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Ask Sue
A Weekly Q&A Column About Professionalism, Etiquette and Problems in the Workplace
by Sue Morem

Working in a Family Run Business

Dear Sue: I have a dilemma and need your help. I supervise the son of my boss. He is nearly 30 years old and dresses inappropriately for his job. He looks sloppy, is not always shaven and sometimes goes without socks, although he brings them in his pocket. We work in a professional atmosphere and he has management responsibilities and is in view of the public. I have given him warning after warning, yet he continues to do his own thing.

How far should I go with this? My boss has told me to give him a warning, and if necessary, let him go. He has already been fired twice from this company. I feel very uncomfortable with the position I am in, so I continue to try to bring his son around. Last week I told him if he didn't get a haircut (he was wearing his hair in a small ponytail) that he could no longer work here. He did get it cut, but had highlights put in his hair, which doesnít look much better. I feel I am in a constant battle with him and do not understand why he continues to challenge me. How do I handle this delicate situation?

Ė Managing the bosses son

Sue Says: You are, indeed, dealing with a delicate situation. Your boss appears to understand his sonís ďproblem,Ē and has given you full authority to deal with him in whatever manner you choose. The son may be well aware of the delicate position you are in, and willing to push you as far as you will allow him to. Your boss clearly acknowledges his sonís lack of professionalism, and likely has done his best to influence him in the past. Chances are he does not like what he sees anymore than you do, and may not want to be the one to have to fire his own son. He probably has decided that the best way to deal with his son is by not dealing with him, allowing you to instead.

With that said, I can understand your hesitation to fire your bossí son, and although you have been given permission to do what you wish, it remains a difficult position for you to be in. Other than demanding he cut his hair, it is unclear if you have been specific in your expectations. Assuming the son wants to keep his job, if he is given clear guidelines as to what is expected, it may be easier for him to comply. If there is a dress code policy, you may need to revise it. If there isnít one, create one and be very specific as to what you include in it. Leave no room for personal interpretation and address all clothing requirements, including personal grooming specifics.

Stop battling with him and have a talk with him. Let him know that you do not want to give him an ultimatum, but are being forced to if he doesnít change his ways. Tell him that you want to help him help himself, and that if he canít resolve his issues now that the same problems are likely to follow him wherever he goes.

It may help to explain to him why his image matters and how it impacts the organization as a whole, including the perception others have of him. Because he may fear losing his identity, reassure him that you are not trying to change him, but merely trying to help him maximize his potential. Provide him with a written dress code policy and review it with him. If the boss agrees, give him a certificate to a clothing store to help him purchase a few new pieces of clothing. Many retailers offer personal shopping services and the right personal shopper can help him select appropriate clothing; you might suggest this or prearrange a meeting with someone.

Once you have this meeting with him, let him know that you will be giving him feedback on his appearance, and that you expect him to abide by the guidelines. Determine the consequences of any future lapses in his appearance, and inform him what will happen should he deviate from the policy. Make sure you acknowledge him for any positive changes, no matter how small. Inform your boss of all that you are doing, and get input from him as you work on a dress code policy.

If the son still defies you, you may decide there is nothing more you can do and choose to let him go. You may be sure you have the support of your boss before you make any final decisions by discussing your options with him to prevent and reduce the chances of any bad feelings or blame in the future. If after all of your efforts, the son does not change, you will know you did your best to help him, and realize that he simply is not willing to help himself.

Sue Morem is a professional speaker, trainer and syndicated columnist. She is author of the newly released 101 Tips for Graduates and How to Gain the Professional Edge, Second Edition. You can contact her by email at or visit her web site at

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