Was This An Inappropriate Comment?

 Question: to Ask the Workplace Doctors about being accused of making an inappropriate comment.

At the end of a workday I was riding down in an elevator with a female coworker and a high level male manager (I am male). After the female coworker exited the elevator and as we continued down in the elevator, I remarked to the manager that that was a very appropriate color dress she was wearing today (It was Halloween and the coworker was wearing a bright orange dress). The manager replied back to me that that was a very inappropriate comment that I had just made. The remainder of the elevator ride was silent. I’m sensitive and aware of workplace issues regarding sexual harassment, but was my comment really inappropriate?

Signed, Worried
Dear Worried:

Words alone rarely convey a full message. So, you will need to consider the entire situation–the tone of voice you used, the expression on your face, the looks you gave the woman while she was on the elevator and the way you looked at her as she left, if there was something else that would have added to the negative aspect of the comment and if you and either of the people have any personal history that might make a difference. It does  not sound to me like an inappropriate comment, but I could say it in a way that would make it sound inappropriate—so perhaps you did that inadvertently.

If it was Halloween and she was wearing orange for that reason, it would seem pretty obvious anyway, so perhaps the manager felt you were implying something about the woman personally. He may have felt that waiting until the elevator door closed, then saying something about the woman’s clothing, gave the impression of gossiping and he didn’t want any part of it. Or, maybe the manager is carrying the issue of appropriateness to a ridiculous extreme.

Whatever the situation, you should let him know of your concern. Why not send an email or call him or go to his office and clear the air? You could say, “I’ve thought about what happened on the elevator the other night and worried about it ever since then. I was just saying that Jan’s orange dress was appropriate for Halloween. I don’t know what is inappropriate about that, but I obviously sounded offensive to you and I’m sorry about it.”

Then, just be quiet and let him explain his concern. After he does, you can say again, “Oh, I didn’t realize it would sound like that. Well, I can promise I’ll be more careful in the future and I didn’t mean it badly. Thanks for explaining it to me. It could be that your manager has thought about and realizes he overreacted to your remarks, so this would give him a chance to tone it down a bit.

Another thing to remember is that many workplaces have rules about talking about coworkers or making disparaging remarks or inappropriate comments about them. Check your employee manual and see if you inadvertently said something that violates that policy. This was just one event and apparently nothing more happened.

It is also a reminder that trying to make small talk with higher level managers is often problematic. They don’t feel like they can talk normally and they feel obligated to say something if they sense even the slightest hint of a problematic or inappropriate comment. Do your work and live your life at work in such a way that it becomes obvious to everyone that you are appropriate in your actions. This will fade away.

Best wishes to you as you work through this.

Tina Lewis Rowe