Should I Have To Comment on a Coworker’s Looks?

Question:

I share an office with another lady who is in her mid 40s. I’m also female and in my 30s. When she first started she was asking me if she looked alright. I told her she looked fine. (We’re t-shirt and jeans work place, but you are allowed to wear nicer clothes.) After a few weeks of this being an everyday occurrence, I told her that she didn’t need to ask if she looked alright and what she had been wearing was fine. She informed me that as her office co-worker I needed to tell her each morning that she looks nice. She does tell me every morning how much she likes my outfit. If I didn’t tell her when she first came in that she looked good, I would get a five minute lecture about how I was very disrespectful to her. I finally got to the point where I would tell her “you look nice today”.

This morning she came in and I was on the phone. As soon as I hung up, she walked right up to me and stood with her hands on her hips and said “I want you to stop what you are doing and LOOK at me and tell me how much you like my new outfit.” So I did and told her she looked nice in her new outfit. She then proceeded to tell that it wasn’t a new outfit she worn it before and I need to take more of an interest in what she had on, how her hair is styled, her makeup, her nails, her shoes, etc. I have talked with our boss about this and he said just to appease her. I’m at my wits end and dread when she comes into the office.

Signed,

No More Ms. Nice Gal


Answer:

Dear No More Ms. Nice Gal:

Oh my goodness, that would be frustrating and irritating–and it’s very strange! Ironically, we get many other complaints from people saying they don’t WANT their clothing or appearance commented on.

Fortunately, this will be easy to stop. Just stop. Your boss is clearly taking the “hands off” approach, so even if your coworker complains he won’t side with her either. How could he, given that there is nothing anywhere that would say she has the right idea.

I’m not saying this will be easy, but really, how much more of this do you want to endure? I can tell you’re distracted severely by it. Starting tomorrow you never have to do it again!

I realize it might be unpleasant for a few days, because she’ll pout or be angry or act hurt. But I imagine she’ll prefer to have you at least communicating with her during the day, than to shut you out completely. Apparently you’ve been able to deal with her OK apart from that issue, so eventually I think things will calm down. Minus you jumping through hoops for her every morning!

Tomorrow when she comes in, say good morning in a friendly fashion and keep working. Be businesslike and courteous but don’t comment on her appearance. When she says something about it, be prepared to say no. You may have a different approach than I would have, but here is one option:

She says, “Aren’t you going to comment on my outfit?” You say, “No, Jan, I’m not going to do that anymore. I want us to have a good working relationship and we can’t have that if this issue of how you look keeps coming up over and over. I’m not going to comment on your appearance unless there’s a special reason to do it. Let’s just say good morning like they do in every other workplace and not talk about looks. So, good morning and let’s get to work. OK?”

If she starts a lecture, get up and walk away, after telling her that you’ll return when she’s ready to work rather than talking about clothes, hair and make-up. (You’ll probably sound nicer than that, but you get the idea.)

The key is, never, never, never give in again. It’s not your task to figure out why she is the way she is. The only thing that matters is the effect it has on your feelings about work. Essentially she has trained you to do her bidding, which I know you don’t want to do! So, this is one time when it’s OK to push back.

If you think it would work, tell her to ask your manager about her appearance every morning, because it’s his job to pay attention to it, not yours. (That would serve him right, but might not make you popular with him!)

Don’t get sucked into emotional pleas about how she just wants to be friends, she’s concerned about her appearance, etc. She’s been a tyrant with you over this and you have gone above and beyond what you should have anyway. If she was really a nice person, she wouldn’t have made you feel bad so many times over such a trivial thing.

That brings you to what you can do during the awkwardness. If you’re a good enough actress, act as though the awkward conversation never happened. Continue to talk about work as you usually do. If you would normally engage in small talk, continue to do that. I imagine she’ll be short and to the point for awhile. But, as I said previously, if she wants to have someone to talk to, she’ll have to come around and I expect she will.

Normally I would suggest that you inform your boss of your plans, but I think he’ll try to talk you out of it. (He’s not the one who has to comment every day!) I think this is small-scale enough that you can handle it on your own. It doesn’t involve a major issue, just a bad habit that has been allowed to go on too long.

May I suggest this though, at the risk of sounding hyper-concerned: Watch her reactions closely and make sure she isn’t so upset by it that you have to watch your back either literally or figuratively. If you feel concern for any reason, let your boss know about that immediately. I doubt that will happen, but I would be remiss to not mention it to you.

I’m hoping that what will happen is that you’ll have a few minutes or so of discomfort, then it will be over and you’ll be very, very happy that you stood your ground. Just don’t give in at the last minute!

I’ll be very anxious to find out how this works out, so I hope you’ll keep us informed about your results. And, in case you’re wondering, you’re in the right on this and she is being unreasonable and frankly, a bit weird. Don’t let your good nature convince you otherwise.

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.