I work at a non-profit church-based organization. On several occasions a coworker has worn a backless halter top to work. She wears it with a black bra. Her shoulders and back are completely exposed as well the back of her bra and bra straps. On another occasion she has worn a low cut tank top that fully exposes her breasts as she works at her desk. Not only have I talked to the person in the Human Resources department, I have also submitted it in writing. Apparently nothing has been done because she continues wear the same top. Not only is the clothing disgusting, but so is Human Resource’s inability to handle the situation.I have also asked my immediate supervisor to talk to the employee about her clothes, but its responded to with a hands in the air shrug, “That’s HR’s job”. What can I do? I hate having to work with a woman who is constantly exposing her body, and it’s embarrassing that our organization is represented by sleazy dress. How can you trust the decisions of a person who can’t even dress herself? What other kooky choices is she making? Her attire is completely disgusting in our particular workplace. Any advice?
Disgusted and Frustrated
Dear Disgusted and Frustrated:
The attire you describe certainly would be inappropriate in a workplace–with perhaps the exception of a bar or adult entertainment business!Some HR sections–and supervisors and managers–seem to think they cannot set requirements about attire at work. Of course they can, as long as it does not result in a situation that violates EEO regulations for protected groups.Almost all organizations have some sort of “dress code” or guidelines about attire. However, even without one, a “reasonable person” concept can be applied. The outfits you describe would not be reasonable in most workplaces.There may be other issues being considered, such as the specific type of work being done, some special knowledge or skill the coworker provides, some excessive concern about her need for the job, to the detriment of concern for the rest of the employees, or other matters. None of those are sufficient to stop an effective supervisor or manager from correcting the problem, but they can be used as excuses by someone who doesn’t want to talk to someone about an uncomfortable topic. One reason there is so much hesitancy to deal with issues of this nature (clothing, hygiene, grooming, personal habits, etc.) is that those who should handle it do not see that it directly links to work. But it clearly does, as you point out. At the very least it is a distraction that is unavoidable and unnecessary. The same would be true of wearing a Halloween costume, a construction worker’s garb, an outfit that would be warn by waitresses in the famous chicken wing establishment or anything else that doesn’t fit with the business being done.Unfortunately, you will probably have to be the one to help your supervisor and others find reasons to correct the situation.1. If you know someone higher in the organization, consider contacting them about this. Let them know that you made an effort to get it resolved at a lower level but did not get assistance. It’s usually viewed as OK to move up the chain of organization if lower levels have not responded.You may prefer to approach this by asking your supervisor to check higher in the chain to get support for her supervisory efforts to correct the problem. That way you are not going over her head you are instead giving her encouragement to get assistance from someone else other than HR. 2. You may also want to write again to your supervisor and HR, asking for a report on what is being done and reiterating your complaint.If you do that, provide some of the links to work that they apparently are missing.*The attire is distracting because it would be bizarre in almost any setting. It isn’t a fashionable look that you just don’t like, it is a sexual look that is inappropriate.*It does not represent the values and respect for others and self that your organization promotes. If there words and phrases in your organization’s mission and values or other official material, such as the website or HR policies, quote those. *It is disrespectful of you and your feelings about such matters, which are not unreasonable.*It sets a precedent that can lead to further problems. At what point would clothing choices be viewed as so bad something will be done?*The employee has other clothing that is appropriate. You might want to mention clothing that shows she can make correct choices. For example, if she dressed completely differently when she was first hired.*If the employee has made comments about her clothing indicating she knows how it is viewed, that would be something else to mention in your letter. If, on the other hand, you think she is not aware of what is appropriate, you could mention that as a reason to have her supervisor work with her on that.You may have other thoughts you would like to include. At the conclusion of your letter, ask for a definitive response to let you know when this matter will be handled and if not, who you should contact next.3. If you wish to really push back you could say you won’t work with the employee until something is done about the problem. That will get a response, but sadly might put you in a bad position, according to how valued you and your work is viewed by the supervisor and manager.4. If there are other employees who share your concerns, they should ask for changes as well. If you are the only one, you still have an organizational right to ask for a correction to a problem.5. We often recommend direct conversation with a coworker who may inadvertently be creating a problem or distraction. I doubt that would get a change in this case. It would be different if she had only worn an outfit once and you could comment on it right then: “Oh my, Kim! Your bra is showing under your halter!” If she doesn’t act concerned you could say, “I don’t feel comfortable looking at your underwear and it brings attention to your clothes instead of our work. You have so many other nice clothes. Could you wear those instead?” At least then you could say you tried to talk to her. But, after she has worn it several times it’s less likely that personal conversation would have an effect.When you look at how people are dressed and groomed you have to know that at sometime they looked in a mirror and decided they didn’t mind presenting themselves that way! 6. Through all of this, make sure you are doing effective work yourself and that your efforts are not viewed as being mean spirited or merely a way to get back at someone you’ve had other conflicts with. You’d still be right to complain but you might not be taken as seriously. You mention being disgusted–and likely you are. But, you will accomplish more if you can keep anger out of your tone and focus instead on how it effects work.If none of these ideas work and the employee is still allowed to dress in such a way, you will have to decide how much further you want to push the point. You could threaten to quit an organization that shows such little respect for itself and all of its employees–but you may not want to go that far. Or, you may wish to go that far to push someone to action.Best wishes to you with this situation. We would really like to know what happens and how it is resolved.
Tina Lewis Rowe