Bare feet in the office – acceptable or not?

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Q:  I never thought I would be writing a letter to ask about bare feet in the office.  I am a forty something manager of a young team of three inside sales professionals.  Yes, we work in technology.  Yes, we are casual.  But let me ask you about the following: walking around the office with bare feet, personal grooming (including taking out a mirror and applying “her face” for the day), face timing pets and college roommates during work hours.  How do I set firm guidelines that some of this is inappropriate?

A: It sounds like you are building a team of professionals, with a few hiccups along the way.  Casual does not have to mean unprofessional.  The work environment, for most of us, is not the same as our home.  With more freedom in the office, the lines have become blurred for some.  What I recommend is having a discussion about “ground rules.”  Discussing what is acceptable and what is not.  It is easier to set those ground rules in advance.  It is also sometimes helpful to give examples of what is acceptable and what is unacceptable.

Many companies, especially tech companies, have moved to a more casual environment with open office spaces.  Years ago, when cubicles were more of the norm, some of this behavior may have slipped by a manager.  Open office environments expose a lot more of our habits.  I have worked with clients who have complained that their employees floss their teeth at work, paint their nails at their desk, video chat with their mom during the day and watch you tube videos.  I find all of these behaviors cross the line into unprofessional conduct.  During the work day, employees are being paid to work.  Everyone is balancing personal lives, whether it is children, pets or an aging aunt.  But there are reasonable limits.

It may be worth addressing your team as a group and encouraging an open discussion about what is acceptable and what is not.  A text from a child who gets off a school bus is an acceptable interruption.  A face time conversation lasting 20 minutes or more, from that same child, is not acceptable in my view.

Walking around with bare feet is unacceptable in most offices.  Applying make-up for more than a minute would also be unacceptable.  Personal face time conversations, during work hours, would also be considered unacceptable in most office environments, even in tech.

I would also explain to your team that they will be serving as role models as others are hired.  This is probably quite true and they will understand that they “set the standard” for workplace behaviors and performance.

Pattie Hunt Sinacole is a human resources expert and works for First Beacon Group in Hopkinton, an HR consulting firm. She contributes weekly to Boston.com Jobs and the Boston Sunday Globe Money & Careers section.

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