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20-40-60 Etiquette: Overheard at work — my co-worker's a slob

I overheard two supervisors' talking about the unprofessional appearance of an employee. Do I tell her? 20-40-60 etiquette answers, with Linda Miller as guest.
BY CALLIE GORDON, LILLIE-BETH BRINKMAN, HELEN FORD WALLACE Modified: July 1, 2012 at 12:42 am •  Published: July 1, 2012

QUESTION: I have a conundrum. I recently overheard some supervisors at my office talking about a co-worker. They were discussing how unprofessional she looks. It wasn't anything derogatory about her size or physical appearance, just how she dressed herself. The word “slob” came up more than once. Then they discussed how her appearance probably reflected her work ethic. I hate that she's being perceived this way, but I don't want to hurt her feelings. Should I tell her? (I'll be honest — I immediately gave myself the once-over and made sure I was giving off a neat impression!)

CALLIE'S ANSWER: How would you want someone to handle the situation if it was about you? I would say that she needs a talking to. I would want to know.

LILLIE-BETH'S ANSWER: For starters, why are supervisors discussing this within earshot of other workers? If it's a real workplace problem, then that should be a private matter between supervisor and employee.

However, if I were that employee, I would want to know whether some aspect of my appearance was affecting someone's perception of my work. The two aren't necessarily related, but perceptions can make a difference when a promotion is on the line.

If it's something she can change, then she should know about it so she can fix it, despite her embarrassment about the revelation. Telling her is easier said than done, however. I think if you decide to do so, you have to do it in private and as gently as possible, and be prepared to face any consequences of being the messenger carrying difficult information. It's likely she'll appreciate you later.

Or, you can mention to the people talking that you overheard them and that they should probably talk to her about it. You could even tell them what a great worker she is, if that's how you feel about her, and say that you're sure she would like the opportunity to fix something related to her performance. A third, more extreme option would be to tell the supervisors' supervisor (or the employee's actual supervisor, if she doesn't report directly to the ones who brought up the issue) what was going on. Even though I wasn't there, it seems inappropriate for any supervisor to discuss a lower-ranking employee's issues where others can hear.

HELEN'S ANSWER: It is important to address the dress code at an office periodically. Now may be the time to ask the supervisors to review the business etiquette company policy. If there are no set rules on dressing, then start a conversation with your co-worker about clothes and professionalism. It may be easy to go right into what “people” should be wearing to work. From there, you might say you heard a conversation about appearances in the workplace. A fashion editor once told me that women need a few good basics for work: skirt, slacks and several nice-looking tops or jackets. She said you could wear them over and over if they were neat and they fit you properly.

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