The Pantyhose Aren’t the Problem

Somewhere between 2004 and 2005, I became the Branch Manager for a small community bank. While I don’t remember the exact year, the exact moment in time I’m going to share with you, forever plays in my mind like a video on a continuous loop.

On that particular morning I noticed that one of my employees, a teller, I’ll call her Amy, wasn’t wearing any pantyhose with her dress. Almost 15 years later, this may not be an issue for Branch Managers, or maybe, sadly, it is. In my day, it was a violation of dress code. And I, the manager, was the policy and procedure enforcer. (I obviously had not grown into the leader that I am today.)

I called Amy into my office. As the rule enforcer, I had to address this violation immediately. I asked why she was in violation of the dress code. She sat there for a moment, looking at me sheepishly. I was also not a fan of silence. I rephrased the question, since she clearly didn’t understand what I was asking. “Why are you not wearing pantyhose? You know it’s a violation of dress code.” She said she didn’t have any that morning when she was getting dressed. “So you just decided to come to work without any?” I did what any Manager (the rule enforcing ones) would do. I told her to clock out and go get some pantyhose, put them on, and then come back to work and clock back in. After all, the dress code policy required pantyhose, and the procedure was to have the employee clock out to meet dress code standards because the bank would not pay them to “get dressed” as they should be.

She did as I asked. She clocked out and left to get pantyhose. Our branch was in the middle of a shopping center. I expected her to be back in about 15 minutes at most. Boy, was I wrong. She arrived back at the office, wearing pantyhose, over two hours later!

Once again, I called Amy into my office, asking where she had been for two hours. She said “I went home to get pantyhose.” (Amy lived an hour from the branch.) I was in shock and little miffed to be honest. “Why on earth would you drive two hours round trip to get pantyhose from home when we are right next to a shopping mall where you could buy a new pair in less than 15 minutes for less than 5 dollars? And I thought you didn’t have any pantyhose.”

What transpired over the next five minutes forever changed me. It was moment I decided I was going to be a leader rather that a policy and procedure enforcer. It was the moment I realized that managing people was about the people, not about my position or title.

Amy began to share with me. “I know the dress code. I didn’t have any pantyhose. I drove home to borrow a pair of my mothers (who wasn’t the same size as Amy). I couldn’t  buy a pair of pantyhose because I can’t afford a new pair. I don’t have enough in my account right now. I’m sorry.”

Amy continued to explain that while she was very frugal with her money, the majority, if not all of it, was spent on fuel to get back and forth to work and to help her parents pay their monthly bills, as her father was disabled, and not able to fully support his family.

I sat for a few moments, I think partially in shock, and partially in sadness. I immediately began to relate to Amy. I had once been a single mom, and vividly remembered the day my friend Pam asked if I wanted to get Slurpees for our children. I wasn’t able to afford a Slurpee. I literally did not have .58 to buy a Slurpee. And if I did have .58 I would have used it for a loaf of bread or something to feed my children.

I saw Amy in a very different light in that moment. I saw her as a person who I could serve and mentor rather than an employee who was there to work for me.I apologized to Amy and immediately went to the store and bought pantyhose, dress pins, scarves, and anything else I could get my hands on that my tellers may not be able to afford but needed to meet “dress code”. Then I called my manager and told her that I wasn’t going to require my tellers to wear pantyhose. (I didn’t care if that basket of pantyhose sat there for eternity.) “Fire me if you have to but it has nothing to do with their ability to perform their job and I’m not going to enforce it…I just wanted to give you a heads up.” Yes, it was a pretty aggressive move on my part. Fortunately for me, I had a wonderful manager, who agreed. The bank ultimately changed their pantyhose policy. They eventually replaced it with some silly no open-toed or wedge shoes policy.

I thought about what had just transpired the rest of the day and night. I knew I had work to do. The next day. I asked Amy if making more money would help her and her parents. I already knew the answer. That was just my way of showing Amy that I cared about her as a person.  I needed her to understand that above all. She looked embarrassed and excited in the same moment. “That would be wonderful!” We immediately began cross-training Amy on every position in our branch. With every cross training accomplishment I was able to provide Amy with a raise.

Amy was one of the most valuable employees I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. Amy didn’t suddenly become one of our greatest assets. She had always been one of our greatest assets. I just didn’t see all of the talent and value Amy brought to the table because I was focused on her lack of pantyhose or “areas of improvement” rather than focusing on her value.

Wearing pantyhose didn’t make Amy a more valuable employee. Her talents, her passion for serving others, her desire to grow and develop personally and professionally brought a value to our team that only she could provide.

From that day forward, my focus became my entire team. I spent the next several years ensuring that I knew them, really knew them, that they had the opportunity to do what they did best, that they were developed, had the opportunity to grow, and knew that I valued them. We never had a policy or procedure violation again. We also had zero turnover during my time there over the next 5 years. Why? Because my team wanted to be the best because it was clear that I wanted the best for them. You see, the problem wasn’t the pantyhose. It was me. And the problem or challenge in your organization isn’t the pantyhose. It’s the person who’s looking for and focusing on the “pantyhose” violations rather than looking and focusing on the talents and value of their team.