What should I do when my colleagues, on finding me wearing new dresses to work, are greeting me with "Happy birthday" everyday in a sarcastic way?

I am just mix and matching my attire in a formal way. I agree that I look good, on top of my clothes being simple and apt, it adds beauty to it. I work for Indian MNC firm and I strictly follow the office dress code. But the team I work with must think that I look attractive and they make comments about how I am wasting half my salary on my clothing, which is none of their business.

I never utter a single word, instead I give a smile and move away to my desk, but this is going on daily. During client visits I also wear formal trousers, a shirt and a blazer on it, paired with nice shoes, and it makes them feel that I am trying to look attractive and draw attention. I observed that none of them wore anything which could be considered formal, and few come in casuals at times (which I don't even comment about).

I am stressed out because of these comments that I am hearing even when I am in complete formal attire.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Oct 14 at 22:18
  • Can I ask what kind of industry this is in & what your role is? Not that it should matter much, just curious in case it does. – Paul Oct 16 at 21:06

10 Answers 10

As an Indian woman working in MNC, I can quite understand your problem.

Let's face it. In our country, when a man earns, people think that is because he needs to feed his family, he is ambitious/passionate. But when it is a woman, people assume she simply wants to pass time till she gets married, to earn for her apparels or just because everyone else is doing so.

You said you're doing mix and match for everyday. Even if you're literally spending all your salary in your apparels, that's none of their business.

Try this. When they greet you happy birthday, just act puzzled and say,

what??!!

Having to explain why they're wishing happy birthday regularly, makes them uncomfortable and the sarcasm will lose its flavor eventually.

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    A guy, have to agree with the "act confused and make the situation awkward for them" approach. That tends to be a great way to get me to avoid repeating the scenario that got me there. – T.E.D. Oct 11 at 9:44
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    "Oh, thank you, but mine was in July!" or "Wait, who's birthday is it today? I didn't sign the card yet!" – user3067860 Oct 11 at 13:31
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    Definitely agree with this one, people making comments like this do it to try make others uncomfortable with frequent passing remarks, trying to get a chuckle out of others. If you act confused and question it, most likely they won't want to explain what they're doing,because they know full well what they are doing and why it isn't acceptable. – Jsmith2800 Oct 11 at 13:56
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    I simply didn't realize my jokes had a negative effect on someone. @corsiKa Maybe they didn't. The OP is dealing with several co-workers also making negative assumptions about her spending habits and accusing her of being attention seeking. You making a happy birthday joke to someone who'd also made the same joke to you isn't the same situation. – BSMP Oct 11 at 17:05
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    Alternatively, say, "Thank you, happy birthday to you too!" If they reply that it isn't their birthday, reply with the obvious "well, it isn't mine either." If they say "well, I just thought you're dressed kinda fancy," point at their gut and say "and I thought you've been eating a lot of cake." – Misha R Oct 12 at 15:35

That's not appropriate work behavior and you don't need to tolerate it. Remaining quiet and smiling most likely just encourages your coworkers to keep on making sarcastic comments, as they think you're timid and accept it.

I think you should start by telling them straight up that you don't feel comfortable with them commenting on your attire and it's very inappropriate of them to do so. If they don't stop even after you warn them about it, then you should contact the HR or your manager.

Everyone has the right to have a comfortable work environment. You just need to stand up for yourself and demand equal treatment.

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    Asking them to stop commenting about your clothes is absolutely the #1 approach, and asking to stop is usually the first thing to do in any harassment situation – person27 Oct 13 at 1:56

This sounds like mild jealousy, the important thing is you stand out, you look good and being well groomed is good for your career and self confidence. It shows you have pride in yourself and your appearance.

Just carry on as you are, you're doing fine. Disregard those sorts of things.

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    Thank you, But How to stop them saying all this. As soon as i enter office they start blah blah.. It affects my work mood :-( – Jayasree Kuppili Oct 11 at 2:33
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    You can't stop them, just ignore it and don't let it affect you. Don't make it a drama. If your work ethic is as good as your presentation, you'll be way ahead of them in a few years. – Kilisi Oct 11 at 3:00
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    I think this answer does not realize how undermining this behavior is. If this is condoned and the jokes happen regularly then it can seriously affect your position in the company. If this happens daily, then it is bad advice for OP to just keep shuffling off. It gives the idea of being a non confrontational push-over. Just smiling and going away when being criticized is not "showing pride in yourself" at all. – LVDV Oct 11 at 9:27
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    @Kilisi Is it your culture that says not to react to continuous and unrelenting remarks that annoy and stress you out? I think it's clear that OP has been trying your approach for some time now and they are not giving up. Just letting you know why I marked your answer as not useful. – LVDV Oct 11 at 11:36
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    @LVDV thats fine, I know what you mean, just doesn't work for me. I do confront people, but not over rubbish like that. Easier to see it for what it is and not get annoyed and stressed out. When I do confront someone it can escalate very quickly if there is the slightest cheek. – Kilisi Oct 11 at 11:53

Based on my experience working in work-culture similar to yours as I am also from India, I have noticed that this kind of persons are likely to keep continuing. This kind of behavior is mostly fueled by you being agitated or irritated by their tricks. I can suggest picking one of below options that might suit your thoughts and you can give it a try.

  1. React to their sarcasm in a way that looks like you are actually taking it as compliment and ignore it. If you do it 2-3 times they will lose the motivation which they might be getting of from your anger or being agitated by their comments.

  2. If it is a single person and you are confident that this person can be indulged for one-on-one talk, Telling simply that their behavior which is almost repetitive and is problematic and is causing you issues and they should stop behaving as such.

  3. Tell them straight away that it is causing you problem dealing with this kind of treatment almost everyday and they should stop behaving in that fashion. If their behavior doesn't change report this to your HR or manager.

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    Telling a bully to stop has rarely done any good. And explaining why assumes they're motivated by human kindness, even more unlikely. – George M Oct 11 at 22:00
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    @GeorgeM From a US perspective at least, telling them to stop can help. Not because they will stop, but because you can tell your boss that you've told them to stop and they haven't. It makes it harder for them to claim they didn't know it bothered you. – Patrick M Oct 13 at 0:57
  • Well yes Patrick, it's covered elsewhere and I agree that you should not only tell them to stop, but do it in writing and document (with manager/hr) that you have done so. You should also keep a written log of incidents that happen after you tell them to stop. But this is all legalese, not real life, and applies only to the US. The questioner said pretty clearly that she's in India, where there are far fewer protections for workers, and as far as I know basically none for women. – George M Oct 15 at 17:40

This is difficult because I'd suspect it's bullying, but of course the perpetrators can hide behind the fact that they are “only paying you a compliment”. Whilst of course going out of their way to make snide/personal observations about you.

These comments are unwelcome and making you uncomfortable. You certainly should not be expected to put up with this.

It seems your current (lack of) response wont bring it under control. Not surprising if it's bullying – their actions have not been challenged - they can continue...

I'd suggest your goals should be:

  • Get it to stop.

  • Make it clear that you're not a push over – not be targeted.

  • Not to permanently sour your relationship with your colleagues – reprisals can take many forms.

Things to be mindful of:

  • Don't tell them you're hurt/uncomfortable – it grants them power over you. Their comments are unprofessional and unwelcome – leave it at that.

  • This is NOT your problem, there's HR and individual's managers to police employee conduct.

  • If you kick up too much fuss you may be seen an a nuisance and in some company cultures this will go against you.

  • Have you given these people any other reason to dislike you? Have you been acting aloof or superior? It's a risky game but you could go on a charm offensive with (perhaps not the ringleaders) but someone influential in this pecking order? I say risky, not because having the right person on-side wont stop the problem, but because you could be seen to be appeasing the bullies – this is only ever a short term win.

I'd suggest... Go to HR, say it's not a big issue, but you wanted to give them “heads-up” because it's unprofessional and you don't want it turning into an issue. Ask them what they'd have you do... At this point you've put your marker down that there's a problem and you are taking the right steps to stop it. You've also made it their problem. Beyond that I'd consider carrying a notebook with you and if you get one of these comments, just make a point of writing it down (time, comment, person who made the comment):

  1. If you need to go back to HR you'll have solid data to refer to.

  2. You've not confronted anyone, but left the perpetrator with the (hopefully uncomfortable) feeling that their actions may be coming back to haunt them. If challenged why you're noting this down you can say you're “... just collecting some information for HR”.

There may be there are some strong personalities (albeit weak characters) here that are the core of this activity. They see themselves at the top of some pecking order and others just act like pack animals to re-enforce the pecking order and keep themselves out of the line of fire. To effectively split the pack – I'd suggest (ensuring this is in front of enough witnesses or word to get around) upon getting one of these comments, turning on a non-ring-leader and asking them a question to account for their actions:

Ask “who is it you're trying to impress?”.

Whatever you do keep the ball in their court, they made the comment, isn't it reasonable that they should account for it? If they're a “smart Alec” and say “who are you trying to impress”, just slow right down and repeat, “No I'm serious... you made the comment, who are you trying to impress?”

Remember – you've already won. YOU don't engage in this puerile pecking order rubbish much less do YOU supplicate to a bully.

Good luck.

  • I would add that you should also record any witnesses to these interactions. – George M Oct 11 at 22:01

You've already tried ignoring the comments of your colleagues and it hasn't worked.

Some of the other answers have nudged in the direction of making the mockers uncomfortable, but "acting confused" about their sarcastic remarks could be seen as "not only is she dressing high-and-mighty, she's socially clueless, sheesh!" It is also rather passive. If you are confident in your appearance, you need a confident demeanor as well in resolving this issue.

The best way to get people to stop doing this is to directly make them explain why they do it, and at the same time, let them know that it is not acceptable.

If it were me, the next time someone makes a sarcastic remark of any kind about your outfit/attire, I would reply to them with a polite and honest tone of inquiry: "Is there something about my clothing choice that bothers you?"

At this point, there are only 2 ways for them to respond:

A) "Err, um, no... uh... " - to this you reply, "Ok, well your comments do bother me, so if there's nothing wrong with the way I dress, please stop making comments about it all the time."

B) (less likely, in my opinion) "Well, you're kind of overdressed for the office." or "You make the rest of us feel poor/scruffy/inferior/something when you dress like that." Or some other statement that tries to give a reason why they think your attire should be toned down. Depending on what they say, you might have an honest conversation about culture, or appearances, or whatever. Maybe they actually do feel bothered, but making sarcastic remarks is not a good way for them to behave towards you. Maybe you will decide that you could make some compromises, like less jewelry or something. Or maybe their reasons are petty -- at least if you force them to state their reasons, others who were participating just to "go along" might re-think why they were doing so. Respectful discussion often resolves "hidden" issues just by bringing the issues out into the open.

I agree that ignoring bullies is not a good strategy to make the behavior stop. So please consider the advice about that from others (usually making fun of -them- is how I make it stop, but yes that can also cause resentment).

What I wanted to address though is what you say about how none of your colleagues ever wear anything that could be considered formal. But you do. That implies some degree of tone-deafness in how you present yourself compared to your colleagues. Are you a woman working more or less alone in the middle of many men, those who object vocally to your manner of dressing? Dress can be a way of signaling that you're one of them, but it sounds like you're attached to a wardrobe that signals precisely the opposite. Perhaps with a dash of 'better than you' thrown in. None of that can help your already delicate position.

It sounds like you're trying to look 'attractive', and you think that's a goal nobody could object to. But is it really? Who are you trying to look attractive to exactly, and are you prepared to cope with any inappropriate reaction to that (basically any reaction from any of your colleagues)? Making a visible effort for clients is commendable, up to a point (like not being that much better dressed than the clients). But you might consider making more of an effort to match your colleagues' standards when you're just going to work.

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    I'm guessing you don't intend it this way, but this answer reeks a bit of blaming the victim. Incidentally, in my current workplace, there is only guy that wears a suit and everyone else is polo shirts, etc. His job is not client-facing. We don't harass him about it. – Chan-Ho Suh Oct 13 at 16:08
  • Not at all trying to blame the victim Chan-Ho, trying to give her a bit of agency in this mess. I do agree this is largely a sexism problem. Women are so brainwashed from birth about the importance of dressing to please men that it's difficult to step back and consider the question from a completely different angle. And that's not in the least something the individual woman is at fault for. – George M Oct 15 at 17:36
  • What I was trying to point out to the questioner is that women do have some choices, even though there is no entirely good solution. I will never forget my female grad school classmate talking about discovering that baggy jeans made her math life so much easier. She's now by far the most successful professor in that cohort, and sadly I think she had a point. There is no good choice here, but there is a choice. – George M Oct 15 at 17:37

It's bad manners to tell people what they should or should not spend money on. You can take the high ground here.

I don't care spending some money on what makes me happy, as long as the bills get paid. Why do you feel my finances are your concern?

I think it would be good to ask them a question on their behavior and move away from the spending money discussion. What to spend your money on is a belief and you can't win belief discussions. However, you can win discussions on manners and hopefully get them to back off. If they reply with something like, but clothes cost a lot and they are only in fashion one year so they are a bad investment, then you are free to say "That's true, but it's still my money to spend." If they keep at it you can shrug and say "Well..." until they get bored. Don't try to defend spending money on clothes, but defend your right to spend money on what you want.

Concerning what to say in the morning, I think Ms. Tamil has the right approach. Take it seriously and don't shuffle off. If they respond by saying you are overdressed, you can say "Oh, well, I really like it though. Thanks for noticing!" If you don't feel comfortable with that line, I think it is worth a shot to still try to find a way to thank them. You acknowledge you heard what they said, but choose not to go into it. Maybe it confuses them as well. Maybe they get bored with it.

Looks to me like you might emphasize too much looks to the point you "know" you're making too much effort in that way and feel embarrassed once someone comments on it.

To me you have two options here :

  • Focus a little bit less on what you're wearing meaning that you should keep dressing nice but not over the top every morning. Grab something you like and looks okay without spending too much time thinking about it. That way, when people might make comments, you'll genuinely not care because you didn't make it too important, you're just better looking than them, so what ?
  • Just make it a "strength", I understand it might be difficult in your country (I do not have much details about that), but the approach is pretty much the same : "Yes, I look better than you, so what ?". Being good looking is supposed to make you confident. People make comments ? That means they noticed you're better dressed. Just keep that in mind, ignore the comments (litterally do not show them you heard it).

In general, just be okay with who you are and people should stop making comments, people tend to keep doing something when they get a reaction. Just ignore meaningless comments and you should be okay.

Don't give them the satisfaction of seeing you react to their comments. Train yourself not to immediately react in these situations. Apparently their lives are quite vacant if they have nothing better to think or to speak of other than commenting sarcastically on your clothing. Where is your supervisor in all of this? These people are singling you out and ostracizing you and are not demonstrating supportive, cooperative team behavior. Sarcasm can be a form of abuse and I would tell your supervisor that their daily comments are undermining your enthusiasm for your work / affecting your attitude. These co-workers are not behaving professionally and are mean-spirited. Perhaps you should aim to move up into management so you could chastise these employees in an effective way i.e. demote or fire them!

Hold your head up high, your efforts surely are noticed by management, the public and others. These co-workers are indeed jealous of you - that you have incentive to take the time to dress well, and their appearances probably pale in comparison.

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    "Just ignore it" is what the asker is already doing. It's not working. Why do you expect it to suddenly start working? – David Richerby Oct 11 at 17:31

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