothes, I asked for a raise.

Ya get what ya pay fer.
Works in the lab
written by Lisa, February 28, 2011
If a lot of skin is showing, that could be a concern for safety reasons. For instance, open toe shoes might not be acceptable in the laboratory for safety reasons. I would contact your university safety coordinator to verify what kind of clothing is acceptable in the laboratory, and then enforce these safety rules accordingly.
Don't sweat the small stuff-
written by Mom of one of those kids . . ., February 28, 2011
If her dress/piercings are a safety hazard or distracting to others in the lab, talk to her individually. But, today's young people, including those that are very talented and productive, often dress different than "my" generation, and piercings are common and becoming the norm. So, don't judge these people to be non-professional, but some guidance may help everyone to feel more comfortable. I've learned to be more tolerant of piercings and tattoos-it's more accepted by young people, and who am I to say that my pierced ears are ok but my daughter's pierced nose is not. She is a very smart, hard worker-any lab would be lucky to have her on board, tattoos, piercings, and all.
written by David E. Harrison, February 28, 2011
"Don’t have any conversations with the staff member without your HR department’s input." is excellent advice, as different states and institutions have different rules. In general, ANY potential criticism of your employee should be done ONLY in coordination with HR.
In my institution, all who work with chemicals (in all wet labs, biological, biochemical, etc) are required to wear long clothing, a good lab coat, and full covering shoes for protection and personal safety. This, of course, would not make sense if the person just did computer work, but if they work in a wet lab, safety trumps everything else. If they work in an animal room, keeping the animals safe is the top concern, and everything is covered, hair net to sterile shoes - I even have to wear a beard net!
However if there are no safety concerns, then is it worth being uptight? I have known smart valuable young people who had body piercings, or wore short shorts on hot days.
However the sexual harassment point is a good one. ANY behavior that makes someone else uncomfortable seems to be illegal nowadays in the academic workplace. Again, depend on your HR for advice, and take no actions without their approval and support
written by Samir, February 28, 2011
I have a policy of long pants and closed-toed shoes in the lab form a safety perspective. I am responsible for maintaining a safe environment and for their safety. Not every lab around my lab enforces the same code, but I tell them this on day one and do not deviate from it. I also tell them that if they must wear shorts or sandals in the summer, keep a change of clothes and shoes or sweat pants in the lab for use when at work.

As far as piercings, I have a rotation studentin my lab right now with multiple piercings in various places. While I am not in favor of such piercings, as long as they do not interfere with her work or with lab safety, I see no reason for her to remove them. If she chooses to do her thesis in my lab, I will at the right time discuss how these may affect her employment and advancement opportunities later in her career.
written by Fazil, February 28, 2011
I have a lab tach opening and would love to interview this tech. Can you post photos? Sounds hot! I would hit it!
Why is this a problem?
written by Beth, February 28, 2011
If she likes to look good why is it a problem to wear low cut jeans and tops. I personally see no problem with a woman dressing for success in the lab environment. I would like to see her performance in the lab and enjoy her good looks at the same time!
written by Samir, February 28, 2011
I used to work in a university eye hospital where a new receptionist was hired and she had similar clothing issues (without the piercings). She was told multiple times how she was expected to dress and after not complying, she was terminated. It is more common than you think and frequesntly results in loss of employment.
how does she want to be perceived?
written by at Harvard, February 28, 2011
I had a postdoc that had similar issues. I just sat her down and reminded her that she wanted people to remember her for her science, not for her breasts.

She dresses just fine now.
Double Standard?
written by David, February 28, 2011
"disheveled scientists are nothing new" sounds like the reader was describing the stereotypical male scientist. I wonder if the piercings were on a male how differently it would be perceived.
written by Carlos, February 28, 2011
I personally wonder if this lab guy has some sort of problem with women! I would love for my lab tech to come in wearing low cut jeans and tops. She can wear shorts for all I care. Just as long as she does a good job in the lab.
Executive Director
written by Project Director, February 28, 2011
We had an employee whose personal hygiene was such that we had complaints when he taught workshops. The employee who shared a workspace with him had to go home sometimes because of the odor. I sent him a brief email saying that we had had complaints, and requested and requested that he attend to reducing his odor. No more problems after that.
We need single sex labs
written by Raed, February 28, 2011
men should work with men and women with women. This will avoid potential misunderstandings and help prevent career destruction due to sexual harassment
written by At Yale, February 28, 2011
Raed, you are out of your mind! We need tail in the lab! A nice young, cute lady makes the day go by so much better in the lab. You may need more ice to keep things cool, but nothing (AND I MEAN NOTHING) would beat a lab tech like the one described in the article! I can't understand all of the concern over a young lady showing off her assets!
Inappropriate attire
written by Bob Hurst, February 28, 2011
There is such a thing as not being a distraction to yor lab team by wearing attire that is inappropriate or disruptive. Don't sweat the small stuff, but if you think the attire is over the line, it is. Talk to the person. That is why you get the big bucks for being the Boss. Same for people who have different hygiene standards. Explain to them what we do here in the US. Again, don't worry that saying something will hurt feelings. Just be kind and straightforward. What is less kind--to tippy toe around and end up with the rest of your team ostracizing the person or dealing with the problem? If you were violating the tabus of a culture you were visiting, would you not want to know?

Finally, if you have an employee who is a problem child before the probationary period is completed, imagine how that will worsen after the probationary period is completed and you have to show cause for termination. It's your career.'Nuf said.
written by At Yale, March 01, 2011
Again, I do not see this presentation as distracting for the lab. Now after hours, I can see opportunity!
Who cares?
written by oldGuy, March 01, 2011
Competence and safety count. After many years of management in labs I don't care what people wear on a day to day basis, as long as it's safe and doesn't interfere in the mechanics of their work. I'd rather have a good scientist wearing whatever than a dud in a suit.
what's the issue?
written by Southern US uni., March 01, 2011
Lab workers here in this part of teh US are attired for the beach. Especially Lab heads - open-toed sandals, shorts, etc. So before pointing the finger at others, lab heads, look at yourself first.
Assoc Prof
written by Observer, March 01, 2011
I don't see how this is a major problem. If the individual wears piercings and low cut shirts, they will be treated either positively or negatively by the other lab members, depending on their own personal views (of the members). Why would a lab manager want to interfere with that ? It's natural for a group of people to have more in common with some than with others. Let it be.....
no biggie
written by Post doc, March 01, 2011
Insist on everyone wearing some form of a clothing to cover the body from atleast neck downward. For example, enforce the use of a labcoate or apron that runs all the way till atleast below the knee.
written by Victor, March 02, 2011
Funny, just the very mentioning of low-cut tops and jeans drove so many people here to such a frivolous state of mind... Maybe you have better to dare to talk to that girl in your high-school class, after all.
written by Dr. Beau Brummel, March 02, 2011
Too many PIs forget our research money comes from the public and/or our institution. They expect scientists to dress "professionally". This petulant, in-your-face acting out of hippie culture and flower children attire is long overdue to be dropped out, or forced out, of all labs. Maybe then public respect for science funding will resurrect. Thanks for spotlighting this neglected issue.
written by Gwen, March 02, 2011
A slob is a slob is a slob. Why tolerate this amongst professionals?
Esteemed Institute
written by Dept Chair, March 02, 2011
If you are working alone in a cabin in the forest, perhaps collecting fungi, I don't give a damn what you wear, or how you smell. But if you show up in our facility, I want you bathed, your hair cut, beard trimmed, and women to wear at least sensible "intimates" and modest "outers". Or you will never be invited back. Science labs are not playpens for misfits.

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