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How to Address a Dress Code and More of Your Questions for January

Including how to handle snooping competitors and replacing a valued member of the team.

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I just opened six months ago and have already had a steady stream of employees from other optical retailers come visit my store. I don’t know whether to be flattered or worried.

If your store is new it’s to be expected the competition would want to know what you’re bringing to the market, what segments you’re targeting and the threat you pose. The level of professional courtesy and openness you can expect from a fellow ECP is nearly always linked to proximity — meet someone from another part of the country at a trade show, and you’re likely to act long like lost cousins. As for the guy around the corner, you’re likely to greet him much more warily. Our advice is to be professional but set limits. Gathering market intelligence is a part of good business — every owner should be doing it and we often encourage it in our pages. Still, there are lines to be drawn. Competitors who come in and take copious notes and photos or interrogate staff, even if in a friendly way, are crossing a boundary and you’re well within your rights to ask they stop. At the same time, be dispassionate. As in politics, there’s plenty of room for frenemies in business. Maybe this person could be a future employee. Maybe your strength is children’s vision, theirs is high-end fashion, perhaps the competition can be benign or complimentary. Aside from referrals, there may be opportunities to partner up.

Given how retail culture is changing, in part due to COVID-19, what should we be looking to do when a staff member leaves, in this case a salesperson?

Circumstances are certainly more extreme these days, says business consultant Kate Peterson of Performance Concepts, but the same rule applies when it comes to hiring new staff — look at it as an opportunity to “reset.” “With few exceptions, hiring to replace the skill set of the person who left fails to take into account any evolution in your business,” she says. Peterson recommends you do an “asset inventory” with your team before setting out on your search for a new hire. Talk to people. Find out what they’ve learned and how they see themselves contributing to the team and take an objective look at the real needs of your business. “These days for example, losing an experienced salesperson might present the opportunity to hire someone with more advanced digital skills or a dynamic ‘on-screen’ presence.”

What are some suggestions on creating and implementing a dress code for my store?

First of all, write your dress code down, says Anne Sowden, founder of image consultancy group Here’s Looking at You. “The dress code should include the kind of clothing you consider appropriate, e.g. long sleeve shirts, and inappropriate, e.g. boardshorts,” she advises. Sowden says it’s important to meet with employees about the code and make sure everyone understands it. If you need to, you could even team up with a local clothing store to give suggestions and show examples (and if it’s within your budget, subsidize some of their expenditures). When talking about the dress code, be sure to focus on the business reasons behind the policy and the image you want your store to project. If employees are having problems meeting the dress code, Sowden says it’s best to schedule a private meeting. Make sure the employee knows the messages that their clothing is sending. For example, wrinkled clothing may be interpreted as a lackadaisical approach to one’s job. Dirty shoes may be perceived as lacking attention to detail. Give them suggestions for more appropriate outfits. And when they are appropriately dressed, says Sowden, be sure to give positive encouragement.

We let an unsatisfactory employee go last year. Now a prospective employer wants a reference. What can I say without getting sued?

Employers get in trouble when they blurt out things they believed to be true — the staff member kept calling in sick when they weren’t, they were stealing … but then can’t back up. Keep judgments brief and stick to facts. Some employers, if they can’t give a glowing reference, provide nothing more than dates of employment, job title, and final salary. You may live in a state that provides “good faith” protection to employers but stick to the facts anyway. Don’t speculate on former employee’s bad qualities, or the reasons for their failure. Limit comments to accurate, easily documented information. Finally, don’t lie or sugar coat things. If you fired a bad egg for something like violent conduct and don’t disclose that when asked, you risk being sued by the next employer. Warn a leaving employee if you will not be able to provide a positive reference, and keep a record.

Since launching in 2014, INVISION has won 23 international journalism awards for its publication and website. Contact INVISION's editors at [email protected].

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