Female Coworker Dresses Inappropriately

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about inappropriate dress:

This may be a problematic thing to ask, but here goes. As a guy how should I deal with a female coworker dressing inappropriately? I work for a government agency that involves a lot of outdoor work so it is not uncommon for women in the field to dress to be comfortable. There is a dress code for everyone, but a female coworker I work with wears unprofessional clothes (short shorts and very low cut tank tops) in the office as well as the field. The problem is that sometimes it’s too revealing.

Today, I walked into the office and umm…well she was exposed. I quickly looked away and said “Might want to adjust your shirt.” I wasn’t sure what else to say because she did not catch on. She will usually blow it off with some little perverted joke about a “free show” or say I’m not a man because I looked away; and continue on unaffected even though another person will make a comment as well. (It has happened before.) The comments being unprofessional and degrading aside. This made me very uncomfortable because I am unsure of what do to do without sounding like a perv or be accused of sexual harassment. Should I file a report with HR (I’m concerned about office gossip). I would like to be professional but I am just unsure of what to do or if there is anything I can do. She is violating the dress code but it seems the higher-ups, both men and women, simply turn a blind eye.

Signed, Not Impressed

Dear Not Impressed:

You are correct to be concerned about this situation. Your coworker does not use good judgment and that could result in problems for all of your team. For example, you or someone else could say or do something minor that causes her to allege wrongdoing on your part, merely because she is piqued over your failure to notice her. She may not be that devious, but it has certainly happened before.In addition, what you have described (especially remarks about you not being a man because you looked away) is sexual harassment by the employee to you. A man can be sexually harassed by a woman and this is a prime example of how that happens. I’m not ever quick to allege that, because I know how it can be used merely as a weapon, not as a tool. But her behavior sounds obnoxious and offensive. And, she continues in her actions even though you have made it clear that you are not comfortable with her attire and her lack of care about what she is exposing. (I tend to think she knows very well what she is doing and may be interested in getting a reaction from you or finds it fun to be showing off to men in her work group.)

The first person to talk to is your own supervisor or manager. Tell him how you feel about it and say that you would like to see the dress code enforced to the extent necessary to stop your coworker from wearing clothes that show cleavage and excessive thigh area or that fit tight in the groin or chest area, showing body outlines. I would think the dress code mentions something of that nature, but if it doesn’t, you can still be specific about what you think is a problem. Use this recent situation as an example. Mention to him that your coworker seems to want the men to notice her and you are concerned that she might get angry and make an allegation of her own if that doesn’t happen.

On the other hand, if it someone notices her too much, in her opinion, she might make an allegation anyway. Your manager apparently has let the employee wear what she wants, so he may not see her as a threat or a problem. But perhaps that will remind him of the potential. If talking to your boss doesn’t help or if you think nothing will be done, send him or her an email saying you want to emphasize that you are serious about your concerns and think work will be smoother and easier if you don’t have to worry about the coworker’s attire and behavior. Then, give a brief overview of what the two of you talked about in your meeting. Once it is in writing it is almost impossible for the supervisor to ignore it.If that still doesn’t get results, you have at least accomplished one thing: It will be difficult for anyone to say you encouraged the coworker or that you failed to speak-up about your concerns. At that point, HR is your best resource, unless you know someone a level higher with whom you have regular communications and with whom you could talk. I know that’s awkward, because of working in a close team. But, you can bet there are others who resent the fact that everyone else has a dress code except one woman–who just happens to dress in a sexual manner.

That doesn’t sound good! This isn’t your fault and is not your responsibility, except to report what is bothering you. So, I’m hoping your manager fulfill their roles and do something about the situation. Best wishes to you with this. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens. This is a bit unusual and your experiences may provide us with ideas for guiding others.

Tina Lewis Rowe