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I'm pretty forgiving about my boss' penchant for making comments about my personal appearance, she doesn't like my hair, why my blazer isn't well ironed, posture and a lot of other comments. While I initially thought it was fine, the comments just came too often and one day she called me in again for another comment on my appearance and asked me how I felt about it and her door was open for me to say anything

I told her the personal comments were one too many and I did not appreciate the constant comments on my appearance was not happy with them

She took so much offense at me speaking up and said some pretty hurtful and personal things. She said that was I so perfect that I could not improve myself? And that she was offended by what I said.

The days after have been fairly bad with her specifically not noticing me. Or assigning my usual tasks to someone else.

How do I address and fix this situation knowing her previous statement of "open door policy" was actually lip service?

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    Does your company have a "dress & appearance" policy or guideline? – Joel Etherton Oct 22 '15 at 15:04
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    What type of job is this? Is it a customer-facing job where your appearance is actually relevant? – David K Oct 22 '15 at 16:20
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    @Alexandros Gender doesn't really matter here, does it? A woman can sexually harass another woman. – ColleenV Oct 22 '15 at 19:20
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    @ColleenV I think this would consitute harassment rather than sexual harassment (are the comments because the OP is a certain gender, or are they generally about presentation?). But your point is absolutely correct. – Jane S Oct 22 '15 at 21:03
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    @JaneS I agree that this specific question isn't sexual harassment - I made an assumption about where the "what gender are you?" question was headed. – ColleenV Oct 22 '15 at 21:05
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First, if your appearance has not been acceptable to her, fix that. Don't come to work looking sloppy or sexy. You have to work to her standards not yours. Once you have fixed what has clearly been a problem, then you can start to address the other things.

She is angry at you because you are not fixing what she told you was wrong. So fix it first whether you agree or not. She won't hear anything else you have to say until you fix this. Is that unfair? Sure it is is but workplaces are not democracies and her opinion counts for more than yours. You are well on the path to get fired. You need to fix that.

Once you come to work looking neat and professional according to what she has asked you to look like, then go talk to her. Ask her what you need to do in order to have acceptable performance.

Do not get mad, do not respond in a sarcastic or snippy or otherwise insulting manner. Be quiet and professional. Likely she has some other issues with you or she would not be taking work away. If she does, then fix them. As quickly as possible.

If she says everything is fine, then calmly ask why such and such task was moved from you to someone else. Let her know that you have time available now and would like to be assigned to something.

There may be valid reasons why she is moving tasks (this sort of things happens pretty much continually in the workplace) or she may not be able to explain.

If she has no explanation, then you are most likely being set up to be fired. You may not be able to salvage this job. At any rate, if she continues to take your work away and pretend you are not there, you need to be protecting yourself by looking for a new job.

I don't know what you said back to her or in what tone, but you probably need to sincerely apologize for it. If she took offense, then you may have been seriously out of line. Remember, she is possibly older than you are and people of different generations have different standards for what is acceptable and what is rude. You may have been seriously rude without even intending to be.

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You don't mention your own gender. I know women who have been told by their managers things like, "if you would like to get promoted to manager here, you are going to have to start spending more on your clothes. I recommend doubling your clothes budget and never setting foot in Walmart again." I also know women who've been told to change their hair styles dramatically (eg cut off several feet of it, or grow it six inches longer), get manicures regularly, get their ears pierced, stop wearing large earrings, wear makeup, stop wearing makeup, wear higher heels, wear lower heels, lose weight, and so on. I don't know any men who have told me about being taken aside for these "image coach" moments, though that doesn't mean they don't exist.

The thing is, in many cases the boss is not saying "you are not meeting my dress code, change your ways." They are saying "hey, person I would like to see do well, even though we don't have a rule about this, you should know that your choices about your appearance are limiting your options here." Advice like this is essentially impossible to argue with. If you don't follow it, it just keeps coming. If you push back, and tell them that your appearance has no connection to your ability to do the job, you may find yourself moved from the "person I would like to see do well" category into the "arrogant person who thinks they don't need my well-meaning advice" category - not a place you really want to be.

My advice to you is this. First and foremost you must apologize. Even if you were right to say whatever you said, the way you said it has upset your boss. Fix that. Second, try to understand whether these comments about posture, unironed blazers, hair and so on fit better into "you are not following our company dress code and your job is in danger" or "I would love to see you get promoted and think these changes could get you there." Of course they could also fit "your mother didn't raise you right, allow me to take over" and I sense that's how you're responding to them. But you need to know for sure how they were meant. Third, thank your boss for taking the time to give you information you clearly needed. Fourth, tell your boss what you are going to do about it from now on. Possibilities include:

  • Thankyou, and I am sorry that I didn't grasp the dress code properly. I will comply with it from now on
  • Thankyou for your suggestions about being more promotable. I don't want to change my appearance like that, even if it might lead to a management role. I like doing this work and dressing this way. I appreciate you explaining the role that appearance plays in my career.
  • Thankyou for caring about the way I am perceived by others and explaining some changes I could make. I've decided not to do that, because I like the way I look. I hope over time people will stop thinking less of me for it.

The actual decision, and the words with which you explain it, are of course up to you. This may involve several conversations if you need to go away and think about what your boss has told you about your appearance at work. Once you make this decision and close the subject with your boss, be sure to close with a final apology for the awkward or overly-personal tone of the previous conversation, and thank your boss again for reaching out on a delicate topic like this. You may also want to thank her in advance for not raising it again.

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    I think this is good advice regardless of the motivation behind the comments. It's difficult to tell from the question whether the boss is trying to "groom" j2k for advancement, or just doesn't personally like them and is tormenting them until they decide to go elsewhere. Some women (in general, in some cultures) fixate on grooming/dress as a way to be critical of other people (there's probably an anthropology thesis in there somewhere). It's hard to tell if the personal and hurtful things the boss said were just a communication problem or really intended to be hurtful. – ColleenV Oct 22 '15 at 21:31
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Try to talk to her again, but approach it differently. Say something like:

You have been commenting on my appearance, rather than my work. So I have two concerns. One, is there a problem overall with how I dress, is there an unofficial dress policy that I am violating in some way? If so, please let me know, and then I will comply. Otherwise, I would rather you be concerned with my work. And, in my work, I'm sure I have places I can improve. It's also what matters. So, do you have any concerns about my work?

Then, listen to her. It sounds like she may not be very good at identifying where you can improve, and may be picking on your appearance when there is something else wrong. Or perhaps your appearance is the only thing she understands about your job! But try to pick out from what she says, pick out if there are any issues with your work.

If she says there are no dress policies you are breaking, then when she mentions your appearance again, quietly and without drama just say "Please don't comment on how I look. It makes me uncomfortable." Don't go further, don't bait her. Repeat as needed, and hopefully it will be effective.

  • "Please don't comment on how I look. It makes me uncomfortable." - sounds like a sure-fire way to get fired. – Aaron Hall Oct 23 '15 at 1:48
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    @AaronHall being fired for a comment like that is a good way to open a company to a lawsuit. As long as a person is meeting the dress code requirements, they should not have to put up with comments about their looks. – thursdaysgeek Oct 23 '15 at 15:14
  • I'm sure they'll be officially fired for other reasons or find that work can be a lot more difficult than they're used to. Taking a verbally combative stance against one's boss seems unwise. Want to speak truth to power? Get a better job and tell the firm about it in the exit interview. – Aaron Hall Oct 23 '15 at 15:20
  • @AaronHall which is why I said it should be said 'quietly and without drama'. It should not be verbally combative in any way. That's VERY important. As you rightly also say. – thursdaysgeek Oct 23 '15 at 15:39
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It could be your manager is struggling with some personal issues. I would keep that in mind and tread lightly. I don't know if you or anyone else that reports to her are having similar issues. Seems like a simple piece of feedback should not have warranted the response.

Maybe she was just having a bad day. I've snapped at a coworker before (and been snapped at myself). Though if your work has started to be affected then this may not be the case.

I would look to seek help from HR. You could be in a very tough spot I think. You need the (assumed)unbiased 3rd party because this issue has already affected your work as she is not giving you your usual tasks. Today it's normal tasks tomorrow its a bad review. Then it's your word against hers and it may not end well for you.

You could also try to clear the air with her if possible. Don't be defensive or confrontational but a followup with some clarification may be what you need. You appreciate that she is looking out for you in some way, making sure you look professional but the frequency was too much.

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If she asked you how she felt about it, she should have been prepared for you to answer how you wanted.

It sounds like she is very insecure. Without knowing the structure of the company and how/if you can escalate your concerns above her, it is difficult to advise

If your appearance does not affect your ability to perform your duties, you need to ask her why she is commenting on it. If you meet clients and are public facing, then she is well within her duties to mention your appearance but needs to do this in a far more formal and structured way.

My approach would be to have an honest conversation with her and ask why she was offended by your reply to what you thought was a genuine question within her "open door policy". This will at least ensure you are not imagining things (it may be the past few days have been busy/stressful for her in or out of work - we often assume we know why someone is acting the way they are when in reality, we more than often do not)

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