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.
Otherwise, either directly tell her that grooming is important in the workplace and ask her if she wants to hear what you overheard or talk to your supervisor about it.
It is not helpful to anyone — the company or the employee — to ignore this matter.
GUEST'S ANSWER, LINDA MILLER, author of NewsOK.com's Fashion Matters blog: You didn't say whether one of those doing the talking was the woman's supervisor. I hope not since it would be appropriate that her supervisor advise her about the importance of dressing more professionally — or at the very least looking neat and well-groomed.
If it was a group of supervisors talking about an employee that they do not manage, well, that's not easy either. Perhaps you can tell your supervisor what you overhead and let him or her take it from there. Should you tell the co-worker? Do you know the woman well? You probably know best how she will handle such a conversation.
Yes, she might get her feelings hurt, but she might also be appreciative. If there's no dress code at your workplace, maybe she's just gotten into a habit of slipping into what's comfortable and not necessarily the best outfit for work. Like it or not, we're often judged by our appearance. That's something we all need to remember.