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I work as a researcher in Germany and have recently been approached by the boss's secretary and told what can be summarized as follows:

Hey, we pay you one of the top salaries in our research group, but you live in a shared apartment in a remote district. It's obvious that if you spend 3-4 hours a day commuting and share a flat with a bunch of people, your performance at work is bound to be suboptimal, even though we have no specific complaints about your performance. Your work is critically important to our group, so we want to get the most from you and expect you to rent a comfortable apartment solely for yourself and close to work. That's why we pay you that much and your salary is supposed to cover this.

Also, you skip the group lunch at the canteen every day, opting to microwave food brought from home, and wear clothes that are more suitable for wearing at home. You surely can afford eating at the canteen with us and buying smart casual attire. We want other group members and visitors to respect you rather than think you are underpaid by us or there's something wrong with you. This is important for healthy work relationships.

I was shocked and could only buy a few days to think.

I am not enthusiastic at all to do what she says. It's an expensive city, so an apartment close to work could easily cost me a third of my after-tax salary. Having lunch at the canteen is over 10 Euro a day, and, also, I really prefer to eat alone. And I equally prefer wearing comfy clothes I am used to.

How should I deal with this situation?

Additional details:

  • The contract says nothing about the issues raised, and there is no official dress code.

  • I don't think the boss will refuse to renew my contract over this, or at least that would be highly irrational. I have unique skills needed by the group, and I also work long hours out of my passion about my research.

  • I am highly insensitive to living conditions. I grew up in a family with many kids and little living space and later shared a dormitory room with a few students for years. I've never rented a separate unit and don't feel any need to. Not only do I gladly live in a shared flat, but I also gladly share my room with a roommate to split the cost. Also, I find local trains and buses very comfortable and use commuting time to think about various things.

  • I come from a developing country and work in Germany to save up as much as possible, hence this lifestyle - and I am fully comfortable with it.

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    Clarification: is this the secretary asking this? or is this the secretary asking on behalf of "The Boss"? If it's just your coworker then the answer is different than if it's actually someone "important" (yes, all people are important but some more than others).
    – WernerCD
    Oct 7, 2022 at 17:03
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    Do you work at a private company or at a university/ government research center?
    – quarague
    Oct 7, 2022 at 17:06
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    Are those accurate quotes from her? I'm not experienced with German law, but in my little part of EU requiring the employee to "rent a comfortable apartment *solely* for yourself" would be highly illegal for employer to dictate. So, your employer is basically forbidding you to have girlfriend/boyfriend? To get married? To have a kid (or two, or dozen of them)? To live with (and/or care for) your elderly sick parents and/or extended family? To have (or interact with or live with if you so chose) friends outside of workplace in your apartment? Oct 7, 2022 at 20:03
  • 9
    Does your employer have a dress code? If so, does your current wardrobe meet the requirements? If not, are your clothes significantly different in style from that of your coworkers?
    – BSMP
    Oct 7, 2022 at 23:16
  • 21
    How do they know with how many people you share a place?
    – Helena
    Oct 8, 2022 at 17:03

32 Answers 32

103

You should make the effort.

Where you live and eat is unimportant, but how you present yourself is critical. And this is what people are looking at the most.

In my locale I know people with no vehicle, no walls on their house and they wash their clothes and themselves in a stream. Yet you would never know seeing them at work. They go to a lot of effort to make the best presentation that they can.

So long as the presentation is good no one is looking at the fact they eat $1 noodles on a good day. In your position you have no excuse not to do better. So do yourself a favour and invest in yourself.

I'm in a minority group wherever I go in the World. I got some advice when I was very young. I was told it's not enough to be as good as everyone else. I have to be better if I want to be successful, everyone will notice the small things about me that they wouldn't notice with their own people.

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    This is terrible advice. The only thing that matters is how good the OP's research output is Oct 9, 2022 at 22:05
  • 50
    @ScottishTapWater By that logic you could dispense with showers and go to work in your pyjamas or wear your underpants on the outside like Superman.
    – Kilisi
    Oct 10, 2022 at 0:20
  • 7
    Well no, because dispensing with showers affects other people. Your other two points... Fine by me. He's not in sales, he's a researcher. Oct 10, 2022 at 0:44
  • 16
    I think the best response to this answer is that you are right, but I'd rather prefer to live in a world where you weren't. It's not that your advice is bad so much as it is perhaps unfortunate.
    – user71257
    Oct 10, 2022 at 4:29
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    @Nohbdy That is true, but reality is often a lot more unpleasant than this minor issue. Yet we must all live in a 'real' World. No point me giving answers based on an idealised dreamworld.
    – Kilisi
    Oct 10, 2022 at 4:51
87

I assume you are covered by TVÖD.

The general logic in Germany about working contracts is really different from some other parts in the world. In Germany the general logic is that your performance comes as a package and the moment when you enter a working contract, things which may affect your performance are somehow open to discussion. There are quite strict limits on this, and my feeling is that your employer transgressed the boundaries in some aspects on what they said. Some things are debatable, and some is clearly fully within their right.

Things clearly within their right:

  • Demanding a certain clothing style (but for everybody)
  • demanding that you are present in the Kernzeit of your work
  • demanding that when you work from home you have a separate quiet space for your work where nobody can see your screen or listen to your phone calls
  • demanding that you arrange your life in such a way that you arrive well rested at work

Things which are debatable:

  • speculating if you can be well rested due to the shared flat/room or long travel - as long as there is no specific indicator.

Things which are out of the question

  • demanding that you live in a separate flat - none of their business

Social hints which they gave you between the lines in terms of your more complex function:

  • Eating with the colleagues is an important work social function in Germany. Even when I brought my own food, I would typically lunch with colleagues in the canteen once or twice per week.
  • This is research. 8 hour days are not what is expected - how could they get PHD students to devote their complete time if you "go home early" due to a long commute while earning more money than they do?

My additional thoughts:

  • One part of your salary in TVöD is the Ortszuschlag - specifically given for living in expensive cities. Check this and consider that this part of the money is not "to save it" but to make being present for your employer affordable for you. If you consider this "your money" to take home, there is a slight philosophical problem.
  • Your fundamental goal of saving as much money as possible is not compatible with what is expected from you as a researcher. This fundamental clash will cause trouble for you - think about that.
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    The 8h/day bullet point is a joke, right? That research especially doctoral positions are terrible in terms of work ours isn't a reason to make other positions equally terrible - the opposite. By having healthy boundaries you help those phd students (some awareness for this is slowly spreading). Also OP did write they already do work long hours. Also the entire "trouble for you" aspect on philosophy and such: More like trouble for the employer.
    – imsodin
    Oct 7, 2022 at 13:09
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    @imsodin: i wish the 8th point was a joke. it is not. this is not about "how do i think that the world should be" but "what did a professor/principal investigator from Germany probably meant by this"
    – Sascha
    Oct 7, 2022 at 14:25
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    @imsodin: i left German research a long time ago. And I don't think that the OP has leverage. If you have leverage the professor is going to speak personally to you in Germany.
    – Sascha
    Oct 7, 2022 at 14:42
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    "Your fundamental goal of saving as much money as possible is not compatible with what is expected from you as a researcher." Nonsense. Of course researchers can be frugal. There is nothing fundamentally incompatible between being a researcher and being frugal.
    – kaya3
    Oct 8, 2022 at 13:51
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    "demanding that you are present in the Kernzeit of your work" To save others some Googling: ern=core, as in kernal, zeit=time as in zeitgeist. Kernzeit = core hours. Oct 9, 2022 at 21:27
51

The key point is: are these expectations only toward you or more general toward all employees?

Companies having and enforcing a dress code is rather normal, and if that's the case you should follow it. And since usually the dress code prescribes the style, not the brands, it should be possible to follow it without draining your wallet. But this should be specified either in your contract or in your staff guide.

About the where and how to live, unless your job requires you to be located within certain limits (e.g. I have colleagues who, when on call duty during nights or weekends, need to be within half an hour driving distance from office and with phone always on), the company should not have a saying in your choices, in particular if it doesn't impact your job performance. Again, check your contract.

If in doubt, you can also search the advice of either your union or from a lawyer.

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    Thanks a lot! There is no official dress code, and the contract says nothing about the dress code or the living conditions. The only leverage my boss has is his ability not to renew my contract, but he will shoot himself in the foot by doing so. He will have a really hard time replacing me, and I can find a job elsewhere
    – wiss13
    Oct 7, 2022 at 6:17
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    @wiss13: most of the times, the company culture is not documented anywhere, and is not enforced by any contract. You just fit, or you do not. And about " he will shoot himself in the foot by doing so. He will have a really hard time replacing me", read my answer for more details.
    – virolino
    Oct 7, 2022 at 14:04
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    "He will have a really hard time replacing me, and I can find a job elsewhere" makes you sound like a rather entitled and difficult employee. Add that to the fact that you aren't trying to socialize with your coworkers and attracting the wrong kind of attention makes me think your boss might be thinking about getting rid of you. Modern workplaces are about conforming to a set of common rules and practices, employees are expected to do their best to fit in (within reason). Everyone is replaceable my friend, including you.
    – user32882
    Oct 7, 2022 at 15:32
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    @user32882 "He will have a really hard time replacing me, and I can find a job elsewhere" makes it sound like OP lives in a free market society, nothing like being entitled or difficult. OP has his set of skills and they are free to ask for whatever terms the free market may accept.
    – Johan
    Oct 7, 2022 at 15:49
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    @Johan No, if OP was living in a free market society and they "[would] have a really hard time replacing me, and I can find a job elsewhere" then the company would not even bring up such minor issues, fearing that he will accept another position. So it does seem that OP might overvalue himself, and even be a bit difficult.
    – jDAQ
    Oct 7, 2022 at 21:58
36

Appearance does matter. Quite frankly, what you described, you look like an apprentice, student or "Aushilfskraft im Lager" (temp worker in the warehouse). So at least in some ways like an individual that will not be taken as a full employee.

Looking like that is not a "lifestyle", except maybe if you want to be a punk and be unemployed hanging out in front of a liquor store all day asking for freebies. It is accepted from apprentices, students and temp workers, because we know they are not paid enough. Aparently, you are.

It does not take a lot to change appearances. You are wearing short sleeved cotton and jeans? So do I. And I have never had any problems with that. The difference is, that I wear jeans that look new (means single color, no bleach, no holes, whether as a fashion choice or through actual wear and tear), and instead of a t-shirt, I wear a neat, single color polo shirt. I can guarantee you that between the two of us, both wearing cotton/jeans, I will be taken seriously at a meeting and you will be treated like you should not be in the room with the grown ups. Is that "fair"? I don't know. But it is the reality, you will have to accept that.

Legally, the company can mandate a dress code. It is absolutely in their rights to set expectations of how you dress at work.

The commute is another thing. Officially, it's none of their business directly. However, they do have a right to get your full attention at work and they do have a right to require you to get rest between work days. For example you cannot party all night and come to work hung over and tired. Now, you are not doing this for personal pleasure, 3-4 hours a day commuting is insane. There is no way this does not take a toll on your health and on your ability to work.

Eating in the shared canteen indeed is none of their business. What if you had food allergies, or simply didn't like the food there. However, socializing, being part of the team, not being "the outsider", is important. If you can, sit with them after you heated up your own food. Eat together. Maybe say you have a meal with them each Friday. Make sure that you connect on some level and don't stay completely unapproachable.

Now shared living... that is really none of their business. I doubt the secretary has ever suggested to their boss that they move out of their shared living situation with their wife and kids and move into a single appartment of their own. Who you live with, is really, really something they need to stay out of. But I don't think they were talking about that, rather about the fact that living in a shared space with strangers as an arrangement to save money, is going against your required goal of being your best the next day at work.

So, bottom line, they pay you, as if you lived nearby. That means they expect a performance, as if you lived nearby. That includes dressing smart, having a relaxed private life that does not include countless hours of commute and sharing your house with strangers.

You are not legally required to change any of those things, except how you dress. And I would guess that they have no formalized dressing standard.

So it is not a reason to fire you. However, if you want to be seen as an equal in the workplace, as a person to listen to and be taken seriously, you will need to change something. The easiest and cheapest way is clothing. Get a new shirt and pants from a department store. Doesn't need to be any brand name. There you go. You changed something, visibly. Not only will people take you more seriouly, you also sent a strong signal to the secretary (and whoever ordered them to speak with you) that you are open to constructive criticism and change. Clothing is basically a one-time cost.

Make room to use the shared canteen sometimes. Wether that's "every Friday" or maybe "every time they serve that tasty fish dish" it really doesn't matter. Engage with your co-workers. If you can, sit with them for lunch, whether you buy it there or bring your own.

The commute... well, you have to do something about that. Not because they will do something about it, it is none of their business, but it will wear you down to a level where you need to change it or your work will suffer to a level where they will do something about that.

So to summarize: that is what they expect. And they pay you as if you lived in the city, so the are not wrong in expecting many of those things.

Look at it this way: from your 5 year old niece, a crayon painting of a stick figure is an acceptable birthday gift. From your 30 year old aunt, it is not. Doesn't matter what she is doing with the money instead. She needs to spent at least enough to keep up appearances. And so do you.

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    True, looks can be deceiving, and dress code is part of that. However, once a person starts speaking, the looks tend to be overlooked, when that person obviously is intelligent, knows his job, and knows how to speak. That should take a couple of minutes at the first meeting, after which, looks apart, he's treated with the respect he deserves.
    – Tim
    Oct 9, 2022 at 13:38
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    you have birthday gifts expectations for your aunt?
    – njzk2
    Oct 9, 2022 at 17:41
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    Agreeing with a fair bit in this answer, but that whole bit about hanging in front of a liquor store is really uncalled for and out of place. Additionally I know some very casually dressing people that are taken very very seriously when they say something in meetings. Oct 10, 2022 at 5:37
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    3 or four hours commuting is a lot, but certainly not "insane", especially if it uses public transport.
    – MikeB
    Oct 10, 2022 at 10:28
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    @MikeBrockington Those commuting hours start to become insane as you get older and start having more responsibilities. Imagine waking up at 6 to get to work at 9 and leaving at 5 to be home at 7pm? Having to commute 4 hours a day means that if I need to take care of something important (my car breaks down, need to go to the bank, doctors appointment, pick up the kids from xyz), I need a whole day off from work. Oct 10, 2022 at 12:16
33

I want to add a single point:

You cannot discuss how other people perceive you.

You have been told that your appearance and actions are perceived negatively. Nobody can force you to make a good impression. But you cannot force anyone to have a good impression of you neither. You may have good reasons for your actions. It doesn't matter. People don't know and most don't care.

Therefore, there is only a single choice: Do you want to be perceived the way you have been told you are perceived?

If not, do something. If yes, accept that that may hurt your career.

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    Did you really mean to say "discuss"? I don't see anything else in your answer that seems to match that. Did you mean something like "dispute"?
    – Dan Getz
    Oct 9, 2022 at 6:16
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    @DanGetz it might not be the perfect word there. I mean that you cannot discuss it with them because you'll never even get into that discussion. That's the problem with people judging you - it's a very one-sided thing. You act. People judge. No discussion. No possibility to explain.
    – DonQuiKong
    Oct 9, 2022 at 9:49
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My favorite part is that you were told this by the boss's secretary.

Hence, in relation to the title of your post, the first order of business might be to confirm it is the employer and not the secretary.

The fact that a secretary/admin assistant feels like it's part of her job responsibilities to talk to you in that kind of prescriptive way, telling you how to live (no less) tells me there's an entitlement/attitude issue that may require adjustment.

What I'd want to know is, was this her own idea or did your boss tell her to have this convo with you.

Regardless of the answer, she's not the one you should be talking to.

I would approach the boss directly and sort it out. While at it, note that you consider the secretary's behavior unprofessional and intrusive. Request that his secretary keep lifestyle advice to herself, otherwise you might have some lifestyle advice for her. Good luck!

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    Let's not be too hard on the secretary yet, she may have just been following orders.
    – cdkMoose
    Oct 7, 2022 at 14:34
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    I agree with this point. I was about to write an answer discussing that. You don't report to the secretary, you report to your manager. The secretary has no business telling you to do these things. If she did so because your manager made her, your manager is doing a very poor job of managing you. I strongly urge you to talk to your manager about what she said - perhaps writing out an email summary as an intro to asking for a follow-up meeting. Be sure you know what you want out of the meeting beyond confirmation that he sent her to you. Beyond that, I would suggest looking for a new job.
    – user79963
    Oct 7, 2022 at 16:07
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    It is possible that the boss felt uncomfortable addressing these 'soft' issues, and asked the secretary she to approach OP kindly and nicely, because they felt she had more talent for this?
    – Ivana
    Oct 7, 2022 at 19:57
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    And this is the reason most people never get told how they are ruining their careers. Hearing about something that may have been a very honest feedback meant to be helpful and seeing entitlement is a form of entitlement too.
    – DonQuiKong
    Oct 8, 2022 at 7:01
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    @DKNguyen two possibilities: either this was very honest feedback about a difficult topic. That's something most people never get. Or it was insulting bs. Point is, people not knowing which it was and as a standard response putting it into the second category, acting all insulted and stuff is the main reason, honest feedback is so rarely given. Consequence: people judge you without telling you and you'll never know why you didn't get that promotion or whatever. I think the standard response to criticism should be a "thank you". You can still decide to be insulted later on.
    – DonQuiKong
    Oct 9, 2022 at 9:54
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The hard truth is they're telling you you look and act like a hobo and are killing the company image.

The rest of what she said is just about making it seem like that's not the main issue here - to soften the "blow".

Address this by dressing up a bit every once in a while and by looking your part.

This post is rude, the secretary is rude, but, hey, the bitter truth is better than a sweet lie, lol.

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    I am sure it is not about any kind of smell at least. My clothes are always very tidy and I take a shower before work and use a deodorant
    – wiss13
    Oct 7, 2022 at 6:47
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    Next week, show up in the office with a turtleneck and black pants/jeans - that will be the end of such "comments" from the secretary or anyone else who was thinking of telling you the same.
    – theMan
    Oct 7, 2022 at 7:31
  • 8
    Critizizing someone's lifestyle unprompted to "soften the blow" for a simple dress code issue? That interpretation is ridiculous. Oct 7, 2022 at 14:06
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    I'm inclined to agree with this - at least for the overall point. It sounds like the person who talked to OP had good points, but explained them poorly. A better way might be: "you don't look professional, you don't spend time with the team like everyone else does, and your commute is affecting your work." All very valid points, if inarticulately expressed.
    – Michael W.
    Oct 7, 2022 at 19:48
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    @MichaelW. we don't really know how the points were expressed, since the OP wrote the quoted text themselves - "what can be summarized as follows"
    – stannius
    Oct 7, 2022 at 19:56
22

Almost all of this is none of the employer's business. Don't try to reason with them, or justify or explain yourself; giving reasons for your lifestyle just gives the impression that it is negotiable, when it is not.

The one thing in your question that is the employer's business is how you dress in the office. Even if your contract doesn't specify a dress code, it seems like they would be able to introduce one if you forced their hand, and I don't think it is worth starting a fight over this. I'm sure you can find something reasonably comfortable that would be smart enough for their expectations. Reasonably smart-looking clothes also don't have to be particularly expensive; I got a lot of my shirts second-hand from charity shops, for example.

Other people have made the point that eating together with colleagues might be seen as necessary for your working relationship with them. My response to this is that if the company wants to ensure that staff eat together then either the meals at the canteen should be included as part of your compensation for working there, or the canteen should allow you to bring your own food. If either of those changes are made then it is at least somewhat reasonable for the company to set a policy about eating together; but the company cannot require you to spend your own money at their canteen.

The rest of the secretary's request is so beyond the pale that I would consider talking to a union rep about it. Just because the company "pays you enough" to live a certain way doesn't mean it's any of their business if you live that way or not. Where you live, who you live with, and how you get to work is all your prerogative, and a matter of personal privacy. The fact that there aren't even any issues with your performance is not even relevant; even if there were issues with your performance, telling you where to live or who to live with would still be totally inappropriate, unprofessional, and rude.


Finally, a message to everyone else answering and commenting to say that you could just change your lifestyle how they want you to, that it might be better for you to fit in and not be seen as weird: this is just as much not your business as it is not the employer's business. There is nothing wrong with being weird, and it is oppressive to expect or require people not to be weird.

Instead of advising people to stop being weird in order to "fit in" better, you should address your own prejudices. Some of us are weird, and the rest of you have to get used to it. If it helps, imagine to yourself that someone is frugal for religious reasons, or prefers to eat alone because they are autistic; would you respect their decisions then? If so, why can't you extend the same respect to everyone who makes the same decisions for reasons that are none of your business?

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    I think this answer better fits the situation in Germany than other answers, at least legally. Employees seem to have more rights here than at least in the US (to which most questions and answers on this stackexchange seem to be related), so in Germany most of the addressed points are none of the employer's business.
    – Scz
    Oct 9, 2022 at 14:43
  • Wow! This answer is exactly what I wanted to write :)
    – njzk2
    Oct 9, 2022 at 17:33
  • +1, but while there's nothing wrong with being weird, I don't see anything weird here. Being frugal or extremely frugal in OP's situation (for my take on their situation see my answer) is just financially sane. Oct 9, 2022 at 23:00
  • @cbeleitesunhappywithSX Completely agree, but other people do find it weird.
    – kaya3
    Oct 9, 2022 at 23:04
  • 2
    +1 for talking to a union rep. The union rep will know the legal situation and the workplace culture better than anyone on this site.
    – gerrit
    Oct 10, 2022 at 8:42
13

German here, with working experience in research institutes.

First, my assumptions on OP's working situation:

  • OP is on a fixed term contract. That is a construction that is mostly used in public research institutions (there are much stricter rules for private companies wrt. fixed term contracts).

  • A comment indicated less than a year to go with this contract, but they expect a new contract after this one ends.

  • If it is a public research institute I guess that OP's salary is in the E13 or E14 (one of the top in the group) range of TVL or TVÖD.
    (For everyone else, that would put OP into the order of magnitude of 3000 €/month net (after taxes and social insurance, in particular: after health insurance and pension cass payments) for a full time job.)

  • OP says canteen is > 10 €/day. For comparison, I'd expect a university (where researchers are paid TVL E13 or E14) mensa lunch for employees around 4 - 6 €, less for students, more for external people (but still < 10 €).


Clothes

As others have said, your employer is within their rights to ask you to wear suitable clothes. Since you have indicated that this is something you'd be fine with, I'd recommend to do so.

Socializing

It is also a valid concern of theirs that you should integrate well with the group.

  • IMHO whether you eat canteen lunch or your own is none of their business, though. (Others already said: there are people with food allergies, dislikes, or whatever, and all this is none of the employer's business).
    (Disclaimer: I also brought my own lunch almost always - I did join the canteen group e.g. when we had visitors)

  • Across the research groups I've known over time here in Germany (and outside), there have always been a number of people who did not eat at the canteen, and a larger number of people who wouldn't/couldn't go for canteen lunch at any given day.
    But eating canteen food was not necessary for socializing:

    • One group had established morning coffee and after-canteen-lunch-coffee times in the group's coffee kitchen. Joining this (and the birthday coffees) was totally sufficient not only to maintain a friendly relationship but also to keep up to date with the small work-related stuff that was discussed there. This was also important since it was an established time slot to discuss little administrative things with the boss.

    • In another place, it was possible for employees to take their own food to the canteen, so I'd eat there with the colleagues, but my own food.

    • Some groups didn't really have suitable room for coffee breaks with more people, but they did have informal procedures to gather in a similar manner (by asking "coming for a coffee?"), and we'd occupy an empty seminar room or a hallway.

    So you could maybe tell the secretary that you'd be happy to socialize with people, but could you do so without needing to eat the canteen food? And would they call you for coffee break?

Where to live and commute

This is really none of their business as long as there is no impact on the work output - and that seems not to be the case.

That being said, I'd like to disagree also with some of the other answers that it's anyways close to insane to spend 3 - 4 h/day on commuting. It's a lot of time, yes.

However,

  • there's a huge difference depending on how exactly those hours are spent.
    I live north of the Rhine-Main-area (and thankfully commute only 20 min by bike) and it's fairly usual to have such commuting times if there's some counterbalancing pro of the situation (typically: people work at Frankfurt and commute from their home village).

    IMHO:

    • If a large part of the commute is in a train without change, OP (like many other people) may work on the train.
      OP indicates they do some thinking, which I take as (at least partly) working off the clock.

    • 3 - 4 h/day by bike would be a form of commute that is actually good for their health (even if they bike part of the way).

    • Loosing 3 - 4 h/day commuting standing in bus, tram or subway and changing every few min would drive me insane. But it would still be OP's right to choose this lifestyle.

  • A long commute for a time - e.g. until OP knows where they'll stay for longer, or until they got their savings into a state where they think it possible to rebalance their priorities - is IMHO quite different from having the perspective of long daily commute for decades until retirement.

  • Living in a shared flat is in my experience nothing out of the norm for researchers on fixed term contracts in Germany. Sharing a room would typically be interpreted as: with partner.
    Most people will want to move into their own flat when they get a bit more settled in life.
    All this is very fundamentally none of OP's colleague's business.

    In addition, particularly in the more expensive parts of Germany it is also not so rare that professionals with permanent contract live in shared flats at least for some time.

Considering OP's situation:

  • OP states that saving as much as possible right now is a primary goal for them. Which is totally legitimate and fine.
    Personally, I also think it commendable*

  • With a fixed contract of less than a year to go I'd call it economically insane to look for a flat to rent on their own - and most landlords would agree, so OP is rather unlikely to find anything. Also, moving does cost a lot of time, I don't see how it would pay off in terms of OP's time within the contract term.

  • A fixed term contract always has uncertainty. OP says they do applied research. If that's e.g. a Fraunhofer institute, they depend on industry placing paid projects with them. Considering the current macroeconomic uncertainty, this is an uncertainty for OP's future at that institute as well. I.e., OP may have to move soon anyways if they have to (or choose to) get a new employer.

  • Working from home a day or two per week has been a thing in the research groups where I was for a long time.
    This may be significantly offsetting OP's commuting hours.

  • We've had two winters of working from home. And there's talk about working from home again (this time to save energy, not Covid [yet]) for this winter.

  • OP is from a foreign country, and unlikely to have as extensive a social network here as other people in the group.

    To me, this has 2 consequences:

    • It's likely even more important for OP to socialize with their group, but also
    • If OP has nice flatmates, that's likely a major part of their local social network. And that's nothing one should easily throw away when in a foreign country on fixed term contract.

Considering the general situation:

  • Energy prices right now mean that OP will likely have to spend much more money on their housing than before even without moving. (Our electricity provider just announced a 100% increase for our existing contract.)

  • If OP would move into their own flat, they'd typically need new contracts for electricity and possibly also gas. A new gas contract right now is "only" 2,5x the price per kWh compared to a year ago. A month ago, that was a factor 6, and it's hard to predict how things will develop in the next months. But if OP moves, they have no choice but to close such a contract and AFAIK that will be for the move-in date.
    If telling OP to move is economically insane seeing that they have a fixed term contract ending soon, it is doubly so right now.

  • The only moving that would make sense right now would be for OP to downsize into an energy efficient "broom closet", again in a shared flat.

  • (I wouldn't be surprised if OP finds that more people move from canteen lunch to home-cooked & microwaved once they get the energy price announcement letters from their electricity/gas/heating providers/landlords...)

  • So, while these are valid points for OP to consider, I'd think if the discussion comes up again with the secretary, OP pointing out the current energy price situation and the economic uncertainty that even a high-paying fixed term contract ending soon means (if the contract is actually that highly paying) should be sufficient to stop any such thoughts until the general economic situation is less uncertain.


* I did the same as PhD student/postdoc: I love research and wanted to do that as profession (still do it, though mainly with my own business now). Anyways, I decided that the structure of fixed term research contracts and the power structure/hierarchy in German public research means that I better have some financial buffer under my belt to have a better negotiation position.

Turned out, it was a very good decision.

1
  • 1
    I'd say this is the best answer.
    – obscurans
    Oct 10, 2022 at 5:21
11

I think here we need to read between the lines. What is told always may not be exactly what is meant. For example:

you live in a shared apartment in a remote district. It's obvious that if you spend 3-4 hours a day commuting and share a flat with a bunch of people, your performance at work is bound to be suboptimal, even though we have no specific complaints about your performance

How do they know how you live? You live far from city, and spend time in commuting - that's normal to know, but how you live is supposed to be personal info and unless you mentioned it, the office is not supposed to know. Real question(s) is(are):

  • Are you posting/sharing information on internet / public domain that can be associated with you and the organisation / department/ team?
  • Do they expect you to be more "available"? Not directly related to your performance or productivity, but do they expect that by cutting down the commute time, you'll be more available in general?
  • Do you look / appear tired / exhausted in office? Maybe they want you be rested better?

Following the same:

Also, you skip the group lunch at the canteen every day, opting to microwave food brought from home, and wear clothes that are more suitable for wearing at home. You surely can afford eating at the canteen with us and buying smart casual attire. We want other group members and visitors to respect you rather than think you are underpaid by us or there's something wrong with you. This is important for healthy work relationships.

Things that might be meant:

  • Are you shy of interaction with your peers / colleagues, and do they have a reason to believe that the overall productivity is hampered because of this?
  • Do they treat you as introvert, and are bothered to be in touch with you? Ir order to respect your privacy and choice, are they hindering the effective communication in daily work scenario?
  • Do you violate the code of conduct by wearing your choice of clothes? This can be a very straightforward thing - check your employment contract, or handbook (if you have one). Even if that's not the case, you should match the expectation of a professional work environment. Unless bound by a health / medical issue, freedom of choice of clothes is not a battle you'd want to fight.
  • In many cultures, your presence (appearance) matters a lot. You may not pay attention to the outfit and appearance, but many do, and given that there are other group members are visitors (who may very well have a different cultural background from yours) around, it's better to learn how to be culturally competent.

These may be the things, there might be more. I think, you can ask to have a discussion with your boss and try to figure out what the actual problem is (are), and try to act accordingly.

2
  • 4
    The office is not supposed to know where you live - is this universal? In Dutch law the employer even has a legal duty to record in your contract where both parties are located (city for the employee, specific address for employer)
    – MSalters
    Oct 9, 2022 at 1:11
  • 2
    @MSalters not where...but "how"..shared or otherwise. Oct 9, 2022 at 3:55
10

@Nobody beat me to the way of thinking, but I have some additional things to say.

I don't want to do what she says.

That is a personal choice. However do not base your decision only on your feelings, that might hurt you later.

It's an expensive city, so an apartment close to work could easily cost me a third of my after-tax salary.

Talk to them and tell them that you are not willing to spend extra XX5 of your salary on accommodation. Ask why it is important to them that you live alone with a different life style. Maybe they have some good reason for that.

Additionally, be ready to discuss with them about a salary increase as a result of living in a very expensive area (compared to your current condition).

Having lunch at the canteen is over 10 Euro a day, and, also, I really prefer to eat alone.

If you mention the money thing here, you look "cheap" (i.e., bad). You still need to keep your dignity and show yourself as a professional.

And I equally prefer wearing comfy clothes I am used to.

Your comfy clothes might be other people's horror. Remember about the mechanic who is comfortable with his clothes also, but everyone else is horrified at looking at the hair between his butt-cheeks. I am sure you are not like the mechanic, but the local culture (e.g., the company culture) might require some different approach.

I would suggest here to have some "negotiation" with them, in order to find out which kind of clothes are "smart casual attire" enough for them, and also comfortable enough for you. I am quite sure that a compromise can be reached.

I don't think they will fire me or refuse to renew my contract over this

I would not bet even two cents with holes in them about this. Companies can do very unexpected stuff sometimes. Usually they ha an "open doors" policy. You are welcome to join, and you are free to go. Also, they also practice the mantra "nobody is irreplaceable", it is just a matter of time and cost.

or at least that would be highly irrational.

You had a really happy life until now, didn't you? You did not have to live the irrational yet... I envy you for this.

I have unique skills needed by them, and I also work long hours out of my passion about my research.

Read again what I wrote above. Everyone is just a matter of time and money.

I am highly insensitive to living conditions. I grew up in a family with many kids in poor living conditions and later shared a dormitory room with a few students for years. I've never rented a separate unit and absolutely don't feel any need to. Not only do I gladly live in a shared flat, but I also gladly share my room with a roommate to split the cost.

It is OK to share the money issue with them, as a basis for a salary increase, in exchange for changing your lifestyle.

However, if the company expect that you sometimes accept the visits of some important business partners (colleagues, bosses, customers), then your lifestyle is directly hurting the business. As I said above, ask them about their reasons.

Also, I find local trains and buses very comfortable and use commuting time to think about various things.

That is fine to share with them. I also prefer the public transport for the opportunity to relax and "meditate". It gives me the opportunity to see people, get the feeling of the neighborhood... You can be social without being social, in this way.

I come from a poor country

They do not give a rusted coin on that info. Better to keep it to yourself, and not hurt your well-being there.

and work in Germany to save up as much as possible, hence this lifestyle - and I am fully comfortable with it.

It is not important that you save - again, it might hurt your chances if you look cheap. It is important that you do not want to waste. You apply in your life the same principles you apply for the job - avoid unnecessary waste. If a new lifestyle brings you no benefit, then the spent money is pure waste.


Also, you skip the group lunch at the canteen every day, opting to microwave food brought from home, You surely can afford eating at the canteen with us and buying smart casual attire. We want other group members and visitors to respect you rather than think you are underpaid by us or there's something wrong with you. This is important for healthy work relationships.

Not socializing can be seen as aggressive behavior sometime. It give the impression of superiority. If you are really superior to others, then it is even more offensive. People hate to admit that they are not the smartest. You probably remember the squirrel in "The Hedge": "But what, am I stupid?" Obviously, he was, and everyone knew it, but saying the truth out loud was hated by everyone, even if hiding the truth was hurting them.

On one hand, you can play the card with "I prefer to keep my flow state during lunch, in order to keep my productivity in the afternoon". But you can also join your colleagues during lunch. They eat the canteen food, you eat the microwaved food. After all, you have no problem being with people, if you enjoy living in a crowded place.

... and wear clothes that are more suitable for wearing at home.... and (you can afford) buying smart casual attire. We want other group members and visitors to respect you rather than think you are underpaid by us or there's something wrong with you. This is important for healthy work relationships.

Well, this is the message that you hurt the image of the company. If you do not want to comply 100%, at least negotiate some percent higher than 0%. This can be the beginning of the end for you there. I am sure that you were not born wearing jeans (we are all born naked after all), and I am also sure that other kinds of pants will not give you unbearable rashes. My best advice: find a common ground, it should not be that difficult, and it cannot be that expensive. You do not need to buy the most expensive, just buy something that solves the problem.

6
  • 6
    Spending a third of the after-tax salary (or more) in rent is quite normal in big cities, so I do not think a request for a higher salary will be successful...
    – wimi
    Oct 8, 2022 at 8:30
  • 1
    @wimi: yes, it surely is. But my idea is that OP contrasts that to his current spendings. The most important here is that OP provides reasonable explanations, in order to get himself out of the trouble.
    – virolino
    Oct 8, 2022 at 9:19
  • "tell them that you are not willing to spend extra XX5 of your salary on accommodation" engaging in specific arguments is pointless: the employer will ask to see the OP's budget, affirm that other employees are doing it, ... Best not to engage at all and simply refuse, as it's none of the employer's business.
    – njzk2
    Oct 9, 2022 at 17:30
  • "It is not important that you save". BS. Unless you want to work until you're 85.
    – obscurans
    Oct 10, 2022 at 5:19
  • @obscurans; you understood my message wrong. Please read my answer again.
    – virolino
    Oct 10, 2022 at 6:31
8

“Comfy clothes” = old tracksuit/sweatpants with scruffy trainers?

Asking your supervisor/manager what the dress code at work is would help improve your work relationship. Two new pairs of jeans and three comfortable white shirts will do the job. Think of it as a uniform. Where you choose to live or eat your lunch is nobody's business but your own but it's never a waste of time getting to know your coworkers, and sharing a meal with them at work is a great opportunity.

In any case, try be friendly and sociable with whom you work. Attend social events with a smile, even if it fills you with dread–you can always leave early, and management will eventually stop gossiping about you.

8

I think you need to lighten up a little! You took the comments as an official reprimand, almost, but having the secretary have a gentle word with you was kind of a way of keeping it low key.

That happened to me at work once. It was a way of dealing with something I needed to hear without management officially 'knowing' about it. It was all off the record. If your mother isn't around to tell you to smarten up a bit, someone else has to, which is never easy!

I understand that you have your reasons for living where and like you do, but it would clearly be appreciated at work if you were less of an outsider and tried to fit in more. Are you sure your tendency to be a loner means you collaborate less than you might? So meet them half way. You can get some smart-but-casual clothes, and eat in the canteen with your colleagues once or twice a week. Show willing, and the question of replacing you will never come up.

1
  • Agree. This was off the record. If you go back to the manager, that will be on the record.
    – MSalters
    Oct 9, 2022 at 1:33
7

There have been many great answers, suggesting to make some concessions to those requests, and I agree that the most important points to work on are your appearance and sharing lunch time with your coworkers, at least occasionally.

I just want to give a different spin on someone's take.

I don't think the other complaints (commuting time, shared apartment, etc.) are a way to soften the blow, because those may actually be the most hideous ones and actually going to make OP not inclined to comply.

I see them as a sort of a consequence: your employer (I'm assuming those are the company/boss's thoughts and not the secretary's) was "bemusedly confused" by your weird living conditions, but that would just be the matter of chit-chat and not really an issue. Once they noticed you were dressing below their standard, you were looking stand-offish by always staying away from the group lunches (I know you don't look at it that way, but they do), then all of your weird customs became more evident, and maybe they started to think that you dressed poorly because your apartment is overcrowded.

My suggestion is: tackle the most evident ones - they are also the ones that should be easiest to deal with. Everything else will be overlooked once again.

6

There are lots of Good Answers here, some specific to Germany. There's a few things that came out to me - as others have said, you need to dress for work. My office is non-customer facing, so most days, I'm in shorts and a Metal T-Shirt, however if we have people coming in, out comes the full suit and tie.

Not eating in the Canteen - I think what is really being asked here is that you join in with the Group. Lots of informal work discussions happen over lunch, if your input from these discussions is missing (because you aren't there) then you are handicapping your team. If you want to save money, then going everyday isn't an option - but I would suggest that you set aside one or two days to join in with the group a week. In my office we have Thursdays where we all come into the office and go out to a local eatery - it helps the Team Bonding.

The Commute and the Living situation - my first thought on reading this would be to tell them politely, but firmly 'My living situation is none of your Business' - re-reading this (and the reason I decided to post an answer, despite many good responses) is that this may be concern over your Well-being. a 4 hour commute (even if that is a round-trip) isn't good for you and living with flatmates will start to have an effect as you get older. There may also be an element of you being so-far away that if they have anything urgent that requires you to be in-person, then that limits possibilities. When I was On-Call at one Company, we have the 1 Hour rule - they didn't care where you went, so long as you were within 1 hrs drive of the Data Centre.

Finally, there seems to be an element of Cultural expectations and perception. If the Company wishes to be seen as a top-tier employer, paying competitive rates for top-tier talent - then having people see someone who lives 2 hrs away, flats, brings in microwave lunches and dresses casually is detrimental to that Image. It makes people think that they must be underpaying staff because otherwise why would the staff choose to live like that - to them (being the dominant Culture, Germans in Germany) what you've described isn't desirable. Whereas to you (you mentioned you come from a poorer background) what you've described is luxury compared to what you are used to.

I'm not going to suggest you change your entire lifestyle - but my suggestions would be:

1: Since you are customer facing, smarten up a bit. Buy a new outfit - I'd suggest a smart pair of trousers or skirt and a dress shirt/blouse - wear new outfit and ask if this is what the company has in mind - if so, then buy enough for Monday-Thursday - and agree to dress casually on Friday

2: Find out when most people are in the office and when they go to lunch - agree to join them for that one day.

3: When your rental lease/agreement is up - look at seeing if you can move to within am approx. 1 hr (one way) commute of the Office. The extra time you save in not being stuck travelling WILL improve your mood/outlook as you'll have more time for Hobbies/You.

That's about it.

1
  • Given the dress code situation, I'm pretty certain OP isn't in the sort of medical research where you are required to be on stand-by within 1 hour. A typical research job has nothing that urgent.
    – MSalters
    Oct 9, 2022 at 1:21
5

Good grief. Your employer has chosen to raise issues that would usually be considered inflammatory.

The next step here might be getting to the root of what the employer perceives to be the issue, if it's not your performance in a conventional sense.

Is there a possibility that your frugality is extending into what's being perceived as an insulting miserliness towards other people? For example, have you made it clear that you won't eat with other people primarily because of the cost of doing so (even though you are, if anything, earning more than them and have lower living costs)?

It's rare that an employer would dare to tell staff how to spend their earnings, but they might do so if you have specifically justified not participating with colleagues only for the sake of a very small amount of money.

Also, is it possible that your clothing goes beyond the shabbiness that is generally tolerated (or even expected) of academics or technical high performers, and into something that is unbusinesslike such as pajamas, or something verging on threadbare rags? Is it possible you aren't washing your clothes enough, or that (even if cleaned nightly) you are wearing the very same shirt daily?

Also, insofar as you prefer eating alone, the inevitable gregariousness of your living conditions and your long commute on public transport might lead your colleagues to believe that you are not in fact somebody who prefers peace and quiet by nature, but that money and cost is in fact your central concern when shunning social eating.

Have you also justified avoiding any social activities with colleagues by reference to having to get on with a long commute home?

If any of this rings true, then you may have to consider making some concession towards valuing social time with your colleagues enough to buy yourself a meal with them, or buy someone a cup of tea now and again, and to ensure that you do so in a manner that conveys a generous spirit towards others (rather than a begrudging and perfunctory concession). And staying in a hotel when you go out for the Christmas party, so that you don't need to catch the train home.

You might also have to accept buying clothes that can be comfortable and perhaps a little scruffy overall, but whose style and newness meet a certain minimum criteria of respectability - dress trousers, and a shirt with some sort of buttoning, are generally considered the minimum.

And 4 hours of commuting daily is an extreme amount - even if you are performing well, your employer would have reason to think you'd perform even better when living nearer to work, and that you would almost certainly be happier and more sociable.

If you do nothing, your employer is unlikely to fire you without a specific performance reason, but if you're really getting up the hackles of your colleagues by several different means, which all ultimately lead back to an unreasonable preference for frugality rather than collegiality, then you do risk your employer ultimately thinking that your performance and cooperation at work is deficient.

This is such an unusual conversation for an employer to have with an employee, which would so greatly risk the employee shooting back with both barrels, that I would take it as a very strong signal that something is not quite right on your part and must change.

3
  • you are probably 100% right about some countries/ cultures. But in other countries,people get killed for not wearing a kerchief over the face. Example" I have a friend, I did not see him for many years. But I remember perfectly well that I met him one summer when it was so hot that almost everyone was almost naked. He was wearing full formal costume with neck-tie, as if ready for the meeting of his life. He told me that is his mandatory uniform, and he does not want to carry a bag with exchange clothes.
    – virolino
    Oct 7, 2022 at 9:23
  • 3
    This is such an unusual conversation for an employer to have with an employee ... yet it was not the employer who communicated this - it was proxied by his secretary.
    – Trunk
    Oct 7, 2022 at 19:18
  • @Trunk, it might be reasonable to assume the secretary was acting in coordination with the principal, rather than wholly on her own initiative. Also her purpose may have been to discuss problems whose nature the employer does not yet fully understand, rather than to communicate pre-conceived instructions.
    – Steve
    Oct 7, 2022 at 20:18
5

I am quite baffled by this question and even more by some of the answers. The entire situation is ludicrous and frankly the behaviour of the secretary is quite rude - even for Germans ;-)

You already got some good answers but I think it has not been emphasized enough that this is not normal and that it is weird that the bosses secretary approached you with this.

There are a lot of open questions for me and don't know if I can answer this, but what I can tell you is, I live and work in Germany (and am German) and this is not normal. Especially the fact that the secretary approaches you and not the boss themselves. Where you live and how long you commute is frankly none of their business.

In fact, this raises some red flags. If the boss sends the secretary with something like this, probably not a good manager.

Research teams with international members in Germany is quite common and normal, it is surprising that they are so insensitive towards your lifestyle and situation (I totally get the wanting to save money part). Perhaps you can switch to a research group which is culturally a better fit and more tolerant and flexible (e.g. where you don't have to conform 100% to their lifestyle and still be a cherished member of their group).

While it has been mentioned it is important how you present yourself and how you socialize, but this is not affected by where you live and what food you eat. (Yes, skipping the group lunches is not ideal, perhaps you can compromise on this, e.g. eat with them once or twice a week. I don't know if the attire is actually an issue. You will have to check yourself how the others dress and if you stand out in a negative way).

I think the best course of action is to determine what is the actual problem and where this is coming from. Or it is not a problem and there is just one person who has acted on their own accord (the secretary), likes to boss and intimidate people and should frankly mind their own business? In that case, avoid this person.

Perhaps they have noticed you have not integrated yourself into the social group. Perhaps they are concerned about somethings else. Is there anyone you can trust whom you can talk to? Otherwise you may have talk to the boss yourself and find out what is going on.

4

I'm adding another answer, because the previous answers were mainly anxiety food in my opinion. Introspection is good, and in such a situation it is of course good to review if you were doing something inappropriate. BUT...

This request contained a volley of inappropriate requests and could indicate that the secretary is being unreasonable.

[We] expect you to rent a comfortable apartment solely for yourself and close to work.

None of her business. Live wherever and however you like, your contract merely requires you to show up for work.

You surely can afford eating at the canteen with us.

Breaks are covered by german labor law and are yours to spend however you please. I think it is good to socialize a little with your colleagues, and refusing completely would seem off. But she didn't say that.

[You] wear clothes that are more suitable for wearing at home.

From what you describe, your attire seems acceptable for an academic. I myself look like a crime against the gods of fashion and take pride in it. Requiring a dress code for events or when visitors are in the office is reasonable, but wearing a shirt and tie every single day is another matter.

I would advise you to not feel like you did anything inappropriate. That doesn't mean you should completely ignore the comments and escalate the conflict, but you shouldn't give too much ground. Perhaps tell them something like, you appreciate the input but you feel that your current lifestyle is what works best for you.

Some things are semi-reasonable. Eating lunch together can be good for the office climate, but is usually a voluntary thing. If they want to have mandatory lunches, maybe suggest they make it official. A monthly event or something like that.

Similar thing for dress code. If you aren't violating any rules and don't want to change of your own accord, ask them to make offical rules. It would make sense to announce visitor days, where a certain dress code is required.

I am being pretty aggressive with my suggestions here, and I should note that you could perhaps benefit your career by accomodating to some requests. But I am pointing out what you could probably get away with, if you wanted to (according to my experience in german academic work culture). People worked hard for labor laws and you for your degrees. Let them work for you!

7
  • 1
    What's the real difference between "making official rules", and giving him explicit directions to smarten up, move closer, and get together with his colleagues?
    – Steve
    Oct 7, 2022 at 13:26
  • @Steve By official rule I mean a positive instruction that applies to all employees. "Wear smart casual every day." is not a request the secretary can make, according to OP, but his attire is still found lacking. By asking for an instruction, you let her make up her mind on what she wants instead of leaving OP guessing. Making it a public rule promotes fairness among colleagues. Oct 7, 2022 at 13:55
  • 2
    Keep in mind the bigger picture here. The secretary has approached him to challenge him on his attitude to money. His dress at work is mentioned only as a particular instance in which he is displaying, in their opinion, an attitude to money that strikes a completely improper balance between the means which they know he has, and his appearance, relationships, and collegiality at work.
    – Steve
    Oct 7, 2022 at 14:24
  • 1
    That's a fair assessment, attitude towards money is the unifying theme. My bigger point would be, that OP's employer is not in charge of his attitudes. He might seem weird to some people, but that will not necessarily hurt his career if he has sought-after skills or success in his field of research. Oct 7, 2022 at 15:06
  • 2
    "From what you describe, your attire seems acceptable for an academic." - OP hasn't specified that they are an academic though, only that they work in research. That could be at a research group in the industry.
    – marcelm
    Oct 7, 2022 at 16:01
4

How should I deal with this situation?

I would first consult your contract and/or employee handbook regarding the dress code at the office. If no information is present in either, I would address this directly with your boss and follow their recommendation.

Everything else in the secretary's message I would ignore, it is nobody's business but your own. Of course you should be polite about it, reply with something like:

I appreciate your concern. Thank you.

3

"I come from a developing country and work in Germany to save up as much as possible, hence this lifestyle".

And that's the core of the problem.

It is your aim to save as much money as possible. This is why you do not want to spend your money on clothes, on the canteen, on a flat in the city centre.

BUT you are also are a well-paid, educated researcher, which means you have a high rank in the firm. From the point of view of your employer, employees like you are simply expected to dress up, have no problem to spend 10 Euro (and more) in the canteen or rent a expensive flat just to avoid long commuting and have more time and strength for their work. From their point of view, your behaviour is strange, inexplicable, eccentric.

This may sound harsh, but I guess that if you want to have your contract renewed, you have to adjust your way of living. You do not have to spend a fortune on clothes or food. But look for cheap clothes that look nice (e.g. in a second-hand shop). Have lunch with your colleagues at least once or twice a week. And perhaps you can find a new accommodation where you have to commute only 1-2 hours a day.

I fully understand that it is hard for you to spend more money than absolutely neccessary. But don't forget that if your contract is not renewed, and you possibly get references that say that you are a bit strange and do not fit in, the financial losses can be much bigger. In the long run, it will pay off to adjust.

2

You seem to be hung up on the fact that there's no official dress code. They could implement one tomorrow and (1) now your argument is gone and (2) everyone will know that you are the reason there's now an official dress code.

You think your employer would be hurt if they got rid of you, but that doesn't mean that they couldn't decide that you're more trouble than your worth. Maybe they'd be happy to replace you with someone who wasn't quite as good but fit in much better.

You believe that if they did get rid of you, you'd easily find a new job elsewhere. But if your field isn't that big, people talk to each other. Your boss could well be talking to his counterparts at a conference and tell them over drinks that "yeah, that wiss guy is really smart, but man is he hard to work with." And then your job prospects may not be what they think they are.

As many others have said: Dress better and make an effort to be social.

My personal theory, by the way, isn't so much that the secretary is acting on behalf of the boss, but that people are gossiping behind your back and she thinks she's helping by cluing you in on what they're talking about.

2

For most types of research groups this sounds pretty off the usual path for German standards. German academic circles are typically pretty laid back regarding clothing and work-life balance. There are exceptions of course and the leaning depends a bit on the science area.

You have two options: You adjust and have to deal with not living the life you prefer. You fight it and risk losing this position/career advancement. To me this group seems like the odd one - in a German academic context.

You need to know yourself how much both is worth to you. Your leverage on the other hand depends on how valuable you are to them and on your social skill and your social connections. For this reason alone, I'd suggest to at least occasionally join the group. It helps to find out how they tick, to make allies and be friends with them. That makes it easier to judge whether the general culture is really fitting for you and it helps fighting for policy changes/exceptions etc.

The main issue you simply can turn around: They like you because you are smart and productive (apparently). And you are only as productive as you are because of your lifestyle:

  • You can switch off in the tram on your way to work - or think about problems (an old professor once said he doesn't care when we work, if we think under the shower about problems, that's work time too)
  • You can socialize with your flat mates without being reminded of work, this charges your battery
  • You are not distracted with so many housework because you can share tasks with your flat mates
  • You are more productive in comfy clothing because you don't feel weirded out

Etc. You are a smart person, there is plenty room to debate that it's your brain power they want and that it's up to you to decide how to best provide that. On the other side, you also might take their suggestions as hints. Social connections and building connections with fellow researchers is an important aspect of growing in the science community as well. Not because of nepotism, but because it helps exchange ideas, inspire each other or quickly identify people who can help with certain problems. So, you should at least seriously consider that some of their remarks have some merit regarding helping them AND your career.

Another aspect regarding clothing style can obviously be client contact. If the institute needs to present their work for paying clients and you present that, they may have an interest to come across as professional/business oriented.

1

You said

I come from a poor country and work in Germany to save up as much as possible,

The secretary said

we ... expect you to rent a comfortable apartment solely for yourself

Tell the secretary that you'll love to live in a comfortable apartment solely for yourself if the organization is willing to pay the rent for the apartment without cutting your salary.

They said

You surely can afford eating at the canteen with us and buying smart casual attire.

Again, tell them that you would eat at the canteen and buy smart casual attire if they pay for them without cutting your salary.

I don't see this is the life style issue. I see it as spending money style. Western people tend to be living in expensive living style while people from poor country tend to save money in case of disasters.

So, if they pay for the things in addition to your salary, why not live in a better way? If they won't pay, then your reply can be "Please mind your own business."

1
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Lilienthal
    Oct 8, 2022 at 19:50
1

Talk to the secretary and find out whether it is their personal opinion or something semi-official.

If it is just their personal opinion, ignore it and get on with your life and work.

If it is something semi-official, talk to a union rep at your workplace for advice. They will know both the official (legal) and unofficial (workplace culture) situation better than anyone on this site.

1

The solution is easy.

First, get the nonsense out of your head that you can’t be replaced.

Second, do you really travel 4 hours a day on top of working overtime ? You’re heading down an extremely unhealthy road. Really do consider moving in a WG closer. I realize you want to save money, but it seems all you’re doing is saving money to pay for your burn-out later. Consider the slightly increased living costs for a healthy work-life balance.

Third, buy some nicer clothes, the company is embarrassed by you.

Fourth, eat once a week at the canteen with your peers, people likely feel that you’re being an isolationist or elitist, neither is good for morale. 10x teams are better than 10x employees.

Money isn’t everything. Steve jobs died with 50 billion in the bank at the age of 56. You don’t get to take it with you, and you aren’t the only specialist in town, so stop acting like it.

5
  • 3
    "Money isn't everything" - indeed, so why let your employer dictate the rest of your life? Your employment is for money, and money isn't everything.
    – kaya3
    Oct 8, 2022 at 13:42
  • 3
    @kaya3 i’m unsure what you’re trying to say…money is still a requirement to live in today’s society. It’s highly unlikely the OP is going to strip naked, move to the woods and try from scratch. Some participation in the money world is clearly required and the OP does this through their employer…the employer has specific demands, if the OP wants to continue living the life they currently have in the current standards or close to, they will have to submit to some dictations. This isn’t a philosophy class, it’s naive to argue otherwise. Oct 8, 2022 at 14:34
  • 1
    The employer can dictate what you do on the clock, and nothing outside of that. The only part of the employer's request in this question which is about what the OP does on the clock is dress code, and that's a really minor thing compared to the rest of it. Eating lunch is off the clock, living in an apartment is off the clock, and commuting is off the clock. If you are willing to let your employer dictate such things to you simply because you need money, then money is too important to you.
    – kaya3
    Oct 8, 2022 at 14:39
  • 3
    "Money isn't everything". The OP clearly has enough to live in a style he is comfortable in, why should his employer (or people on the internet) tell him he's not doing it right and needs to spend more? Oct 8, 2022 at 14:49
  • 1
    +1 Excellent answer. OP is a bit unreal with his indispensability idea. He is also vastly underestimating how much his colleagues may object to his 'dress style' and socio-professional individualism
    – Trunk
    Oct 10, 2022 at 13:33
0

So there's 3 things here.

  1. Clothes/appearance

Yes, you should dress up a little to go to work, it sounds from your comments and the letter that you're in less than casual. They are only asking for smart casual, which is the least you can do. Business casual or business formal would be even more appropriate most likely.

  1. Living arrangements

It sounds like they are concerned that a 4 hour commute would affect your mental state somehow. Increased stress or tiredness from having to deal with traffic and the like. This is not really a concern of theirs if it is not affecting your performance as they themselves have indicated. I would just get back to them on this point saying, how you thouroughly enjoy this time as it allows you to prepare for the work day and think about what needs to get done, etc. so it's actually a benefit to your work. You can add that having a shorter commute time would mean that the start of the day would be less productive. If you wanted to be a bit more aggressive you could add on that you would be willing to move if they fully funded your accomodation. I wouldn't recommend this just yet as they seem to be quite polite and it hasn't progressed that far.

  1. Food

It's fine to bring your own food I think, but you should at least eat with the others on a somewhat regular basis, even if it's just once a month. You can heat up your food and then go sit with them or whatever. If there's an event or something you should strongly consider going and being a part of the team and socializing and what not.

0

It's obvious that if you spend 3-4 hours a day commuting and share a flat with a bunch of people, your performance at work is bound to be suboptimal, even though we have no specific complaints about your performance

I would first push back on this and state that they are being contradictory by confirming there are no performance complaints but also speculated that there must be. And that hundreds of millions of people commute to work 2, 3, and 4 hours a day.

I also would push back hard that your choice of living circumstances is of no concern to them unless they have solid reason to believe it negatively impacts your work in any way. Such things are subjective and I'd argue "Who's to say living in a posh house doesn't negatively impact someone's performance, they may not want to come to work or are always thinking of home time due to their home being so nice...". There are a multitude of arguments for such subjective things and is why they shouldn't even be thinking about this nonsense.

The contract says nothing about the issues raised, and there is no official dress code.

Whether right or wrong, often a work culture defines 'unofficial' rules that managers and staff then expect to be adhered to. While they can't be officially enforced if not contracted or official in some other way you can end up with a difficult working life if you don't adhere to them.

For example maybe there is nothing official about "eating with co-workers at lunch time", but if the company/boss/others want this, or it's a general culture and everyone else does it, then it's an unofficial rule. I find such things unfair but it's just the way things are. People stating such as "Bob never eats with us" sends negative messages, and managers will pick up on this like you are not part of the group etc.

Given that they mention your shared living and other things it sounds like they feel they are a high class business and want (expect) their staff to be of the same nature. This is stupid as they should just care about the job being done, but alas such is the world.

I strongly suggest that you arrange a meeting with your boss and ask for clarification on the issues raised. Explain why some of the issues raised are unfair, and simply untrue, such as your accommodation affecting your work. This said, do try to meet in the middle, and adhere to some things so you are being amicable. You may find that with deeper explanation and clarification their concerns might go away.

If discussions are not successful in your favour, and they want you to do things you do not, then you either find another job, or suffer them. To be honest, there are worse things to deal with in workplaces than buying smarter close and eating with co-workers now and then. You might find this socialising improves your workplace experience, and a good working relationship with others is usually good for getting things done.

-1

This is just my opinion and should be taken with a grain of salt, but there it is:

I see their issue with your lifestyle is optics, how visible are you to coworkers, customers and investors?

If not much, you can use this idea

Tell them you are saving for something very expensive or eccentric and is comfortable with your current lifestyle

In case they will push, perhaps agree to certain dress code, but in consideration of that demand something like clothing allowance

2
  • 1
    It's none of their business why OP wants to save money, though.
    – kaya3
    Oct 8, 2022 at 13:40
  • I think this answer misses the real point here - which is that OP seems to his manager to be IN the company but not OF the company. There may also be issues related to this that might imply a lack of commitment to the team in the workplace.
    – Trunk
    Oct 10, 2022 at 12:23
-1

"We want other group members and visitors to respect you rather than think you are underpaid by us or there's something wrong with you. This is important for healthy work relationships."

Maybe if you had bothered to dress in a similar style as the other workers they would not be saying you need to move. Not that I think it's smart for you to live 4 hours from work. Any disruption in transportation will cause you to miss work and/or not have enough time to rest at home. Also it means that whether you can make it to meetings scheduled on short notice is very suspect/unreliable. I'd live within 1 hour of work or closer.

-1

How should I deal with this situation?

You already wrote down your arguments in your answer. So, you can just ignore the suggestions and if asked about it again, you can give a reply based on your own arguments. You may also add some other arguments.

For example, you could argue that not everyone buys healthy food in the canteen, many people go for French fries and hamburgers. If it were more common for people to bring food from home then that would shift the diet of people toward a more healthy direction.

A dress code can be argued to be a climate unfriendly policy, because it requires a warm office. If everyone where to just wear whatever is comfortable, then the thermostat in the office can be set much lower. I hardly ever turn on the heating in my house. Temperatures can be as low as 10 C inside and I'll then wear a few layers of thick clothes and a jacket. The situation right now in Germany would make that an apt measure as Germany needs to drastically lower its natural gas consumption.

I would then suggest that you consider moving closing to the office, because commuting a long distance every day is not climate friendly. But you can then tell that it takes a lot of time to find another accommodation.

So, overall I think your lifestyle is exemplary and I would then suggest that you argue that that everyone else should follow your lifestyle for the good of the environment.

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