Inappropriate clothing at work: keep quiet or speak up?

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A few years ago I posted an article in which I addressed a reader’s question. It was a question from a lady regarding her supervisor who had difficulty confronting a female employee about her overly sexy clothing. I thought it was an interesting topic. How do you tackle such a thing?

A conversation about this article started on LinkedIn, on Twitter, and I received private messages from people giving their opinion on this matter. This topic turned out to be more controversial than I thought, as many of us have doubts about what to do in this type of situation. Inappropriate clothing at work: keep quiet or speak up? What is the wise thing to do?

Inappropriate clothing at work: keep quiet or speak up?

Inappropriate clothing at work: keep quiet or speak up?

Everyone seemed to agree that you should be able to say something. Emphasis on should be able to. We now live in a society in which it is very normal to hold people accountable for their behavior, especially when it is not appropriate. It is the general consensus that it should be possible to discuss matters openly. But it gets tricky when the subject is confrontational. And with someone’s looks, this is the case.

I can still remember this issue at my last job. It was a topic that was often discussed amongst colleagues. People gossiped about the one colleague whose breath stank, the other who always looked unkempt, and another for whom very tight clothing was the norm. Not to mention people wearing clothing with their underwear clearly visible and the far too many bare midriffs on display in the summer. Everyone was aware this was an issue, everyone gossiped about it but no one spoke to culprits directly. They didn’t dare. Direct colleagues and most managers avoided this kind of conversation like the plague.

Two Sides

What also struck me in the discussion is the fact that there are two distinct sides: people who find it perfectly logical to address someone about their appearance and people who find it difficult. Two diametrically opposed viewpoints. There was even a person who thought it was so normal to talk to someone about their appearance that she figured the article and the accompanying question must be “fake”. What’s worse is she thought it necessary to speak this out publicly on social media. This was a very extreme reaction and in my view extremely disrespectful, especially towards the person who asked me the question.

It is also indicative of how sensitive this topic is. Should you confront someone about their appearance or not? If we find it normal to have a discussion with someone about their appearance, are we losing sight of the fact that this is most likely a sensitive issue? And if you don’t dare to bring it up, of course, the issue does not get resolved. Isn’t it high time to find some middle ground and start a conversation about protocol? 

I am curious about your experience. Have you ever approached a colleague about inappropriate clothing or grooming? Or do you also find this topic too sensitive?



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