my coworkers complain I’m violating the dress code, but I’m not — Ask a Manager

It’s a special “where are you now?” season at Ask a Manager and I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

There will be more posts than usual this week, so keep checking back throughout the day — there’s more to come.

Remember the letter-writer whose coworkers complained she was violating the dress code, but she wasn’t? Here’s the update.

A lot of the readers put their fingers on what I was reluctant to address in my letter — that my physical appearance was part of what was likely prompting the complaints. I do look different than most of my coworkers. While we are all roughly the same age, I have always taken care of my health, my skin, and my hair, and have been a regular gym-goer since my college athlete days. I modeled briefly as well. So I’m kind of used to people reacting to my appearance and certain people automatically disliking me simply based on what I look like. I can’t do anything about that and I try hard to be warm, friendly, and kind to everyone regardless.

After the letter was published, I did go back to my boss for a deeper conversation about the feedback and asked her if she thought there was more to the problem than just my clothing choices. She confided that the person who’d complained was a member of an adjacent team, an older woman who was notorious for unfounded complaints about coworkers, and who for whatever reason had taken issue with me. (I should note that we never had a single direct interaction!) The complaint had been made to our VP, who instructed my boss to let me know, but the VP herself was apparently neutral about whether my clothing was really a problem. After we talked, my manager went back the VP and HR on her own, with detailed examples of common dress code “violations” and asked that management release an update with more specific guidelines.

The dress code update was much stricter than the prior version and continues to be widely ignored. Around this time, the complainer was fired for poor performance and attitude issues, and my boss moved to another state for her spouse’s job. I now report directly to the VP. Due to some changes with my role, I am now leading a lot of training sessions (including videos that will stay in our formal onboarding courses for years) so I now find myself dressing much more formally than most of my peers as a natural result of this responsibility.

To be completely honest, being taken seriously has been something I have sometimes struggled with in a male-dominated industry over the years. As much as I would like the world to be different, the reality is that appearance is a big part of how anyone is perceived, and we all have to deal with that in whatever way it affects us. This was a valuable lesson for me. I appreciate all of the feedback, it definitely helped me overcome my denial that what I look like affects my relationships at work. If upgrading to a more formal style is all it takes to be seen as competent and shut down this kind of petty competitiveness, I’m okay with it. Luckily my area has a lot of great thrift and re-sale shops and I have been able to upgrade without spending too much money.

I appreciate everyone’s advice, this community is a fantastic resource. Thank you all very much!

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