My Manager Told Me My Face is Ugly!

A Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about options for handling a rude and personal remark by a manager: 


I work in a restaurant/bar and most of my managers are men (I’m a young woman). They’re constantly telling me to smile and last night one of them said “you’re not cute… Your resting face is especially ugly”. Can I do anything about this?

Hello, thank you for your workplace question. You ask if you can do anything about the fact that your manager said your “resting face” is ugly. (What a rude thing to say!). There is nothing legally you can do about it. If there are higher level managers I think this rises to the level of complaining about rude behavior by someone who is supposed to be motivating you. If it is a corporation with an HR section, you would have the option to complain formally, if it is a small local establishment you may not have that option. So,  the work situation will dictate how far you can or want to take it as far as making an internal complaint.

However, perhaps the solution is to think about the complete situation and what you can do to change things so he never says that again and also feels badly that he said it in the first place. You didn’t ask for a long answer about your complete work situation, but even workplace “doctors” should treat the whole-person, not just a symptom.

It’s easy to immediately be upset because someone said your resting face is ugly, and to lose focus on what led up to that unpleasant remark. It sounds as though something did lead up to it. You say you work in a bar/restaurant and your managers are constantly telling you to smile. In most casual restaurants customers want to see someone who is welcoming, friendly and ready to be of service—with a smile. It is the job of the managers to ensure that employees show a smiling and welcoming face. All you have to do is look at Yelp or other restaurant reviews to know how often the main positive or negative critique is about the degree of friendliness and helpfulness of wait staff.

In addition, coworkers feel better when the people they work with seem cheerful rather than angry or unhappy. If your managers are constantly telling you to smile, it could be they have had complaints about your demeanor or they are trying to avoid complaints by reminding you to show a friendly face. Or, maybe when you are unsmiling to them they feel you don’t like them or the job and they resent that attitude. They may feel that you purposely don’t smile because they have asked you to do so and they feel you are being rebellious and uncompliant. Whatever they feel, no one should have said your resting face is ugly. I have, however said to several people on various occasions, “You may think your lack of facial expression looks professionally serious or even just bland, but actually it looks hostile and unpleasant.”

Most of the time when people tell others to smile, they’re not requesting a grin or even a mouth that is up-turned at the corners. They are saying, “Don’t look so discouraged.” “Stop looking angry.” “Get that discontented look off your face.” “Stop looking bored.” “I smiled at you, why don’t you smile at me?” Or, maybe just, “Have a pleasant expression on your face, rather than looking like a robot with no emotion.”

They are asking for something different than the current expression and the best option they can think of is a smile.

You will find it easier to smile if you think the thoughts and words that go with the expressions. Picture what your face (eyes, lips and facial movement) would look like if you were facially expressing the following thoughts (not words, just thoughts).

*Thoughts to convey to guests:
“Hello you guys! Wow, it’s great to have you here! Come on in!” (Big smile)
“Hi there! Let me get that door for you.” (Medium smile)
“Hello, how can I help you?” (Gracious smile.)
“I’ll be right with you.” (Quick smile.)
“Do you need something more?” (Medium smile)
”Hi. This is just an eye contact smile, because I don’t have time to talk.” (Quick smile)
“You smiled at me, so I’ll smile at you.” (Matching smile.)
“I’ll bet you’re mortified because your kids are acting up.” (Sympathetic smile.)
“There’s no one to interact with right now, so I’ll just stand here and look interested and approachable. (Very slight smile, while looking around.)

*Thoughts you could convey to coworkers, even without talking:
“Whew, we’re busy tonight, aren’t we? Hopefully good tips!” (Grin)
“Hi, no time to talk.” (Quick smile.)
*I’m sure you’re as tired as I am.” (Sympathetic smile.)
“You smiled at me, so I’ll smile at you.” (Matching smile.)
“Good evening! Back to work for us!” (Big smile)

*Thoughts to convey to managers:
“Hello, I’m ready to start another shift.” (Big smile)
“I’m glad we’re busy tonight and the business is doing well.” (Medium smile)
“No time to talk. How’re you doing?” (Quick smile)
“You smiled at me, so I’ll smile at you.” (Matching smile.)

No one expects a continuous smile when you’re interacting with them or passing them while working. What they want are the facial expressions that show interest, concern, approachability and openness. If they see no expression or a frowning or disapproving expression, they interpret it as negative feelings on your part, directed at them or at the work in general. Work and life go better when people look pleasant to deal with, even in serious situations.

After this essay on smiling, you probably can figure that my advice, if you intend to keep working there, is to smile appropriately at customers, coworkers and the managers. The line from the play, “Steel Magnolias”–“Smile, it improves your face value”—certainly applies to jobs where your value as an employee is based in part on the expression on your face.

If you haven’t had a smiling personality before, it can seem awkward to suddenly “turn that frown upside down.” I’m sure there have been many things you have smiled about at work, so maybe you can add to those every shift. Think of each customer as someone who needs personal attention, even if they don’t realize it. With coworkers and managers, find something you can mutually smile about and use that as a foundation. “Did you see the cute baby?” “I think the Tigers will win this weekend, don’t you?” “Aren’t we having great weather?” “I hear you have a new car!” It’s just breaking the ice and allowing you to sound and look upbeat.

If you find you dislike the work, the restaurant, the clientele or the managers so much that you can find no reason to try to look satisfied and happy, I hope you will find a place where you can feel positive. Sometimes people or places are so unpleasant it feels too fake and phony to try to put on a happy face and it feels better to leave there and go someplace else. That may be the best solution for you as well. But, if you are doing OK financially there, you may want to just figure each smile is worth a few dollars.

If you and the manager who made the remark about your resting face can talk reasonably at all, you may have the opportunity to tell him how hurtful his remark was and how it certainly would not make you want to smile more. He probably already knows it was a cheap shot and a mean-spirited thing to say. I hope he apologizes, but I doubt he will. Probably it will be up to you to find a way to feel more comfortable dealing with him—for your own sake.

I doubt that you will work at this job for a very long time, given that you are a younger person. Use this as a way to gain knowledge and skills about workplace interactions, so you can apply them now and in your future career.

Best wishes to you. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know how this works out.

Tina Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors
Second Opinion:
Dear Don’t Like Ugly,

Cruel talk! You don’t deserve that. Nobody does. Can you stop it? Maybe. Maybe not. But let me suggest two contrasting options for you—1. Approach this unhappy hurtful talk as a battle with evil guys or 2. See it as a learning experience.

If you saw it as a battle, you don’t say how you responded. You probably either retreated into your shell or you barked back an equally hurtful remark. And then you now can investigate what are the rules of talk by managers. Sometimes they are spelled out in policy books; other times they are unwritten and unspoken. But surely there is a head manager who wants your restaurant to make money and that is best accomplished when you have a happy smiling cooperative work gang. As a second stage of a battle you can report to the manager the ugly talk to you and ask that it be stopped. Or you can speak to those who have said your resting face is ugly and ask them to stop. Tell them it hurts and you don’t want to have to report it to the head manager. Such action might stop nasty talk, or it might result in more subtle ways of making your life miserable.

Therefore, before you decide to do battle, consider how you might treat this ugly talk as a challenge—learning from it.

1. See this talk for what it is—unkind and shameful behavior for your managers. They might have been made hatefully, to put you down to make themselves look good. However, let’s try to pretend the smile more and even the ugly remarks were made because they wanted your working life to be happier. Such an assumption can help you can learn from even cruel impoliteness.
2. Look in the mirror. What do you see? Were your managers right in saying you should smile more. Think about what makes you smile. So SMILE. Do you like yourself more when you smile? Were they right that when your face is at rest, it is ugly? DON’T SMILE. Do you like yourself less when you are not smiling and see your face as ugly? Think also about how you would want to smile more if your coworkers and customers were to smile at you. For example, research has shown that waitresses receive bigger tips if they had a flower in their hair.
3. Talk about talk. Talking about how we might talk more effectively tends to clarify who should be doing what, when and how. It helps spell what makes us feel good about each other and makes us want to applaud. And it enables us to set forth the rules that tells us that yelling and ordering are less effective that asking and requesting.

More could be said about seeing this as a learning experience, such as cultivating a duck-back mindset. By that I mean to shed what isn’t kind, like water falling off a duck’s back. I’ll say no more, other than to ask how you react to these suggestions. Feel free to tell us what you will try. For now think through this final signature sentence: Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS.
William Gorden

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.