Real Deal: The Case of the Unkempt Employee

Unkempt employee criticized by doctor's wife

illustration by karla durangprang

An employee’s hygiene is called into question — by the doctor’s wife. Who’s in charge here?

This article originally appeared in the March 2016 edition of INVISION.

One early spring morning in a Virginia suburb east of Richmond, Dr. Hopper’s team was shuffling in. The doctor was busy at his desk, while his wife, Laura, stocked the complimentary coffee station. A recently retired teacher, Laura had joined the office a few months ago, happy to be lending a hand in her husband’s practice.

At the stroke of 8 a.m., Erin, the last optician to arrive, rushed in the back door. Cars were pulling into the office parking lot, and the team launched into their work routine. After Dr. Hopper’s first exam, he escorted his patient to the optical showroom and planned to hand him off to Erin, a star salesperson.

However, when she came to greet the duo, Dr. Hopper was miffed to see that Erin’s hair was dirty and her clothes wrinkled. He could smell stale cigarettes layered under a sickly-sweet body spray. Despite her appearance, Erin was chipper and engaging, and connected right away with the patient. Laura watched this exchange, and when the patient left she called Erin for a private meeting.

“Erin, is everything OK at home?” Laura asked.


Real Deal is a fictional scenario designed to read like real-life business events. The businesses and people mentioned in this story should not be confused with actual eyecare businesses and people.


Natalie Taylor is an experienced optometry practice manager for Advanced Care Vision Network and a consultant with Taylor Vision. Learn more at

One of Erin’s eyebrows shot up. “Why are you asking me that?” she asked with some hostility.

Laura swallowed and realized she hadn’t properly prepared for this conversation. “The last few days I’ve noticed your appearance isn’t meeting the office’s dress code ...” She paused and watched Erin’s face turn red, then continued: “I just don’t feel good about you being on the sales floor looking like this.”

Her face now purple, Erin took a few shallow breaths and replied, “Well, my mom moved in with me, she’s taking a ton of my energy ... It’s hard to look nice when my life is a mess.”

Laura nodded understandingly. “I am sorry to hear about your situation, but Dr. Hopper needs you to follow our policy,” Laura said.

Erin quickly agreed and rushed back to the safety of the optical bench, where the sales team sat.

A few of the opticians looked up and smiled with mock sympathy at Erin. “That meeting must have sucked,” one said.

“What does she even do here? Is she our boss?” another asked sarcastically.

“The same thing happened at my old office after I left,” the first optician said. “The wife came in and drove everyone crazy.”

Erin groaned. “I need to talk to Dr. Hopper,” she said. “We already have a manager, we don’t need her.”

At the end of the day, Erin sat with Dr. Hopper in his office.

“Dr. Hopper, I’m upset that your wife criticized how I look,” Erin began. “I thought you were my boss?”

“Laura told me about your conversation, and if she hadn’t sat with you, I would have,” Dr. Hopper said. “You need to present yourself professionally, Erin. It’s a sign of respect to our patients and our brand.”

Erin steamed. “No one here follows the dress code! I see open-toed shoes all the time, and yesterday I could see the receptionist’s bra through her shirt! You didn’t say anything to her!”

Dr. Hopper leaned back in his chair. “Erin, I am trying to do everything I need to, but it’s hard to get to everything in between patients. That’s a big reason why Laura’s been helping us.”

“Well, I don’t want to have Laura as my boss. I only want to talk to you,” Erin said in a combative tone.

He sighed. “Fine, Erin. In return, I need you to put more energy into your appearance by coming to work with clean hair and clean clothes.”

“Fine with me,” said Erin.


1. How could Dr. Hopper and Laura have handled their conversations with Erin differently?

2. How can a doctor’s husband or wife be integrated successfully into an office as a staff person?

3. Does your office have rules for dress and appearance? If so, who is in charge of enforcing them?




Dr. Hopper’s first mistake was letting his wife talk to an employee without any indication Laura was going to be an authority figure. That set up the initial exchange with Erin, putting her on the defensive, especially when Laura asked if everything was all right at home. That was too personal and assumptive a question to ask right off the top. I’m sure there are exceptions to the rule, but I don’t think integrating a husband or wife into the office is a particularly good idea. We have a dress code (our office is small, four people, including the doc) and the doc enforces the dress code.



When a spouse comes into the office setting, their role and responsibilities should be well defined. The spouse should spend some time watching the flow and developing appropriate relationships with the staff. In this case, Dr. Hopper should have had the optical manager approach Erin. A bigger problem in this practice is that the doctor is too hands-on. When you have managers in place, they should be the first line in the day-to-day running of the practice. The doctor should be more an overall picture person and not micromanage. An axiom for this is, “If I have to do your job, why do I need you?” Hire good people and allow them to do their jobs.



This is a tough situation. Respecting your doc means also respecting their choice to have his or her significant other work at the office. All you can do, as an employee, is hope that they have common sense and can set boundaries that keep the office environment productive. The better question here may be: Why is the partner suddenly coming in? Is there a problem in the office? Is it because of a personal situation? What will their role be? Answering these questions up front may help the staff acclimate to the change. As for the hygiene issue, a clear dress code, laid out in an up-to-date, printed office handbook, as well as periodic memos regarding keeping up the guidelines in the handbook are the surest ways to cut off issues like hygiene and appearance problems before they become out of hand. A staffwide memo may also help you avoid that uncomfortable meeting where the employee becomes offended and you get defensive. I feel that keeping a clear line of communication between management and staff always makes an office more relaxed and productive!



When you are adding a new member to the team, it’s always best to inform everyone. In this case, Dr. Hopper should have informed everyone that “We are getting too busy for me to handle the day-to-day operations and Laura has offered to help take on some of these responsibilities. Please help her feel welcome. If anyone has any questions or concerns, please see me about it.” Not keeping your team members included in the changes and giving them the chance to speak their minds will lead to gossip and resentment. Yes, our office has a dress code in place. The office manger is in charge of making sure everyone is in dress code, but the team is well informed that if you break the dress code, you will be sent home. When you clock in, you are on stage and must be camera ready at all times.



Basically, there is some tension with the boss’s wife being in the office and obviously she is not going to be viewed as one of the employees, by the employees. If she isn’t presented to the staff as a managerial-type authority, then it is probably best for anything Laura needs to say regarding what she observes in the office to go through her husband first. Then it is up to the doc to have the office manager deal with it, unless he does it himself. I completely understand having your spouse help in the office. Who better to have looking out for the office’s best interest? But a clear understanding (with the employees) needs to be laid out as to what the spouse is/isn’t in charge of or allowed to address.



The doctor’s wife should have pointed out the issue to the office manager, and have the office manager meet with the employee. What both the wife and doctor did sent mixed messages to employees. In addition, the wife’s interference undermines the power of the office manager.



Never let your personal life interfere with your business life. Never talk back to the doctor, no matter your feelings. I don’t care if you’re the top salesperson. Never talk down about the doctor’s spouse. Never try and drive a wedge between the doctor and his or her spouse. And my No. 1 rule: Never work for a doctor who’s wife works in the office. It just doesn’t work out well. Too much bias. Sorry, doctors.