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1st occasion: I have been at my new Indiana company working in the HR department for close to 3 months now. My manager resigned and now new management (she is the VP of Human Resources) comes in. Her 2nd day in office we have our one on one meeting. I give her a run down of my job duties and current projects. As we were wrapping up the meeting she ask I close the office door and was instructed to zhuzh up my appearance. I work in a corporate atmosphere. This day in particular I was wearing gray slacks, a black top, and a black cardigan that I switched for out for our department pull over.

I then explained to her that I had commuted via the bus and my coworker pointed out a huge stain on my rear end. I had sat in something so I used my department pullover to hide the stain on my slacks. She responded ok yes, just zhuzh it up a bit.

2nd occasion: Next was the department meeting where we went over several topics. The topic of appearance came up. We must present ourselves in a professional manner. Then she mentioned a little lip gloss goes a long way ladies. This was odd to hear during a department meeting. What does lip gloss have to do with our ability to accomplish our work? This was now the 2nd time I had felt uncomfortable with the remark about appearances. I am not one to wear make up often; I don't even own lip gloss!

3rd occasion: I was out sick Thursday and Friday. Tuesday I was called into the my managers office due to a mistake I made. I acknowledge my error explained my steps to fix my error. My manager says we should all appear like this (referring to her self) well put together. We are the face of the department. I was wearing a black knee length skirt, black top, maroon cardigan and flats. I actually curled my hair that day! But she again references appearance.

I have never been self conscious but now I don't want to go back in to my office in fear of what she will say next or find wrong.

Am I over reacting? Should I report the occurrence?

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    A country and industry tag would be helpful here Jun 29 at 8:32
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    Voting to close as "needs detail or clarity" until the location and industry is clarified; as noted in f222's answer, in some locations this would be straight up illegal, in others it might be normal practice. Jun 29 at 9:18
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    In the UK there was the case of PriceWaterhouseCooper and high heel shoes... Which on a scale of 0 to 10 of embarrassing turned out to be an 11 for them.
    – gnasher729
    Jun 29 at 16:42
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    "Am I over reacting?" No, your manager is being ridiculous.
    – BSMP
    Jun 30 at 6:48
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    I'm no expert on these types of things but I'm guessing the VP of HR might have something of a hidden advantage in a "reporting" situation. Jun 30 at 11:51

4 Answers 4

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Am I over reacting?

No. There is a significant cultural gap between you and your manager. Not addressing this will create a lot of stress and harm your career.

What your manager is asking feels very inappropriate and is quite likely illegal (depending on local laws and regulations).

Should I report the occurrence?

Not yet. Once you make this official the genie is out of the bottle and won't go back in again: Regardless of how an official complaint would play out, this would likely damage the relationship between you and your manager beyond repair so you you need to prepared to transfer or job search.

A better question would be

What should/can I do?

Assess the situation as objective as you can. Turn your emotions off as much as you can and observe objectively what's happening. Questions to answer

  1. Is your manager the only one doing this, or is this happening in other departments as well?
  2. Are you being singled out or is your manager doing this to other people as well?
  3. Are male & females equally affected or is it just done to females?

So observe, keep your ears open, have casual chats at the water cooler, talk to trusted people in the company and see what you find.

Your next step depends on the analysis. For example, if the whole company is swinging this way, you should start looking for a new job. There is a cultural disconnect and you'll never be happy there. If it's just you, then you can escalate step by step. That's more complicated so you should ask a separate question about this process.

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I'm going to answer based on the location in your profile (UK) because, as pointed out, standards and legality for this vary across the world.

I guess the biggest question you need to answer is, is your manager out-of-step with company culture? Or is she just enforcing what is a widely held belief?

In the UK, an employer is free to decide upon a dress code, but they have to be seen to applying it equally across men and women. This can be tricky given cultural "norms" of dress vary hugely.

To quote the UK Government guidance above any

"requirement to wear make-up, skirts, have manicured nails, certain hairstyles or specific types of hosiery is likely to be unlawful"

so it sounds like what your new manager is proposing regarding lipgloss is illegal (as usual, I-am-not-a-lawyer)

How you deal with that though is obviously tricky and depends on what outcome you want?

You could raise it with your HR, in the hope they can have a discrete word with your manager without identifying you. They might be great or they might agree with her and know how to make any legal response you have not worth your while.

You could mention it in passing to her yourself, if you think that would work.

Or you could try to find the bare minimum level of "zhuzh" that keeps her happy and gradually try to reduce it as time wears on.

All of these carry different risks and benefits and without us knowing your workplace, it's hard to say what is the best for you.

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    Thank you for the advise I work in human resources manager is the vp of human resources. She definitely leads by example... but I am no where near the worst dress or come to work just rolled out of bed. I maintain a professional appearance Jun 29 at 12:42
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    Looks like you're in the US (I was convinced it previously said UK on the profile 🤔) so I'm not sure the legal specifics apply anymore. Jun 30 at 7:29
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    I read that in less enlightened times, an airline had an advert for stewardesses (and stewards, only hiring women would have been illegal), saying that "dress code is skirt and blouse". Clearly, applied equally across men and women.
    – gnasher729
    Jun 30 at 11:43
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First this might depends on the country you live in. In some countries, apart from safety reasons, they might not have the right to impose clothing to workers (or they have the right to impose a limited number of things).

Secondly this might depends on the type of job you do. If you're a salesman meeting clients all day long, it is normal to have more formal clothing.

This might also depends on the company, some companies are more open than others to non formal clothes.

This kind of questions come quite often around here and are usually considered as opinion-based because everybody has a different point of view about it.

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TL;DR She's not being unreasonable, but she's not doing her part in just outlining the dress code she wants. You should ask her to clarify what she means.

It sounds like she has an idea of a dress code, and keeps picking the wrong moment to bring it up.

The first comment was probably in regards to an old rule about tying sweaters around one's waist - in some settings it's considered too casual, but you had a valid reason to wear it that way. Having just met you, she probably didn't know that you'd only wear a sweater that way if you needed to CYA.

The second incident may be a poorly chosen set of words - as an HR manager she must know all the pitfalls of a dress code applied unevenly in the workplace. She might have meant it more as a general encouragement to dress up. This was a department meeting, which means that what she said may not specifically apply to you. Given she's just started, it seems more likely that she made a new-job-gaffe that could be ignored.

The third incident might be cause for concern, but it could also be just another reiteration of the updated dress code that she's communicating to everybody. If there was something wrong with the outfit you were wearing, she should have been able to articulate that. Since she was motioning to herself, she clearly wants you to use her style set as a guide.

I think the obvious, easiest and most manager-pleasing solution would be to ask for a little clarification on the dress code. Phrase it as a preparation for a shopping trip, and then ask if there was anything specific about the outfits you've been wearing that could be improved.

Dress codes can vary by region and industry. She might be hoping the team adheres to a set of rules similar to a Catholic college prep school, or she might like to demonstrate the team's knowledge with clothes that fit into current fashion norms. Maybe she thinks a lot of black looks too intimidating for an HR team member. Getting an outline of specific rules can do wonders.

It might be worth going through your wardrobe pieces and checking for general wear and tear. We sometimes become a little blind to fading, pit stains, holes, shrinking and stretching. Everyone has their 'frenemy color set', so take a moment to hold every blouse and dress to your face in bright light to make sure nothing is inadvertantly making you look sallow.

One final thing to note is that she might not have considered current salaries for her team. In general, a job with more visibility should garner a larger salary to compensate for the wardrobe expense. If the old manager considered HR to be more of a back-office gig, and was stingy with the salaries because of it, you might have to point out to her that salaries were negotiated with low visibility in mind. The expectation of designer suits and regular dry-clearning on low-to-mid-range market rate would be inappropriate.*

  • note this is a salary conversation, not a personal budgeting conversation. An employee should not be required to purchase clothing items that would not make financial sense for their salary. Don't let yourself get caught up in a discussion about avocado toasts if she's asking you to spend beyond your means. Instead of saying "Tory Birch isn't in my budget right now," say "I'm a fan of those brands but those kinds of expenditures don't really make sense for my tax bracket."

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