Amy Joyce
Life at Work

Not Cut From the Boss's Cloth

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By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 28, 2007

I recently received what I felt was a straightforward question in my online chat. I thought my advice was an easy solution and that would be the end of it:

Chicago wrote: "I just got a letter of reprimand at work for how I dress -- and I really disagree with it! There are specific points in the letter that I have issue with (such as the categorization of some things I've worn and that I'm not allowed to wear any V-neck tops -- ever). What can I do? I can't afford to go buy a whole new wardrobe to satisfy my boss's Puritan streak!"

I replied: "Get over yourself and pay attention to what your boss is saying. If s/he isn't happy with what you're wearing, that likely means there's a problem. Throw a T-shirt under that V-neck. Wear opaque tights with the short skirt. Put a jacket over your sleeveless tops. . . . This is serious business, believe it or not. It takes a lot (usually) for a boss to reprimand a worker for the way they dress. And even if you feel put off about it, your boss is telling you there is an issue. You need to look at your wardrobe and figure out how to look more professional. This is an easy fix, Chicago. You can still be you, but if you care about your job, take note of your boss's request and work with it."

It seemed like a simple and obvious solution. But some thought she should fight if she thought she was being singled out. Others thought this might be a case of discrimination or office politics.

Even so, I stood by my advice.

We all know the impact clothes have on the way people perceive us. There can be a lot of wiggle room in dress codes -- to the point where some people wear things in which they can't wiggle. So when we know what's expected of us, why not just do it?

Chicago wrote to the chat the following week. Her company does, in fact, have a dress code. She doesn't think she's in violation of it.

"My frustrations also stem from the fact that I'm very overweight," she wrote. "The only one in the office to be so, which makes it difficult to find even remotely attractive non-V-neck tops to begin with. . . . I can't help but feel that I've been singled out. . . . (After constant criticism of any skirt I wore, I finally gave up and now wear only pants, so that's not an issue.)" Chicago asked, "If nobody's complained or commented on the way I dress (which is the truth to the best of my knowledge), why do this?"

I still think Chicago needs to take a hard look at what she wears. It's important to dress in a way that doesn't draw attention from your good work. If the boss thinks you're looking less than professional, you have to do something about it. If you disagree and think the boss is being a pig-headed moron, consider looking for new work. And if you think you're being discriminated against, then yes, contact an employment lawyer.

The best advice came from Kate Bunting of Centreville, who works for the government and says she too shops for plus-sized clothing.

To an extent, she said, you have to swallow some pride and seek advice to find the "right" things to wear. Doing so is the savvy choice, she said. "That supervisor might be able to make a note in a future performance review that the employee addressed concerns raised actively and sincerely, and sought to improve performance as recommended by management."

I'll let Kate have the last word today.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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