Remarks About My Clothes, By Co-Worker!

Question:

I have worked for a company for ten years, and worked my way up to Operations Manager. I wear business-casual clothes. I keep getting complaints from a co-worker about my clothes.

I have had complaints from this co-worker (female) that my breast is too big, my nipples show when I am cold, you can see my panty line, I show cleavage and I dress like a whore.

The last comment was made during a meeting with other co-workers and a physician. Now I have to meet with the physician to discuss the way I dress because she thinks I should wear a suit with a jacket.

I feel like I’m sexually harassed because there are always comments about the way I look. I like my job but now I’m considering looking for another job. I’m sick of the complaints. I have had no complaints from my supervisor or other management regarding my clothes. It’s just this one employee and it doesn’t matter what I wear, she complains.

Signed,

Tired of the Remarks


Answer:

Dear Tired of the Remarks:

I can imagine you feel upset, hurt and frustrated about all of this. Consider several approaches and see if you can develop a plan that will allow you to focus on your work, rather than your clothing and the remarks of others about it.

If you can prove you were described in an office meeting as dressing like a whore, you should make a formal complaint about that to your supervisor. The term whore used in that context is certainly not appropriate for a business office and would be demeaning. Ask your supervisor to direct the employee to not make personal remarks to you or about you. If there is a problem with your attire, she should write a formal complaint and let a supervisor handle it. If the meeting was about her complaint on that subject, she still shouldn’t have used those words.

I notice you said you are being asked to meet with the physician who was present at the meeting in which the bad remark was made, to discuss your attire. You say you are likely going to be asked to wear a suit with a jacket.

That indicates to me that management DOES have a concern about your clothing, whether they have said something or not. It may be that your business-casual attire is more Casual than Business! That may not be the case, but it might be.

I am often asked by supervisors to advise them on how to tell a female employee that her attire does not look appropriate. No one wants to be the one to say something–so they often hope a co-worker will do it for them. Maybe that is what happened in this case. If none of it is true, they will be equally upset with the employee and take action about her unwarranted remarks. But it seems they might be in partial agreement with her.

Sadly, the fact you have not been talked to about your choice of work clothes doesn’t mean everyone thinks they are fine. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t.

Some of the things I have observed that are problems with women’s attire in business settings are: *If the clothes are too tight. Clothes that are too tight, or fabric that stretches too tightly over full bosoms, stomachs or hips, is distracting as well as being unattractive. It draws attention to the female’s body and results in remarks or thoughts that aren’t focused on work. An office that is trying to ensure that gender differences aren’t the focus of work, will find that to be a problem.

*Tops that stretch and pull down or pull up. When a female wears a top that stretches tightly and is lower cut, it shows cleavage, as well as showing bra outlines and sometimes even nipples and breast outlines! That is not appropriate and it is very distracting. Or, if the top is stretched tightly and is short and pulls up, it shows stomach and back, and looks inappropriate.

For the last few years the clothing for young women included many tops that needed undertops to help them conceal skin at work and school. Even then, the tops looked inappropriate for a business office.

*Pants or skirts that hang so low they show the midriff area, or are so tight you can see panty lines. A friend of mine had to pass a policy that clothing must cover well enough that no midriff skin shows, even when bending over, and that no underwear could ever show. That was the result of him seeing a woman bending over, and he clearly could see the top of her thong underwear, all the way down to mid-behind! I wonder what thought the employee put into her attire, or if she thought that looked correct in an office.

*Clothing that doesn’t fit well. When a woman’s curves in one area don’t match the others, it makes clothing fit in a way that shows more of the body than is appropriate, and outlines every ripple and bump! For example, an employee in an office where I worked had a large bust, but small hips. She was buying the same size top as pants–and it didn’t look good! Her tops fit her like a second skin–and left nothing to the imagination! It would have been sexy at a club, but not appropriate for an office Her supervisor told her that her appearance could lead to remarks and we wanted to avoid that kind of situation in the office. It was tricky to try to deal with it, but the employee changed sizes–and her clothing look professional and attractive.

In another case, the employee was a size 14 or so, but wore clothes from when she was a size 8-10. It was very distracting to see her with her skirt hiked up in back, from where it wouldn’t fit over her hips–or have her pants look like they were ready to split! But worse was the chest area where her sweaters looked painted on! When we talked to her about that she cried and became angry. She talked to an attorney who told her we had a right to regulate attire. So, she quit! I guess her tight clothes meant more to her than her job.

It may be that your clothes look differently to others than they do to you. That may not be the case, but is something to think about if you are being asked to change your clothing in some way.

Consider this, if you haven’t done it already: Talk to your immediate supervisor, or to the physician who is meeting with you. Wear a typical outfit–perhaps one that was criticized by the co-worker. Tell them that you only want the truth, not a hint or an attempt to save your feelings. Ask that person to look at each item you are wearing and how you look in it, and give you a truthful statement about whether it looks appropriate or inappropriate, and why. Ask them also about your make-up, fragrance, hair and other issues that reflect on a woman’s professional appearance.

Then, don’t argue, just act on that information.

It may be you will be instructed to start wearing a suit with a jacket. The jacket idea leads me to believe they want more of your upper area to be covered. Or, it may be they want the Operations Manager to have a more professional look than Business-Casual clothing provides. Sadly, casual clothing can mean anything from Preppy to Sloppy! They may simply want to have everyone at the managerial level look sharp.

It also sounds as though there is an issue involving the general relationship between you and this co-worker. That is something you need to talk to your boss about. If the co-worker reports to you, that makes it doubly bad. The co-worker should be told to keep her remarks to a helpful, professional level.

If you don’t supervise her, try to avoid her when at all possible, and don’t provide her with ammunition to cause problems for you.

I hope these thoughts will help you as you consider how to best do your job, continue to succeed, and present yourself in the best possible way. Best wishes!

Tina Lewis Rowe

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.