how to tell an employee to dress more professionally

A reader writes:

I’m having a problem with one of my staff members, let’s call her Jane. Jane is a staff assistant and a hard worker who wants to stay in the office and move up the ladder.

Jane does good work, but some people in the office don’t take her seriously. Part of this is that she’s not assertive enough, which I’ve talked to her about. The other part is her appearance. This is an office where how you present yourself matters, and you need to cater to that to get ahead. Jane is the first person you see when you enter our office, and her clothes are overly casual and often don’t fit quite right, she doesn’t wear make up, and her hair is kind of a mess. She’s young, and I’m sure some of this is inexperience. I’ve hinted to her that it would help if she looked more professional, but it hasn’t really changed anything.

I really like Jane and want her to move ahead. My concern with coming out and saying “You need better clothes, to wear makeup, and get a new haircut” is that Jane will get offended. Do you have any advice on how to address this?

You can read my answer to this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago.

{ 507 comments… read them below }

  1. LadyTL

    Clothes and hair can be valid concerns but people can have very valid reasons for not wearing makeup. It’s not uncommon to have skin issues that prevent someone from wearing makeup as well as issues in putting it on. Bad makeup is worse then no makeup.

    1. Not Today Satan

      I don’t think skin issues (or ability to apply it well) are relevant… whether or not to wear makeup is a personal choice and doesn’t need any justification.

      1. Niki

        I completely agree. I was hoping AAM would address this when I read the question, and she did. I do wear makeup, but not because I think it is professional, unless you work in high fashion or the makeup industry I suppose. There is a difference between looking polished and dressing fashionably.

        1. rPM

          Yes! I was so happy to see Alison write that makeup should be left out of it. It’s always bothered me that many people see makeup as a professional requirement for women but wouldn’t dream of requiring it for men.

    2. More Cake Please

      I’ve never worn concealer since it aggravates my skin and it’s difficult to find a matching tone in the shops I can afford to visit. I’ll never have flawless skin, but what works for my face is a little moisturizer and daily rinse with gentle cleanser. Acne creams do more harm than good for me. If someone told me to start wearing concealer, even back in the height of my pizza-face days, I’d be livid. My skin has nothing to do with my ability to work and trust me, I know about the acne.

      When I was starting out, my office mentor discussed with me clothing and appearance by asking who I thought came off as professional in our office and why. Then we went into a discussion on how their clothes and mannerisms (but not makeup or hairstyle) contributed to that impression. Most women in my office do not wear makeup.

      1. Allison

        “Acne creams do more harm than good for me. If someone told me to start wearing concealer, even back in the height of my pizza-face days, I’d be livid. My skin has nothing to do with my ability to work and trust me, I know about the acne.”

        Same here I had awful acne in high school, and most prescriptions, makeup, and OTC stuff only made it worse. It took an amazing dermatologist to figure out what would actually work for my stubborn skin. Even then, I know there’s no magic bullet that’ll give me porcelain skin, and I’m okay with that. I do wear makeup, but I’m extremely careful and picky about what goes on my face.

        But when I had acne, and my mom told me I needed to cover it up in order to get a job, because my skin was off-putting, I was definitely pissed. When people told me what to do with my skin, I wanted to slap them. The decision to seek treatment was 100% mine, my decisions about makeup (what, when, and how much) are 100% mine, the decision to use natural products is 100% mine, and when I encounter a doctor that insists on throwing a generic prescription my way, I decline – if they push back, I drop that doctor.

        1. Karyn

          I actually find I notice heavy concealer/foundation more than I’d notice acne. That might be because I work at Fancy Makeup Place That Rhymes With Endora part-time, but still. Don’t wear it if you don’t want to! And especially don’t wear it if it tears up your face. My poor mom hasn’t been able to wear makeup in years. She’s a lawyer. No one cares as long as she does her job.

          Meanwhile, I’ll be over here hoarding my lipsticks…

          1. Mabel

            I used to almost never wear makeup. Recently I decided that I wanted to wear it more often, but I really didn’t know how to apply it or what shades to buy. I went to the shop where you work and learned how to do my makeup. Now I can wear it or not, but I know that when I do wear it, it looks nice. I also found out that quality makeup doesn’t irritate my skin like less expensive makeup can (plus, I can find makeup that isn’t tested on animals, which is important to me).

            1. Karyn

              I’m so glad to hear our staff were able to help you!! It makes me so happy to hear when someone finds their perfect shade of lipstick or foundation – and yes, quality makes a difference when it comes to irritation. That said, there are some great drugstore lipsticks that I LOVE, and you can pry my Full & Soft mascara out of my cold, dead hands. ;)

          2. Melissa

            I’m a hoarder too. This is the first year I haven’t made VIB at your workplace and it’s because I made a conscious effort to not go in there and spend $$$ on a regular basis. I looooooove that place. (There’s also none in my new town, so that helps somewhat.)

        2. Anonymouse

          Just wanted to mention, if anyone has acne problems, read Acne Rx by James E. Fulton M.D., Ph.D. Dr. Fulton was a dermatologist who suffered from severe acne. His book explains why most treatments don’t work and provides a system for successful treatment of blemishes as well as the physical and emotional scars. /sales pitch Anyways, there is some excellent advice about purchasing cosmetics that will not make the condition worse. I have hidden from people for almost 30 years because my acne would just not clear up and it has most certainly affected my career!

    3. Green

      It’s also discriminatory to require women to wear makeup (or heels, pantyhose, etc.). Stick to things that are exactly what you would tell a male employee.

      1. Tracy Flick

        Exactly, and makeup can be expensive, even drugstore makeup adds up, and it’s way too subject to the boss’ idea of what is too heavy or too light in my opinion.

      2. meg.

        Concur! My question to this individual would be if she/he would think the same thoughts if this was a male employee. Moreover, while the employee may be able to make some professional adjustments with her appearance, let her determine this on her own! Provide opportunities for professional development instead of criticizing what you don’t like about her style of dress. Make sure her salary meets your expectations for what she is wearing. And realize that her priorities of attire may differ than yours as a manager: perhaps she has other financial responsibilities such as caring for a parent, perhaps she has different interests, perhaps she has different beliefs on the importance of looking like a CEO in her position.

      3. HQ

        I agree 100%. I would never ask a female employee to do something that I wouldn’t ask a male employee to.

        1. sunny-dee

          Well, I’d never ask a female employee to shave her place, but depending on the company, I’d totally ask a man to shave or trim his ginormous hipster beard into something more professional.

          Men and women are different. It’s not (necessarily) discriminatory to require that both be properly groomed to the same standard, specific to their gender.

          1. Green

            There’s a pretty good Reddit thread about a cyberbullied Sikh woman with significant facial hair. Lots of people have religious objections to modifying their appearances, and others just have personal preferences or personal objections with doing the same, especially if they are related to perceptions about “gender” that not everyone shares. People also have birth defects, scars, hair growth, moles, weight issues, etc. that may be “distracting” or “unprofessional.”

            My advice? As long as someone is clean and isn’t disrupting anyone else (offensive odors, etc.), then spend less time focusing on their appearance and more on their performance.

            You are in better territory telling someone not to modify their body (piercings, unnatural hair colors), but even some of those “modifications” (piercings, bindis, henna, head coverings, etc.) have a religious purpose even though you or your clients may find them distracting. I’d just leave the whole category of people’s bodies alone as long as there are no cleanliness, sanitation, or other health & safety issues, and I’d limit comments on what they wear to gender neutral ones.

            1. Katie the Fed

              I was JUST thinking about the Sikh woman! She handled it with extraordinary grace.

              1. stellanor

                She came off as confident and graceful, and much kinder than the people she was talking to necessarily deserved. I really admired her response.

          2. Lauren

            The difference here, though, is that a man keeping his beard neat has to do with, well, neatness. A woman being told to wear make-up is about attractiveness, which, frankly, has nothing to do with a professional environment. Telling a woman to wear make-up at work is akin to saying, hey, you’re looking a little ugly today, and I’m uncomfortable with someone without conventional beauty actually being competent at something. Because there is this idea that women are on the Earth to be pretty things for men to stare at, and it’s great if she also has some real work skills too, but most importantly she has to fill her main role which is to look pretty. That is why a beard and make-up are so not the same thing.

            1. Chris

              Okay we got it. Never talk about make up. Let’s get back to the main issue which is appropriate dress. I am a male and too bit of exposure distracts me, even if I have no intension. So the minimum should be no revealing dress, better yet, if they can afford more professional look such as pressed clothing, buttoned up and comes with professional office behavior.

          3. Bunny

            But there’s a difference between asking someone to ensure their beard is neat and tidy and, say, asking someone to remove a beard. And there’s a big difference between asking someone to ensure their beards is trimmed and asking someone else to, say, shave their legs.

            The key is that things which are considered professional and smart for one person should be things that can be easily applied to everyone.

            Good: We expect our staff to wear suits to work – a shirt or blouse, smart trousers/skirt/shift and a matching jacket or blazer at minimum, with a tie if the shirt has a button-up collar. And hair, including on the face, should be kept neat, tied back and well groomed.

            Acceptable, if unusually strict: Suits should be neutral or dark colours, as should shoes. Shirts and blouses should be thick enough for skin to not peek through, or worn over a vest or undershirt. We also prefer that staff wear minimal jewellery.

            Unacceptable and frankly rather gross, but sadly all things I have heard given as instructions to co-workers at some of my previous jobs: Ladies should keep their skirts no higher than the knee and heels under three inches. Tights/stockings must be worn and we expect you to wear neutral, natural-looking make-up. “ethnic” hairstyles are not considered smart/professional. Women should ensure their nails are manicured. Men must be clean-shaven and have short hair. Women should not have hair that is shorter than a bob.

            1. Lola

              “Women should not have hair that is shorter than a bob.” Claire Underwood would not approve! :)

            2. Mabel

              I think your descriptions of appropriate attire are good for conservative (in appearance at least) workplaces, but I think it’s a bit over the line to dictate hair length, hair style, and makeup use. Also, I wouldn’t like being told I couldn’t wear my hair in an “ethnic” style. Does that mean an African-American woman with a short natural cut would look unprofessional? I’m not trying to criticize or provoke, but the hair/makeup part really stood out to me as not being an area where employers should dictate what is allowed (I know that legally they can do this, but I don’t think it’s a good idea).

                1. Airy

                  Usually because somebody has a bug up their butt about gender roles, and doesn’t want the women to look “masculine.”

              1. Airy

                That’s the point of Bunny’s comment – she’s saying that hair and makeup aren’t things employers should dictate, but that many of them do.

              1. Lana

                Right? And it said ‘a bob’ — if there is more than one Bob, do we get to pick which one to use for the hair model? Does it need to be a Bob who works there?

              1. Melissa

                If you’re referring to Bunny, she prefaced it by saying that she thought those kinds of dress codes were unacceptable but sadly prevalent at some workplaces she’s worked at.

                If you’re just referring more generally – oh yeah. I am African American and have natural hair (that’s currently in waist-length braids) and young black female mentees have consistently asked me if I’ve had problems interviewing with my hair being natural. I personally haven’t, but I have a black friend who straightens her hair for all of her interviews. Personally I refuse to do that but I know that I was hesitant about getting braids because I had some job applications out and I was momentarily worried that I might have to go to interviews in braids.

                1. Stephanie

                  I was determined to go natural during my last job search, but held off and kept straightening my hair just in case I interviewed somewhere super conservative. Soon as I got my last job, I went natural within the first two months (no on cared).

                  Sort of in the same boat now, except with starting locs. Soon as I land something full-time, I’m locing my hair.

            3. Marcela

              Hahaha. Sure you’ll find me wearing tights/stockings and without my pixie in my office. When are you writing from? 1950?

              1. Airy

                Bunny’s comment said that rules like that were “Unacceptable and frankly rather gross, but sadly all things I have heard given as instructions to co-workers at some of my previous jobs.” In other words, they’re not her rules.

            4. Arielle

              I feel pretty lucky that I don’t worked and have never worked in a place that dictates dress even to the “good” standard that you’ve noted above. (As I sit here working my manager-level job in my jeans and NASA t-shirt.)

      4. Case of the Mondays

        I don’t think it is discriminatory to require pantyhose. If men want to wear a skirt suit they have to wear the pantyhose too. I hate pantyhose and don’t have to wear them in my office but I don’t see anything discriminatory about requiring it.

        1. Green

          As long as if a man is wearing bermuda shorts or anyone has on crop pants they also have to wear pantyhose too.

            1. Katie the Fed

              Sounds good to me! If our feminist fore-sisters could burn their bras, we can certainly do this. They’re so awful. I think they’re just a tax on people with long nails and poor coordination. Also – you can see right through them. I have yet to figure out a purpose they serve.

              1. Arbynka

                Well, some people are really into them ;) I remember the great AAM pantyhouse debate. It was quite an eye opener.

              2. Mabel

                Just want to mention that no (or VERY few) bras were burned in the ’60s. I don’t want to include links here, but you can just google “bra burning” to find many articles on this. /end soapbox

              3. Melissa

                I think they were originally purposed to smooth out the look of your leg. They’re sheer but not completely transparent, and when you have them on they do sort of make your legs look smooth – like to hide scars or hairs or whatever.

                Personally I think we can eject them all into the sun.

        2. Camellia

          The HR rep at OldJob conducted interviewing seminars for people who had received notice that they would be in the next round of lay-offs. She flatly stated that she would never hire a woman that did not wear pantyhose with a skirt or dress. I was rather taken aback.

          1. NotFunny

            Pantyhose are dying. I swear, it was in an article on the internet somewhere. Very few non-old people think they are necessary, and among those who do want to cover their legs, they prefer opaque or fun patterned tights.

            1. Melissa

              Right along with slips! I remember many fights with my mom growing up about the wearing of pantyhose and slips.

              1. Stephanie

                Oh Lord, slips. I also had many a fight with my mom about slips.

                Funny thing is, I definitely like my skirts and dresses to have a built-in lining, but there’s something about the detached slip that is hellish.

          2. Melissa

            I went to a women’s college and part of our senior seminar was about interviewing, and our professor (a woman in her 70s) gave the firm opinion that when you interviewed you should ALWAYS wear a skirt shit (never pants) and you should ALWAYS wear hose with it.

      5. Mia

        I’m curious what would support that? I have tried to get our company to go to a gender neutral policy, but they are insistent that females wear skirts with panythose and a low heel. If they want to wear aflat shoe then they must provide dr note. She is about ready to change the policy back to females wearing skirts all year round.

    4. Jeanne

      Yes, I appreciate that she addressed it separately. No one should be required to wear makeup outside of maybe Devil Wears Prada type environments. But if Jane works on the rest of her appearance the makeup won’t be important.

    5. Vanilla

      I agree with what’s already been said about wearing make-up – it’s not a necessity

      However, I will say that even if you don’t wear make-up, you can still look “polished.” For example, keeping your eyebrows groomed can make a world of difference for some people. I’m someone who has furry eyebrows and getting them professionally done can make a huge difference in feeling more polished.

      1. Bwmn

        I heartily agree that there are physical appearance ways to be more polished that don’t involve make up. Having your brows done, or even just taking the time to tweeze more is a great way. Also “man” manicures (i.e. ones that don’t involve polish or only clear polish).

        I will also say that if overall ‘hair’ presentation is the issue, I would also be really careful should there be any “ethnic” issues at play regarding curly and/or frizzy hair. Honestly, I think if there’s a day when the employee has worn their hair more professionally, calling to that style could be far more effective. Particularly if it doesn’t involve recommendations such as “wear your curly hair straight every day”. Personally, I know that when I wear my hair up, I don’t look as professional based on how my hair behaves. For other people I know, it’s an easy way to have a more polished look.

      2. Mabel

        I agree – if you FEEL secure that you are polished and professional (due to eyebrows, clothing, whatever), that goes a long way!

      3. Elizabeth West

        Oh YES. I got a compliment on mine this weekend. I had just had them done. It feels so much better to know I’m not walking around looking like I just recovered from a bout of lycanthropy.

    6. Anonathon

      Just echoing this one! I don’t even own make-up. No real objection to it, but it’s not my thing.

      Also, no one would ever tell a man to wear make-up in order to look more professional. If you’re going to have an appearance/dress conversation with an employee, the criticism should be equally applicable to men and women. (Shoes? Fine. Lipstick? Nope.)

      1. sunny-dee

        That’s because men don’t wear makeup. If I worked in an office and a man tried wearing eyeliner or sparkly lip gloss, I would ask him to take it off — but I never would say that to a woman.

        I think the important thing here is “polish.” Frequently — but not always! — women who don’t were at least some makeup appear slovenly unless they’re doing something else to look pulled together. As someone else pointed out, grooming their eyebrows, moisturizing and cleansing their skin, keeping her nails manicured (not even professionally, just buffed and clean works), especially keeping up with styling their hair — that kind of thing. It creates an image of being polished and stylish, even if she doesn’t want or need to wear makeup.

        1. Koko

          I work with a man who wears light makeup. He’s gay and into couture and the like. Don’t confuse “unusual” with “unprofessional” – his makeup is unusual for a man, but he’s not doing garish clown makeup so it looks completely professional. For both men and women I’d shy away from anything that looks like nighttime makeup – heavy liner or strongly contrasting colors. A light bit of liner and mascara looks fine on anyone.

          Now maybe if it’s a client-facing position and your clients are bigoted against men who adopt feminine traits then you might have to make some difficult choices. But for most internal positions I would expect no one to care as long as the makeup remained professional.

          1. stellanor

            I was in grad school with a guy who wore makeup. You couldn’t really tell, he just had unnaturally nice eyelashes and somehow had no pores.

          1. AnonAcademic

            Drag queens don’t exist. ;)

            For real though, my husband wears makeup especially if we’re going somewhere fancy where formal photos will be taken. He wishes it was socially acceptable to wear a little bit of concealer if he has a spot like women can.

        2. Anonathon

          Men can totally wear make-up. It’s just that no one would ever tell them to do so. (I’d also venture that super sparkly lip gloss wouldn’t be a great choice for anyone in most workplaces.)

          I also think it’s a mistake to equate grooming or cleaning with wearing make-up. To me, make-up is the equivalent of high heels or really intricate up-dos. It’s a personal choice and can look very nice, especially when the person has a good sense for it, but it’s not specifically required to look professional — nice flats and simple ponytails are typically just fine too. (Obvious exceptions: you work in fashion or write about beauty for a living or something)

          1. Stephanie

            Or do things like eyebrow grooming or manicures/pedicures. I regularly see guys when I get that stuff done.

        3. Andrea

          Wow.
          “women who don’t were at least some makeup appear slovenly unless they’re doing something else to look pulled together”

          That is really not true. There are plenty of women out here in the real world who do not wear makeup at all. We are not slovenly.

          1. Marie

            Indeed, wow to that comment a million times. Women’s natural faces are not slovenly. If men and women are clean and groomed and dressed appropriately, there should be no further requirement for a woman to add the additional significant time and money expense to alter her face in order to be as presentable as the man who was just fine being clean and groomed and appropriately dressed.

            Also, lulz to the implied flipside here, that women could just not do anything else to pull their appearance together and put on makeup and not appear slovenly. I guarantee that expertly applied eyeliner does not unsloven my sweatpants.

            This discussion reminds me a bit of this Mitchell and Webb skit:

            http://youtu.be/85HT4Om6JT4

        4. aebhel

          Nope! This is only true because we have a base expectation that how women actually look is sloppy. I keep my hair neat and my nails trimmed, but I’m not going to smear paint all over my face every morning, spend an hour a week doing my nails and removing every bit of body hair below my eyebrows unless men are also expected to do that.

          Also, sparkly lip gloss is unprofessional no matter who is wearing it.

    7. MashaKasha

      Want to add my voice to this, even though I’m too late to the party. I had eye surgery in my one eye for a detached retina 2.5 years ago and a cataract surgery in the same eye last year (cataract is a very common side effect of my first surgery). As a result I now have a plastic lens in that eye and the eye is very far-sighted. Applying eye shadow and mascara has suddenly become very difficult. I still manage to put something together when I go out, but I’d be miserable, and probably look terrible, if I had to apply eye makeup every day for work. Thankfully it’s not a requirement in my workplace!

      My mom never wore, or even owned, any makeup other than lipstick either in all of her career, even though everyone else around her did. She was an engineer and was promoted to manager at some point in her career. She always looked very professional without makeup.

    8. Melissa

      I agree with you wholeheartedly, but there are some industries in which it’s pretty commonplace for women to wear at least a little makeup as a matter of course and there’s some research evidence showing that women are taken more seriously in the workplace if they wear some makeup (but not too much). It’s terribly sexist and unfortunate, but that’s the way it shakes out in some industries…

  2. DMC

    Great response. I kind of winced at the makeup comment. I agree it’s best to leave it out and borders on sexism (though I understand that the commentator probably doesn’t see it that way and seems to be genuinely interested in helping “Jane” move ahead and be taken more professionally). Lots of professional women, as you say, don’t wear makeup, and I doubt anyone ever went to a man and said, “You know, if you wore makeup, you’d look more professional.” Being neatly groomed with professional, well-fitted clothes that aren’t wrinkled will make a world of difference, as is learning to speak more assertively (and potentially practice body language to match).

    1. fposte

      I agree, but I also think it’s a real industry standard some places. So if I were the OP, I might focus on the clothes (and find some good blogs, if there’s anything like Corporette with a little bit more of a budget feel?) and the hair, but also say that I feel makeup is a very personal thing, but it is part of the look that women here tend to have, and it’s something to consider–if you’re interested, here are some good online tutorials.

      1. GOG11

        The Adulting blog has some good posts about clothes (and about how to take care of clothing properly so it lasts) that might provide more affordable ideas/options. I am interested in budget-friendlier counterparts to Corporette myself. I hope others can weight in if they’ve found others.

        1. Ann without an e

          I have found most of my office cloths at New York & Co. They have great sales and a variety of work pants in various fit, colors, patterns. Tailored for women button down collar shirts in a variety of colors matching camisoles to wear underneath…….The Limited is a more pricey version. White House Black Market has good stuff too but you have to watch for a clearance, and look out for skirt length some of their stuff can be rather short.

          I see make up for women as the female equivalent of keeping facial hair neat, just like shaving it is something we do to our faces everyday, just like men some of us go more or less, and just like men doing nothing looks unprofessional. I also prefer to call make-up war paint. When you phrase it that way it isn’t nearly as sexist. Wearing too much war paint is just like a guy that shaves elaborate designs in his beard……..Equally unprofessional.

          1. HeyNonnyNonny

            +1 to the facial hair/makeup analogy…imagining the conversation with the unprofessional young guy with Seneca-Crane-esque beard flames!

          2. Karyn

            “Wearing too much war paint is just like a guy that shaves elaborate designs in his beard…”

            Do you know my ex? We call him Indiana Wolverine.

              1. Karyn

                If he weren’t actually a sociopath (true story, not being facetious), I would. I’m afraid of him finding me out. Suffice it to say, the beard has been described as “shapes.”

          3. AnotherAlison

            You have to be careful at NY&Co. I am wearing a pair on NY&Co pants today, but some of the stuff they carry is about the quality I would expect at Walmart. I think for a young person, it’s a reasonable transition from H&M or Forever 21 to something more business-y, but Limited’s stuff is better and just as low cost when on sale (which is often). I have an NY&Co skirt that came un-seamed at the zipper and not long after that was fixed, came unhemmed. And a button fell off my suit jacket, and an armpit came un-seamed in a shirt. Sounds like I put on 20 lbs, but I didn’t.

            1. Nashira

              Okay, so not just me? Thank god. I’ve had four pairs of pants that I’ve had to re-hem, one busted zipper on one pair, pockets that failed almost immeadiately on one pair, and a lot of shirts that were roomy in the dressing room… Only to shrink uncomfortably after a few washes, despite cold water washes and hanging them to dry.

              I really wouldn’t recommend NY&Co I guess, unless you’re tall and desperate for pants.

              1. Julie

                If you’re cusp sized NY&Co is good too. I’ve had some issues with hems but I’ve had issues with hems at Ann Taylor, Loft, and JC Penney too. I’m a size 16 so that’s pretty much my options in my town for buying pants. I pretty much always wear dresses because of this. NY&Co pretty much lost me when they tried to have more club wear than career wear but I still stop in now and then.

                1. Melissa

                  Yeah, lately NY&Co can’t seem to decide whether they want to market professional clothes or casual daywear or party clothes or what. So they have some pieces that are just like a mix of everything and make me go huh? I do have some pants and shirts from there and I noticed the quality is…meh.

            2. Ife

              I have also had this problem with the clothes I’ve bought from them, so I don’t shop there anymore.

            3. AvonLady Barksdale

              I used to love NY&Co. I walked in there recently to look at work clothes and I walked right out. I thought the fabrics were terrible. So many of the prints were really pretty and could have been great if they weren’t in that terrible viscose stuff.

            4. Lindsay J

              Yeah, I worked at NY&Co for one winter, and aquired a lot of their clothing, and the quality is terrible on most pieces.

              On the other hand, you should never buy anything there that is less than 30-40% off (because it’s that % off like all the time) so it can be reasonably cheap.

              I much prefer going to Ross or Marshalls or thrift stores and finding better quality pieces for cheap, though.

              1. Melissa

                It amuses me to go to NY&Co’s website and they’re having a sale and they’re like “LAST DAY!!! 40% OFF!” and then the very next day they have something like “THE SUPER SUMMER AWESOME SALE! 40% OFF!!”

          4. Katie

            “…and just like men doing nothing looks unprofessional”. Am I reading this right? You think women not wearing makeup is unprofessional?

            1. Relosa

              Yeahhhhh…agreed. Because men CAN do nothing and not be viewed unprofessional in most industries (or even lack of effort, since lumberjack look is in right now).

              1. Koko

                I think she’s comparing a woman’s naked face to a man’s unruly/uncombed/free-growing beard, which, no….not the same thing.

                I’ve always had great skin (fair-skinned, light freckles that come out in the summer, and maybe 10 pimples in my entire life) and hate the feeling of all-over makeup so I never wear a foundation or powder. When I go out at night I enjoy doing elaborate eye makeup for fun, but I have no interest in devoting time to light makeup every morning so I rarely wear makeup to work. I wear a little bit of blush in my cheek hollow sometimes when I’m feeling bloated because it makes my face look thinner, and if I have a meeting I’m nervous about I will sometimes put on thin eyeliner and mascara because it gives me a boost of confidence to decorate my eyes like that. But I wouldn’t get that same confidence boost if I did it every day – it’s partly because it feels a bit like dressing up to go out that it’s so effective in making me feel confident. My clean, healthy skin looks perfectly fine and professional without makeup.

            2. Bunny

              See, keeping facial hair trimmed and combed well is about neatness and hygiene. Most of the guys I know who have large or long beards? The beards look unruly if they haven’t been trimmed in weeks, or combed in days, but look smart and nicely shaped most of the time. I know some guys who don’t trim their facial hair for religious reasons, and honestly their beards are the neatest and most tidy I’ve seen, because they keep them clean and combed.

              A woman not wearing make-up is not equivalent to a messy, unruly beard. A face without make-up is still a clean face.

              You could maybe equate a messy beard to a woman not bothering to brush her hair? But the best equivalent I can think of for make-up is, it’d be like saying it’s unprofessional for a man to not wax and curl the corners of his moustache.

              1. manybellsdown

                And honestly, I am not good at makeup. I can manage eyeliner and lipstick, and that is about it. I attempted a “smoky eye” last weekend to go to dinner and I looked like I’d been punched. Would I really look more “professional” with blotchy eyeshadow and a line around my face where I failed to blend my foundation?

            3. Marie

              Yeah, let’s place responsibility for expectations where they belong. As in, if a field or particular office norm requires women wear makeup to be professional, that can be stated without saying women as a whole need makeup to look professional. “This office expects women to wear makeup to look professional” is a whole different conversation than “your face needs makeup to look professional.” In the first scenario, I can decide whether I want to work for an office that needs me to invest time and money into altering my face every day. Depending on the job, I might! In the second scenario, I’ve just been told my face is a wreck because of my gender.

          5. kozinskey

            I want to like this analogy, but I’ve never seen anyone write into this blog complaining that an employee/coworker doesn’t trim his beard neatly enough (or wears tight-fitting clothes, or has messy hair). Telling women what to do with their face/body is, unfortunately, part of our cultural dialogue. I just don’t think the rules apply to men the same way, so I can’t justify comparing the two.

            1. Marie

              It’s also just not comparable in terms of outcome and effort! The continual cost of razors to stay clean shaven is nowhere near the cost of continual makeup (unless you’re going cheap, and cheap makeup SHOWS), and the requirement to groom facial hair doesn’t require men to wear chemicals on their skin, near their eyes, or on their mouths for eight hours a day (don’t do what I did and wiki-trance into banned cosmetics and long term research on some of the chemicals in makeup). And while maintaining groomed facial hair requires a learning curve that is likely comparable to learning how to apply makeup properly, maintaining a clean shaven face as a baseline for presentability requires much less skill and learning than applying makeup daily (spoken as someone who will just truly never be “good” at makeup, no matter how many tutorials I watch).

              None of that means society won’t continue expecting different grooming standards, but people who advocate women wearing makeup to appear professional need to fully understand the time and money and other unintended side effects (perpetual acne, paying even more of a premium to get cruelty free products, potential allergies or chemical sensitivities) that go along with that. Just because women can make it look easy (some of them, I think my struggle is obvious) doesn’t mean it’s a simple requirement.

        2. V

          Capitol Hill Style has a similar feel to Corporette at a lower price point, and also features a lot of complete outfits — as opposed to single pieces — which I find very helpful.

        3. Mabel

          I have discovered so many of the blogs I now read and love from the AAM comments! Thank you!

      2. Gandalf the Nude

        Agreed about the makeup. I don’t wear it myself except to interviews and certain special events, but I’ve also been mindful about finding places where that won’t hold me back. It’s one of those things that just might be a trade off you’re expected to make in certain industries (not that I agree with it at all). But if it is part of the culture there, I think it’s definitely kinder to be transparent about that so that she’s not being dinged for it without having a clear understanding about why. At that point it’s up to her whether to keep going makeup-less, but at least she won’t be making that decision blindly.

        1. V

          +1

          I think there is a reality vs. ideal problem with makeup as an aspect of professional appearance. Ideally it wouldn’t matter, but in reality it does (I know there have been some studies about this). I have zero problem with someone opting not to wear makeup, but they should understand the potential downside to that decision.

          1. Anonna Miss

            I agree with V. There’s a large gulf between the way the world should be and the way it actually is.

            I wouldn’t have the nerve to require it, but I’d say something like “If you’re comfortable with makeup, I think you should consider wearing it to work.” I’ve definitely had coworkers who would roll out of bed to go to work, but get all dolled up in the company bathroom before a date.

            Some women need very very little. Mascara and/or curling their eyelashes and groomed eyebrows are all they need to make their eyes stand out. Others just need cherry Chapstick and their face has a bit of color.

            1. Kelly O

              Sometimes it’s even simpler than that. Just brushing eyebrows and keeping them under control can make a big difference in how you appear, or even just curling eyelashes, without mascara, can open up an eye. Lip balm to smooth dry, cracked lips… that kind of thing. Not “makeup” as most people perceive it, but just noticing details and making sure you present well.

          2. sam

            Agree with V. I’m not a big makeup person either, but I’ve found that I look very washed out/tired when I don’t wear any, and I get complimented/positive reactions when I wear some.

            I keep it pretty minimal though – all I wear is some eyeliner and mascara to keep my face from looking like a neutral sheet of paper, as well as some clear lip balm to keep my lips from chapping. That’s it. it takes about 10 seconds in the morning.

      3. The IT Manager

        I’m torn about this. I’m not fond of wearing make-up myself, and I just do the bare minimum for most of the time I go out, but it’s true that well done make-up presents a more polished appearance for many people. For an inexperienced person, though, makeup might make them look worse/less professional if applied incorrectly. And it’s an actual effort to maintain the same look throughout a whole work day without it coming off. I think Alison’s advise to not mention makeup is the correct one unless the LW is in one of those fields where it really does make a difference.

        I think it’s similar to telling a man that for some industries/offices that he needs to be clean shaven – no beard or no stubble. For some hairy men that means shaving every morning right before work; others have it easier. And of course some industries do not care.

      4. Green

        Yeah, telling women to “consider” wearing makeup because “it is part of the look that women here tend to have” is discriminatory.

        1. The IT Manager

          Ann without an e and I both equated make-up for women to facial hair for men.

          Do you consider it discriminatory to tell a man consider shaving because “clean-shaven-ness is part of the look men tend to have here?”

          1. Green

            I would certainly advise my clients to refrain from making suggestions that are related to gender or sex characteristics. I’ve also never worked anywhere that someone has told men to shave, and beards weren’t exactly uncommon in the top law firms and finance companies.

            1. A Dispatcher

              Our police force most definitely limits facial hair beyond a mustache and goes so far as to limit the length of sideburns. Granted, this is a field with many, many norms that are different than the professional world, but I figured I would throw it out there.

              1. Green

                Yeah, but they (and the military, etc.) could make a safety argument — even if it’s not a great one. And presumably they’d provide religious exemptions and apply the rule equally to women.

                1. Stephanie

                  Ugh, they kind of do at my workplace. (Same deal–only facial hair allowed is a mustache.)

                2. A Dispatcher

                  The ones who keep them year round usually tend to look pretty decent, but oh good lord is Movember terrible.

          2. Tedy Mosby

            Yes… and it’s also a bad analogy. A better one would be that beards and hair both need to be neat and tidy.

            Even at Old Job, a very stuffy law firm, men were allowed to have facial hair as long as it was neat. I’ve heard of very few jobs that require men to be totally clean shaven unless you’re making food or in the military.

            There’s a big difference between telling a man he needs to be neat and look clean, just like a woman would with her hair, and telling a woman she needs to go above and beyond to look appealing.

            1. Elysian

              I see clean-shaven sometimes in employment as a safety concern. Like, if you need to wear an oxygen mask as part of your job the mask can’t make a seal if you have facial hair. So, if oxygen mask wearing is important to your job, you might be required to be clean-shaven.

            2. Chocolate lover

              I’m with you on the neat and tidy thing. Unmanaged facial hair can look sloppy (on people of both genders). Lack of makeup does not = sloppy to me.

              1. Alison with one L

                I think lack of makeup CAN equal sloppy (for me) if I look super tired, have huge bags under my eyes, or have a serious breakout.
                I think a professional look includes looking alert and clean. For me, makeup can help with both of these. I full-well know that I AM clean when I have a breakout, but I think covering it up with makeup helps.
                Just my two cents.

                I honestly can’t tell if some of the women in my office wear makeup, but I would never ask them to unless there was a problem. I completely agree with the men with facial hair argument. Let people regulate their own appearance until it’s become a problem.

                1. Bwmn

                  I’m pretty uncomfortable with equating a “break out” to looking sloppy. For lots of skin conditions – be it acne or heat rash – covering it up with make up may really not be appropriate medical advice for everyone. While it may work for some individuals, I know that personally throwing making up on acne or a rash is the #1 way to get more and have it not go away.

                  Honestly, with a woman’s face – as with a man’s – I think “sloppy facial hair” issues are really the only major points of concern in terms of sloppiness that I think should relate to work (certain industries withstanding).

                  If someone is showing up to work sporadically with bags under their eyes (in regards to it being obvious about them being tired, vs someone being older/having thinner skin and always having bags) – then the conversation should more likely be about getting enough sleep/being stressed/overall health and well being. Not just buying concealer.

                2. Bunny

                  Ehhh, I have rather prominent, permanent eyebags and, honestly, I almost never wear make-up. I work in professional office environments and it has never, ever been a problem. Because *being ugly* (or rather, not living up to the cultural ideal of youthful, flawless feminine beauty) is not the same as *being sloppy/scruffy/unprofessional*. It’s just my face.

                  Eyebags and acne happen to men, too, but they aren’t called scruffy for it. If my older male co-workers with eyebrows like mating caterpillars, lightning patterns of red and purple veins on their noses and cheeks and *sprouting ear hair* can be considered professional just by wearing a suit and combing their hair and beard, why not me?

                3. simonthegrey

                  If I have a serious breakout, which I almost always do, and I try to wear makeup, I will itch my face raw within an hour. I’ve never found a foundation to which I did not have a topical reaction (and I’ve tried almost everything except bare minerals because I’m no longer willing to drop money on something I don’t use). I’m in my mid-to-late 30s and not wearing makeup has never cost me a job. When I worked retail, I had well meaning people comment on this or that home remedy I could try for the acne, but wearing makeup would have just drawn attention to it even more. As long as I put the time into brushing out my hair and checking that my eyebrows aren’t out of control, I don’t find that I look sloppy.

            1. AnotherAlison

              That question actually crossed my mind. Some of my female friends and coworkers have not-insignificant facial hair.

              1. Going dark for this

                Am I terrible that facial hair on women makes me super uncomfortable? I can’t help it….

                1. Anx

                  I would really think about why it makes you uncomfortable.

                  Women are mammals. They will likely have hair on their face. It will vary in thickness and how noticeable it is.

          3. Cath in Canada

            Do you consider it discriminatory to tell a man consider shaving because “clean-shaven-ness is part of the look men tend to have here?”

            Potentially, yes, because some men are forbidden to shave by their religion.

            1. fposte

              In the US, religion would exempt you from that requirement.

              However, Green, I’m not a lawyer, but from what I’m seeing it’s fair to require different things of different genders as long as they meet the same overall standard–you can require your staff to wear uniforms where the women wear skirts and the men wear pants, for instance.

              1. Green

                California example: 12947.5.
                (a) It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer to refuse to permit an employee to wear pants on account of the sex of the employee.
                (b) Nothing in this section shall prohibit an employer from requiring employees in a particular occupation to wear a uniform.
                (c) Nothing in this section shall prohibit an employer from requiring an employee to wear a costume while that employee is portraying a specific character or dramatic role.
                (d) The council may exempt an employer from the requirements of this section for good cause shown and shall adopt standards and procedures for granting exemptions.

                1. Green

                  (Uniform here has to be based on occupation, not on gender. Male and female police officers have to wear police uniforms, but female police officers can’t be required to wear a skirt uniform without a pants option.)

                2. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec

                  I have a friend who was a kindergarten teacher in a small, southern town. She was not allowed to wear pants – even though her job regularly involved bending over, crawling, and sitting on the floor.

                  “Is it worse to show the shape of my legs all the time, or to show my panties to 5 year old every once in a while?”

                  She needed this law.

                3. Cordelia Naismith

                  To Ashley the Nonprofit Exec:

                  What? A kindergarten teacher not being allowed to wear pants?!?! My mind is boggled right now.

                  Was this a public school or a private, religious one?

                4. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec

                  Cordelia – It was a public school. Totally normal, everyday public school – but weird about ladies in pants, apparently!

                5. Mabel

                  When I started a professional job in 1993, women were still required to wear skirts! In 1993! When my women colleagues and I discovered that this rule was still in place, we went to management and told them they HAD to change it (they did). We just weren’t going to be required to wear skirts.

              2. Traveler

                The military requires that men and women have different grooming standards, and they are very specific about the hairstyles and facial hair they allow on men and women. It’s been raised as an issue a lot, however.

                And of course, the military gets away with a lot of different standards… so…

              3. Cat

                I do think it’s a mistake to limit “discriminatory” to the legal category though. Most of us make a point of not discriminating on a day-to-day basis in a variety of ways that would be completely legal for us to do so and that’s a legitimate discussion to have regarding workplace norms.

                1. Green

                  ^ This also. Worth recognizing (and then rejecting) our implicit biases that may impact how we perceive others.

            2. Bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover

              Yes! And some religions have rules about women wearing makeup.

            3. Stephanie

              Or medical. My dad keeps a full beard to avoid folliculitis (I think this is common with a lot of black men). Shaving constantly would give him ingrown hairs (at best) or result in an infection or scarring (at worst). When I used to wear my hair in a short, angled bob and shaved at the nape of my neck, I had the same issue.

              My current job requires no beards for anyone public facing. People with religious or medical reasons for beards have to get an exemption from HR.

          4. Elysian

            I read that and it definitely gave me pause, because I immediately jumped on the “leave makeup out of this!” train. But, I still think it is a little different just because of the number of things women need to do to be considered “professional.” The baseline for the female beauty regimen is just so much higher than it is for men. For example, women might “need” to remove hair on their eyebrows, face (‘mustache’ if you have darker hair), underarms, and legs, where men only “need” to shave their face. So women don’t need to keep a cleanly trimmed beard, but they do “need” to shave most of the rest of their bodies. If a woman wearing a lot of skirts doesn’t shave her legs, that might be equivalent to talking to a man about shaving his beard. Also, a man can’t really shave too much. A woman can definitely use too much makeup to cross the socially acceptable line.

            I think part of the problem with makeup is that, in the aggregate, its something that many women do not like to do and don’t feel they need to do. It’s expensive and hard to master. Plus it is more about appeasing someone else’s subjective standard of beauty than just looking “put together.” It’s one thing to tell a man to be “clean shaven” – it’s another try to deal with the fact that a woman might need a certain shade and amount of mascara, lipstick, concealer, etc to be pleasing to the requester’s eye. It’s a problem in the aggregate.

            Maybe a better analogy would be to male acne. If a man in your office had horrible acne on his face, would anyone sit him down and suggest that he see a dermatologist or get some Clearasil because his face is just so distasteful it borders on unprofessional? Probably not. With makeup, you’re telling a woman to similarly hide her face behind something you would rather look at. So I think beards and makeup are different.

            1. Former Cable Rep

              Makeup is also a significant time investment. Between shopping for shades, researching products, researching techniques and watching tutorials, and daily application it can really add up. It’s fun when it’s your hobby and you don’t mind spending time doing it, but it’s just another chore when you don’t even like to wear makeup.

              If you’re lucky, you can run to the drug store and any old foundation and concealer will work for you, if you’ve got sensitive skin or your skin tone isn’t carried in most ranges you’re in for a long time of research, running to stores to get samples, ordering things online and sending them back. And for what really? Are women’s dark circles so much more objectionable than men’s?

              Makeup is one of my hobbies, it’s fun for me. I like learning new techniques and creating illusions with color. But if someone told me that I need to wear makeup, I think the first thing I’d say is “What’s wrong with my face?”

          5. GOG11

            I don’t think that’s an accurate equivalent, though. Men naturally have facial hair. We all naturally have hair and keeping it well groomed, whether it’s on your hair or on your face, is considered part of maintaining a certain appearance, one which many equate with a certain level of professionalism.

            The fact that women are expected to change their physical appearance in ways that men aren’t – not due to a naturally-occurring difference (such as many men having facial hair and many women not having it) but due to one that is considered acceptable for one gender and not for the other (such as pale lips or circles under the eyes) – is what is at play here, I think.

            Many would argue that, while makeup can create a more refined or polished appearance (i.e., even skin tone), you could also argue that it makes the wearer more attractive or appealing in ways that should have nothing to do with job performance. If men aren’t expected to be nice to look at to the same level that women are in order to excel, that seems rather unfair (even if that is the reality in some places).

          6. KS

            It’s ALL silly and shallow. But then I work in a city and company where IT tends to equal pierced and tattooed. Or with my current green hair. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

      5. AW

        I can’t imagine makeup being an expectation in any industry unrelated to entertainment or fashion.

        1. Kelly O

          You might be surprised. Unwritten, but expected. There are many industries in which image is important. Sometimes that depends on your role within the industry, however there are a number of fields in which it might not be written down anywhere, but “polished with makeup” is expected.

        2. Too old for this

          And fancy women (channelling my grandma, sometimes her biases pop into my mind.) But seriously, unless you’re on stage or screen, makeup is not a job requirement.

        3. Cordelia Naismith

          I once worked in the main office of a chain of convenience stores. One of my co-workers was written up because she didn’t wear makeup. She was in a non-client-facing role.

        4. AvonLady Barksdale

          I know many people in entertainment who don’t wear makeup! Think Kelly Cutrone– there’s some cachet in being a “blank slate” or, in some cases, being hipster enough not to care about makeup.

      6. Joey

        This is perfect. I think makeup absolutely needs to be addressed if it’s the norm. To me it’s the equivalent of telling a man conservative haircuts and clean shaven faces are the norm.

        1. Tracy Flick

          Come on. Do you know how much it costs to maintain an army of cosmetics, even when you’re going for a natural look? Not equivalent.

          1. AnotherAlison

            For me, foundation, eyeshadow, blush, and mascara. . .<$50/year. An army of cosmetics is hardly required. (That's fine if that's what you want to do, but I don't think there is really any financial barrier to the OP wearing makeup. Drug store brands are fine on a budget.)

            1. Traveler

              Are you replacing them as often as you should? I use drug store whenever possible, especially for things like mascara that need to be replaced more than once a year. And even drug store mascara is $5-7 a pop.

              1. AnotherAlison

                Oh probably not. . .but, in 20+ years of wearing makeup, I have never had any ill effects from it. My mascara might get replaced every 6 months. Foundation is regularly replaced because I use it up. The eye shadow and blush stick around until I drop the container on the floor & break the palettes and/or the container, but I usually keep them around a year.

                1. Traveler

                  Health/bacteria is of course the first concern but it’s not just about that. The formulas dry out and oxidize and stop looking the way they’re supposed to, especially with the cheaper brands. Mascara will clump (doesn’t matter what kind just the act of the air being pumped in and out every time you use it), foundation will change color, etc. There are definitely “expiration dates” you can play with, and I don’t think you have to spend a fortune though. That’s true, though.

                2. AnotherAlison

                  When it starts to physically change is when I get rid of it, if I am still using a product. Most of the time, that is MUCH longer than the advertised expiration date. Honestly, I have a rarely used black eye shadow that I used a couple weeks ago that is probably >5 years old, and it was fine. I wouldn’t try that with a foundation, but pressed powders seem to last forever.

                  I won’t even tell you how old the vanilla extract that we finally threw away last week was. (Okay, I will. . .it was a giant bottle that we got as a gift in 1998. It has alcohol in it, so it has a very long shelf life, but ours finally dried up and started to get flakes mixed in with the liquid.)

                3. Traveler

                  I am on the opposite end of the spectrum from you as I love makeup, but I am completely guilty of years-old eyeshadow if it was limited edition or something like that and is still working fine.

                  And admittedly, a lot of expiration dates are bogus – but 1998? Whoa! I go through vanilla extract like crazy baking but I will have to keep in mind that it lasts!

              2. Jen RO

                I’ve kept my cheapo Avon makeup for many years past the date it should have been changed and I’m still alive and healthy. The quality isn’t bad either, so it’s absolutely possible to wear makeup without breaking the bank.

            2. Tracy Flick

              Even drug store brands add up over a year and I don’t see how you only get to $50 a year. Plus, when you factor in professional hair, which depending on your hair type could really be expensive, adding makeup to that is just an unnecessary extra expense.

              My point is that even if you’re luxurious with your shaving tools as a man, it’s not the same as how much women spend on makeup. I’m talking lotion, undereye concealer, foundation, powder, eyebrow pencil, etc., even without fancy eye shadow and such and the older you get the more time and money you need to spend.

              And I’m not buying one tinted moisturizer and undereye concealer a year or even six months necessarily, because as another commenter mentioned, things get dry and formulas fall apart. Eyeshadow and lipsticks can last longer but mascara and other things, nope, you need to replace it. It’s not a fair thing to ask of an employee.

          2. Joey

            I’m not saying it’s required, I’m saying let the person make an informed decision. I think it’s a bit disingenuous to not tell them about the perceptions that many people will have of no makeup.

            1. Elysian

              I appreciate your rationale, but the same could be said about weight. Lots of people view overweight people as “less professional” or less “put together” than average-weight people or even under-weight people. The fact that that perception may exist is not a reason to sit down overweight people and tell them to go on a diet because their appearance is affecting other peoples’ perception of their professionalism. Is is equally disingenuous not to tell people about this potentially career limiting aspect of their appearance? I think we had a question like this not too long ago, and if I recall the general consensus was outrage.

              1. Joey

                well except you can take the makeup off when you’re not at work. It’s more like a part of a uniform than telling someone they’re ugly.

                1. Elysian

                  But then it’s a uniform that applies uniquely to women and is discriminatory. You’re not doing a woman a kindness to tell them that there is discrimination in the world and that they ought to conform otherwise it could set them back.

                  I know this is taking it to a potentially militant extreme, but it really isn’t that far away from – “Hey, you know most women in our office sleep with their male boss to get ahead. I mean its your choice if you don’t do that… but know that if you don’t its really going to limit you.” If its only during work hours, its just part of the job, right, and they can forget about it when they leave work? In short, this isn’t the problem of women who don’t wear makeup – this is a problem with the people who believe that makeup needs to be part of the average women’s work “uniform” in order for them to be successful. I don’t think that “Jane” or the letter writer need to buy into that system.

                2. Joey

                  Oh please. Then it’s discriminatory women don’t have to wear ties and get to wear short sleeves and open toed shoes when it’s hot.

                3. Elysian

                  To be fair, open toed shoes are pretty frowned upon in many professional offices. I don’t get to wear them at all. But Yes, the fashion standards are different for men and women. But there exist fashion standards for both men and women (and the debate on these and whether they are fair, etc, could pretty much be endless). Makeup requirements for men don’t exist in most industries.

                  And just because you can remove something/stop doing it when you’re not at work doesn’t make it acceptable just because it is at work. Requiring women to be “pretty” – because let’s be honest, its not about professional, it’s about “pretty” – at work and having a much lower baseline for men is in fact discriminatory.

                4. simonthegrey

                  Actually, I did work at a place that required women to wear ties if they wore button up shirts.

              2. sunny-dee

                The thing is, everything that the OP mentioned is easily changeable, unlike weight. (Which can change, but takes months or years to do.) Jane has messy hair, no makeup, and ill-fitting and overly-casual clothes. Her overall appearance is unprofessional, especially if she wants to move up, and it’s creating a bad impression.

                Look at it like this — in general, you don’t want to be a grammar Nazi. But if you had an employee who seriously wanted to move into upper management who had really bad grammar or an insanely thick regional accent and these were factors that mattered, you should tell them. If they cannot advance without working on these otherwise personal factors, they need to know.

                If Jane changes her hair and clothes and is better about general grooming, then maybe the makeup thing becomes a complete non-issue because her overall appearance is so much more polished. Or maybe a little makeup helps improve that impression. That’s really up to Jane, but letting her know about the impression she is making is still important.

                1. Elysian

                  I’m fine with hair and clothes. Those are gender-neutral professional requirements.

                  I just don’t think makeup needs to be part of the conversation. It’s so hard to even think of a male equivalent.

                  Also, looking at the list of “required” cosmetics you posted below, I’m unprofessional today because I didn’t put on blush or tinted lip balm. So there’s also that. But my clothes are professional and well-maintained, and I don’t think anyone walking into my office would think, “God, who would let THAT lawyer represent them??” Women can have their shit together and be professional without makeup, and I think the conversation needs to focus on that rather than subjective standards of beauty.

                2. Tracy Flick

                  Yeah, it’s up to Jane, but I’m sure Jane is aware of the existence of makeup, and she would rather not wear it if she doesn’t HAVE to. So clearly if her boss suggests it she will think it’s best that she does, when in fact she should not have to whatsoever.

          3. sunny-dee

            So don’t do an army or cosmetics. Mascara, powder blush, tinted lip balm, and you’re done. If she has a shiny complexion, then also a compact. $15 or less at Target.

            1. aebhel

              Unless she has sensitive skin. Or objects to products that have been tested on animals. Also, frankly, if I tried to use all of those products on my face, I’d come out looking like a clown with two black eyes. Clean and natural is a lot more professional than poorly applied makeup.

          4. Kelly O

            Yeah, I’d argue an “army” isn’t required, and it can be done on a very reasonable basis. Some people probably spend more on their morning coffee every month than I do on makeup and skincare.

      7. Alston

        I’ve noticed that when my hair is better kempt I wear/feel like I need less makeup. I feel like hair generally makes a person look more polished (or not) than makeup does. Not even talking about a blow out, just a nice ponytail or when I have a chance to let my curls air dry.

        1. fposte

          I do think there might be a two out of three thing going on here, so for instance if a staffer had sharp clothing and stylin’ hair the OP might not be realizing she’s not wearing makeup.

          1. Elysian

            I think this is the real problem – it sounds like Jane is radiating a general air of “I don’t care about professional appearance” through a number of actions. If she were to put in effort to be neater overall in a couple areas (less wrinkly clothes, more put together hairstyle, etc) then people likely wouldn’t notice something like not wearing makeup. I appreciate the letter writer’s difficulty, because it sounds like the problem is more that
            “Overall, Jane doesn’t put in the effort to look professional, and that is something that is important in this workplace.”

            1. Kelly O

              I tend to agree with you. It’s not that there is one huge thing with Jane, but lots of little things that add up to a less than polished appearance. Taking the time to brush your hair, make sure your clothes are neat and pressed, and just looking as though you put a tiny bit of thought into your appearance goes a long way.

              I see plenty of professional looking women with little to no makeup who look just fine. It’s all in the total package. I wear makeup because I’m comfortable in it, and I feel more polished and professional. (Full caveat – I will “do” my eyebrows and put on some concealer and powder to run to the grocery store, but I realize I am completely vain and shallow to some people, and that’s actually okay with me.)

          2. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec

            This. I do not wear any make-up, but do I look polished and I doubt anyone really notices. It sounds like the make-up is being brought up because it’s part of an overall issue.

      8. stillLAH

        Maybe Academechic (http://www.academichic.com/)? They closed it down in 2011, but it could still be helpful for seeing how to look put-together without spending a load of money. The four women were all in grad school (or just after grad school) while writing it and were on budgets/not buying expensive clothes. I loved it when I was in my first job.

      9. DMC

        I just think it best to leave makeup out of it. I think requiring or suggesting women but not men to wear makeup in order to look professional smacks of discrimination and gender stereotypes. Courts are a bit all over on that from Price Waterhouse to Harrah’s, to me, I think it falls right in line with gender discrimination, whether or not most women in that industry wear makup (unless wearing makeup is actually directly relevant to one’s job, such as with Cover Girl or the media/high fashion). If someone came to me and said, “You can’t be taken seriously because you don’t wear makeup,” it wouldn’t go over well with me at all. If the person said, “You can’t be taken seriously because you don’t dress professionally — your clothes are wrinkled and too loose, etc.” well, I’d probably be hurt, but that’s feedback I’d consider.

    2. Allison

      Agreed on the makeup, a face with no makeup is much more professional than a face with too much makeup, or “sexy” makeup like winged eyeliner and bright or dark red lipstick. I think there could be some common-sense rules about makeup, like keep it muted and natural, but makeup shouldn’t be a requirement in the vast majority of professions.

      1. Karyn

        Keep in mind there are offices where no one would care about winged eyeliner or bright lipstick. I myself wear funky colored eyeshadow or bright lipsticks (not at the same time!) to my office job and people have complimented me on it. When I worked my first job out of college, I had a fauxhawk and was reception, and the firm liked it because they felt it gave them a more “youthful” image. So it doesn’t have to be a hard and fast rule that neutral is professional and bright is not. It just depends on your office culture.

        1. Tedy Mosby

          Ya many of the women in my office wear winged eyeliner, red lips etc. It’s a very fashion conscious office.

      2. brightstar

        I agree with Karyn. Most days the only makeup I wear is a red lipstick, and this is in a rather conservative office. I’ve also seen people completely overdo makeup in neutral tones.

        This is reminding me of the 90’s fad to have pale lips with dark lip liner.

        1. Karyn

          I have literally 10 red lipsticks. It’s kind of a pathetic addiction. But I think alike with you – I’d rather see a winged black liner with a red matte lip than super heavy neutrals.

  3. The Toxic Avenger

    I really love your reply, Alison – especially the reminder to be mindful about budget, and be compassionate. Some of this came up in the “unprofessional” discussion last week – when I was just starting out, I had no money and no clothes. Some of the stuff I wore still makes me embarrassed for my younger self. So, thank you!

    1. Sospeso

      Especially the budget piece! Shout-out to two pairs of Express pants that I got on sale and wore to death at my first internship. Getting an adult wardrobe together can be tough.

      1. Sparrow

        Same here! When I first started, I had the Express Editor pants in black and a tan color that I wore all the time and just changed tops during the week.

      2. Karyn

        ALL of my work pants are Express. They have amazing sales throughout the year and I just bought a few grey, a brown, and a herringbone pattern (I have too many animals to own more than one pair of black…) and I just rotate them all out. They last FOREVER, too.

      3. AndersonDarling

        I still have a pair of my first grown-up pants in my closet!
        I eventually learned that good fitting clothes are better than expensive clothing. I would see a good deal on designer pants and buy them even though they looked awful.
        Target usually had some nicer cardigans and “starter” blazers that got me through my early years. H&M is a good bet as well.

      4. themmases

        For a while I had two pairs of Express pants (I think the Columnist or Designer… One of the straighter ones) in heavy rotation. Looking back I definitely wish I had styled them differently and in particular worn better shoes with them, but they were definitely the best-looking pants in my wardrobe at the time.

        I only got rid of mine when I lost too much weight to wear them, and would definitely consider getting more once I feel like my size isn’t changing much anymore. I just wouldn’t be wearing them in anything resembling the outfits on their models!

        1. Melissa

          Shoes are thing I have started to spend more money on. Good shoes can make your outfit look much better AND they feel a lot better on your feet, too.

      5. My Fake Name is Laura

        Thrift shops! You can absolutely find great business casual and professional wear at thrift stores for way less than retail price. Bring someone who is candid and helpful and before you know it you have pieces you can fold into your current wardrobe without spending a fortune. Plus the $ you save can be used for a good seamstress or tailor to fix hems, zippers, etc.

        1. Helka

          It does depend a lot on your local thrift store, though… sadly, I moved from somewhere with a fantastic thrift store (especially in plus sizes) to someplace where the only nearby thrift shop is small, poorly organized, and rarely has anything over a size 16.

        2. Xarcady

          Depends on where you live. Around here, thrift stores mostly have Walmart, Target and Kohls clothing. It’s all faded and worn-looking, certainly nothing I’d wear to work. Most of it is nothing I’d wear to work even if it were brand, spanking new, to be honest.

          But when I lived in a big city? The thrift stores were full of barely worn designer clothes for pennies.

        3. Soharaz

          I think consignment shops are a better bet than thrift shops. There used to be one near my house that only sold things that were about a season or two behind, it wouldn’t take anything that was too old. It had some really great options for professional (and quality) clothes on a budget. I don’t think I spent over $40 on anything in there.

          1. simonthegrey

            Yes. Around here, thrift shops are children’s clothes (which I would buy if I had kids since they outgrow them so fast), pilled old sweaters and jeans, or the stuff left over when someone cleaned out Granny’s closets. The consignment shops will have suits or nicer clothes, and the prices are decent.

        4. JB

          Ebay! Spend some time trying on quality brands so you know your size and then scour ebay. I’ve never paid more than $15 for a J.Crew wool skirt. I got a Brooks Brothers camel blazer for $75 last summer. I rarely end up with something that doesn’t fit, but if I can’t find a friend who can wear it, I just consign it. All my staple pieces, shoes, and bags are high(er) end brands. I buy cheaper stuff for trendy tops and jewelery. Also, a tip is to look for things out of season. Boots are cheap in the summer when fewer people are looking for them. I make a list of what I’m looking for and work my way through it through out the year. I haven’t done the math recently, but the last time I figured it out, I’m spending 20-25% of retail on my clothes, and I have some very nice clothes, if I say so myself.

    2. Sadsack

      That was part of my problem, too, way back when. I think at one point I owned one black cardigan and basically wore it every day with a different outfit. It takes time to budget for clothes and figure out what looks good on you that is also affordable. Not many people can go out and buy a whole new wardrobe over night, so I hope Op will look for hints of improvement over time.

    3. Traveler

      And don’t forget that there are plenty of jobs where even being mid-level career means you’re not making much.

    4. Mockingjay

      +1 for budget!

      During my first job out of college, I moonlighted at a department store, mainly for the clothing discount to build my work wardrobe.

  4. Sospeso

    “I’d leave makeup out of it, though, since there are plenty of professional-looking women who don’t care for lipstick.”

    Thank you for adding this line. I think this should fall to personal preference, as well. If men can come in to work looking “professional” without a speck of makeup on, I think women can, too.

    1. fposte

      The problem is that there are fields and jobs where “personal preference” doesn’t cut it and makeup simply is part of the uniform. If the OP’s in one, then I think that’s significant information. It doesn’t mean she has to wear makeup, but if the point is to inform the junior co-worker about what’s important for appearance in their office, then inform the junior co-worker.

      1. TheLazyB

        Haha, I was about to argue with you then got to your last line and realised I agree 100%. And I wear makeup next to never ( although for an interview tomorrow I plan to wear a little).

      2. Green

        By “informing” the junior co-worker of that she should wear makeup to “get ahead”, she’s participating in and perpetuating a sexist culture. OP should opt out on that one.

          1. Sospeso

            But I wonder if something that was intended as fair warning might *feel* more like an assignment to check off if it were coming from your boss.

          2. Coco

            It was not just a warning, based on the letter. She said the woman needs to wear makeup. That perpetuates an unfair standard for women. If it turns out there is some special circumstance for their industry, then fine, but we don’t need to hold off disagreeing with that part of her letter just in case.

        1. Journalist Wife

          Well, the thought that crossed my mind throughout this post and comment thread is “What if this junior employee comes from a similar background as mine?” In my case, my mother never styled her hair or wore makeup or perfume or anything — not on any religious grounds, but because my father didn’t like it and she didn’t have any self-esteem to speak of herself, so she resolved herself to being the frumpiest person in the office and my whole life I heard her pick apart women who wore some makeup or styled their hair or wore clothes that were tailored well; I guess it was sort of her defense mechanism. At the same time, she was raising me, and while my father never forbid me to wear makeup or nice clothes, I had absolutely no one with any experience to teach me how proper makeup should be applied or how to actually use a curling iron correctly as I grew up. I was literally in my twenties before I figured some of the basics out and had been failing miserably for years before that. (Thank God for internet tutorials and kind hairdressers to teach me some basics.) I would have welcomed a mentor in my early professional days, because I literally had no idea what was appropriate because I hadn’t been taught these things by my mother. It’s quite possible that this junior coworker needs a mentor sort of relationship with someone of the same gender who can gently — without coming out and saying, “Do you know how to do your own makeup or your hair or iron slacks?” — guide them and feel out if there is any helpful insight to be shed without offending them. OP may find that it’s more welcome than expected, but it hinges on the way the offer is delivered.

          1. learningToCode

            This is what I was thinking reading this. If my (very casual) office had an assumed rule like this, I’d likely never move up from my fresh out of college, been here 3 months job.

            I never learned anything about hair, or makeup, or style, or anything “feminine” from my mother, because it’s not something I’ve ever been interested in. My mother worked retail and fast food, so it’s not like she could have said “This is what will happen in an office; you have to at least know this much to move up in the world”.

            My work attire is T-shirt, jeans, no makeup, sandals (tech “business casual”… though I’m actually East Coast). And just in the past couple months learned how to find shirts and jeans in the right size instead of always having baggy clothes. Needing to learn makeup or wardrobe for a dev job would stress me out so much if my manager just said “This is how it is. Fix it.”

            1. learningToCode

              Holy grammar, Batman! Well, you can tell it’s 5:00 and I’ve mentally checked out today!

        2. MissLibby

          But that is not what fposte said at all. Informing someone that wearing makeup is the norm for that office/field does not equate to saying they will not “get ahead” if they do not wear makeup.

        3. Elsajeni

          But by not being honest with her about what the expectations for her are in a sexist culture, she’s setting her up to fail. It’s a genuinely complex issue, and not as easy to navigate as just saying “It’s sexist, refuse to participate in it.” I come down on the side of stating the expectation, acknowledging that it’s unfair, and letting the junior coworker make up her own mind about the relative value of standing up to the patriarchy vs. moving up in a job she enjoys.

          1. Green

            Is there any woman in the US who is not aware that some people think women need to wear makeup? It’s not a big leap to think that some of those people may be in positions where they make judgments about us based on superficial things (weight, skin tone, height, makeup, chest size, how our nails are kept, the shoes we wear). It’s one thing to say, “Jane, we need you to dress more professionally”; it’s quite another to give “helpful hints” about things that might help her survive in a sexist society. (And the more such “hints” you provide on How to Succeed in Sexist Workplace, the more likely you are heading into Not Good legal territory.)

            1. Melissa

              Being generally aware that there are “some” people who think women should wear makeup is not the same thing as being aware that the professional norm in your particular new workplace or industry is that women wear makeup. I’m African American and some employers have issues with natural or “ethnic” hairstyles like braids. If I were new in a workplace and somehow missed that and I had a mentor, I’d want her to warn me about it. It doesn’t mean that I would start straightening my hair or stop wearing braids; it’s just good information to be armed with just in case.

      3. Sospeso

        Ideally, I’d like to see fewer instances of field/industry/job uniform norms being based on gender. From a more practical standpoint – as you say – I do think it could be good information for the person in the letter to have. However, I don’t think the appropriate person to relay this information is her boss.

    2. Helka

      This!

      Wearing well-fitting clothing that is appropriate to the office, having neat personal grooming — these are unisex standards that can be equally imparted to an employee regardless of their gender identification. Makeup is a personal choice, the same way wearing skirt suits vs pantsuits is a personal choice.

      1. Green

        +1. It’s the same as “opting out” of dyeing gray hair or wearing heels. Lots of women do it, some think it makes them look more professional, and lots of women opt out. If it’s not something you would tell a male employee, you shouldn’t say it to a female employee.

    3. BadPlanning

      I was relieved as well. I haven’t worn make up in several years (I threw out all of mine a couple years ago, upon realizing I hadn’t used it for awhile and it was likely to be bacteria farms). I know my hair could look neater (I just brush it and go) and my clothes could use a step up (we’re a casual place), but the thought of putting on and taking off make up every day fills me with dread. I know for many people, make up is a happy ritual, just not for me.

      1. Dynamic Beige

        “I know for many people, make up is a happy ritual, just not for me.”

        Oh jeez, I wish it was for me but nope. I wish it were something as simple as I know how to use it but choose otherwise, but it’s the opposite. I never learned and now whenever I try and wear it, I either feel/know I’m doing it wrong or it just feels wrong and I keep expecting someone to point and laugh or comment. It sucks.

        1. Karyn

          I work at A Fancy Makeup Store and one of the questions a lot of people ask me is, “Will the women there judge me for how my makeup is done/for not having any makeup on?” Probably because the women who work there tend to be makeup artists who wear lots of different looks that the average woman isn’t going to want to wear. But trust me when I say, the best clients we have are the ones who come in wearing no makeup at all – makes it much easier to show you how to put it on! :)

          1. Chocolate lover

            A couple years ago, I went to a fancy make-up store for help picking colors and tips on applying make-up. The staff members’ make-up was bordering on “psycho clown” as far as I was concerned, and I didn’t trust them to teach me the natural, neutral looks I wanted. So I ended up only letting them help with concealer/foundation stuff, no color products like lipstick or eyeshadow.

            It was a complete whim to go and buy the make-up, and I still have that exact same make-up, since I wear it so rarely (I seem to go through this whim every few years, then realize the make-up is probably a breeding farm of germs, throw it out, and go buy more. Lather, rinse, repeat). I just find the process tedious and I’d rather spend that 5-10 minutes sleeping or doing just about anything else.

            1. Traveler

              A good makeup artist won’t try to force what they’re wearing on you, but will ask you questions as a client and cater to what your needs/expectations are. So I wouldn’t worry about what they’re wearing, but whether or not they’re listening to you.

              1. Karyn

                THIS. Most of the girls who wear that makeup do it because they’re practicing new looks on themselves, or because they just like playing with color. I personally just wear golds and pinks when I’m there. I’ve never seen a MUA at my own store do one of their looks on someone else, unless that person specifically asked for it. I went in before I started working there looking for a red lip, and that’s EXACTLY what I came out with!

          2. Dynamic Beige

            Ah… but there’s a difference between showing someone how to put it on — because you’ve got years of practice and training — and being able to do it yourself later/the next day after you’ve purchased even a fraction of the stuff that was used to create the look (and there’s no step by step video or whatever to follow). Seriously, people like you make it look so easy and then the next day, after an hour of struggling… it’s a nope. I swear I would need a solid week of remedial going into your fancy makeup shop (which probably doesn’t even have an outlet in my town) and having the same person go “OK, you look like you’ve gotten a handle on X, but have you ever considered doing this to improve Y? You’re being a bit heavy handed with that.” OK, maybe a month. And no one is that patient! :P

            1. Traveler

              There’s an entire industry on youtube of people teaching you how to do that sort of thing for free. No they aren’t there to teach you in person, but they do step by step tutorials with products and brushes and explain how to achieve it at home. There are also multi-day/week makeup classes you can attend (though they are sometimes pricey).

              1. Dynamic Beige

                True enough. But I am that person who would watch What Not To Wear and they’d pick out some sort of yellow handbag and I would think “Ugh, she is not going to get much wear out of that” It’s definitely a hangup on my part, I completely lack confidence and just have zero clue. I wish I had had a normal childhood where playing with makeup was a thing girls did and that was OK. Hell, I wish my mother had had that, as well.

              2. Soharaz

                I watched an excellent tutorial by a 13 year old on how to use my curling wand, and then I got super depressed that she knew what she was doing and I so so so did not.

            2. Karyn

              Well, I kind of take issue with “people like me,” because I’m just a cashier, and I do my own makeup without being professionally trained. It was not my intention to make you feel “lesser than” by not wearing it – it’s a perfectly valid choice! I just got the impression from your post that you wanted to wear it but didn’t know how to put it on. Please forgive me if I was mistaken.

              Although I should point out, my Fancy Makeup Store is going to start doing classes, most of them free, for people who want to learn!

              1. Traveler

                Now I want to know what fancy makeup store you work for. Haha. I would love to brush up on my skills. I’ll have to keep my eyes peeled.

                1. Karyn

                  It rhymes with Endora. Black and white. This is in the preliminary stages so nothing has been confirmed yet, but keep your eyes peeled. I suspect the class will be free but there’ll be a minimum purchase (which kind of makes sense, if you’re learning makeup you might as well buy what you learned with!).

              2. Kelly O

                I worked at a cosmetics counter in college in a department store, and we would totally do lessons for people – it kind of went with the territory. We even went through training to learn how to teach someone else.

                Don’t be afraid to ask “how do you use this?” I’ve found some cool products and methods of application I wouldn’t have considered just by asking.

              3. Dynamic Beige

                I didn’t mean it as an insult :) I just meant that you have had the time, access and support at a time in your life when it was OK to experiment, play around and make mistakes with it — not to mention the time. You are one of those people who can work in Fancy Make Up Store, because you have enough of what is expected in terms of “look” to work there. I could never get a job like that, even when I was young (if that store had existed) because one look and they would have shown me the door. Such is life. It is unfortunate that we put so much emphasis on the external, but that’s the way it goes with some jobs and a lot of life, whether we like it or not.

    4. Joey

      Really? Isn’t that withholding advice/feedback that will help you fit in? At least if you give it you can let the person decide what to do on their own? When you don’t give it they may have no clue it’s frowned upon.

      1. Sospeso

        I think the OP is conflating not wearing making and not looking professional. Sure, I’ve known women who wore makeup and looked professional, but I’ve also known women who’ve opted out of it and looked professional.

        Considering the reporting relationship, I am not sure that I would frame this as “withholding advice/feedback.” If the OP is this person’s supervisor (which is how I read the letter), then I wonder how even a *gentle* suggestion that makeup wearing is the norm might come across. I think I might feel some pressure to wear makeup in that person’s position, even if that wasn’t my cup of tea. And to me, that’s not dissimilar from the other ways women (and men!) are already being pressured to look or act based on gender. I’d rather not add to that pressure.

    5. Traveler

      I am a makeup junkie and I don’t wear it to work. The upkeep during the day, particularly on days where I’m doing something that requires physical exertion and results in sweat is not worth it to me. Unless your job is makeup dependent in some way – I agree. No reason to bring it up.

      And I know some men who would greatly benefit from some good face wash and chapstick, but no one’s going to say that to them. So don’t do it to women either.

      1. Karyn

        Every time my brother uses Dial Soap on his face, I want to cry. But I agree with you, I rarely hear someone tell a guy to get thee to Clinique, so it isn’t wise to do it to women either.

      2. Sospeso

        Yes, something I am not seeing a lot of in the comments is recognition that makeup application can be tricky! Suggesting that this staff member start using makeup could result in too-heavy makeup application, for example. My 7th-grade self preferred a thick line of eyeliner… mostly because I couldn’t manage anything more delicate. Makeup is hard, you guys.

        1. Sospeso

          Whoops, meant to add that to much makeup in some workplaces might be more universally frowned upon than not enough.

  5. Sadsack

    Many years ago, someone had to have this conversation with me. I was mortified at first, but then I appreciated that she was trying to help me and she was absolutely right about the way I looked. I dressed nice most days, but on occasions where I was behind on laundry, I grabbed whatever was clean and sort of matched!

    One thing that my manager said that took the sting out of it a little was that she had noticed that I do have some very pretty dresses and blouses, and she’d like to see more of them, rather than the khakis and an over-sized sweater I happened to be wearing that day.

    1. Beancounter in Texas

      +1
      Constructive criticism is much easier on which to take definitive action, versus vague “you look sloppy” criticisms.

  6. Three Thousand

    I had the same reaction to the makeup comment. Um, no. If you think women should have to change how their faces look in such a basic way to meet a minimum standard of professionalism but men shouldn’t, you’re the one with the problem and you need to change.

  7. Katie the Fed

    Is the OP paying Jane enough for her to have nice, well-tailored clothes? A professional wardrobe can be serious money.

    Makeup – nope, none of OP’s business. Frankly, I’m annoyed OP even mentioned it.

    Hair – as a member of the thick, wavy and occasionally frizzy hair club, I struggle with this. I’ve tried to maximize the curl/wave to have someone make a snarky comment like “I guess some people don’t feel the need to comb their hair anymore” (this was a long time ago). I can only sometimes be bothered to flat iron it, and even then humidity gets a vote. So I’m generally stuck with pulled it back in a bun, which I kind of hate but I don’t have a lot of good options that look neat and tidy.

    1. JB (not in Houston)

      “I’m annoyed OP even mentioned it.” I would agree except I’ve worked some place where the owner had very old-fashioned ideas and so did a lot of the clients (it was a finance-related company). It shouldn’t be a thing, and I applaud women who say they’re not going along with it when they don’t like makeup. But it could well the case that at the OP’s company, women have to wear makeup to be taken seriously and get promoted. In that case, the employee can think about whether she wants to move up there. But if she seriously does, that it’s not out of line for the OP to have brought it up.

      1. GOG11

        I think this is an important distinction – if the OP believes make-up = enhanced professionalism, then I think it would be unreasonable to address it with Jane. If, however, the culture at their workplace is one that views make up as more professional, then it might make more sense for OP to want to address it as a way to get ahead in that particular company if that is a legitimate factor in how things are done there. At that point, though, Jane might want to consider whether or not there’s such a good fit depending on her personal preferences.

        1. Ann Furthermore

          Yes, this. The OP should only broach the make-up topic with Jane if it’s an office/regional/industry/whatever norm. Jane can then decide if she wants to wear make-up, or skip it. But if it’s just that the OP thinks all women should wear makeup, then she should skip it.

          I always wear makeup, it helps me feel more pulled together and ready to face the world. But not everyone can wear it, or wants to wear it, and that’s fine too.

        2. Green

          It being broached by your manager though seems like one of those “hints” that isn’t exactly optional.

    2. GOG11

      I’m in the same boat. I could opt to spend loads of time torturing my hair with a hair straightener, but I prefer to let it be healthy and natural, which means curly/wavy (and sometimes that translates to a bit of frizz, which really can’t be helped as far as I can tell). I find that gathering just the top/front-most sections into a subtle clip in the back helps it look like I’m being intentional and that my hair is textured rather than rebellious/unkempt/uncombed. Some days my curls look luscious and wonderful and others it looks like I don’t own a brush. I still haven’t figured out what factor or behavior of mine determines which outcome it is, though.

      TL;DR – without hiding it in a bun or completely changing the texture/nature of my hair, it’s very difficult to reliably make it look smooth and styled.

      1. the gold digger

        My sister has this gorgeous naturally curly hair. Every time she straightens it, I am in shock – there are women who pay a lot of money to get those kind of curls! And those of us with straight hair that will not hold a curl no matter what really like looking at your beautiful curly hair!

        1. Former Diet Coke Addict

          This is the curse of curly hair. Some days it can be wildly difficult to make it look curly instead of just huge, and no matter what people will tell you they liked it the other way. “WOW, it looks so great and long straight!” “Aw, what happened, I liked your curls!” you just can’t win.

          Curly hair and a professional environment don’t mix for me anyway, because to wear my hair curly requires waking up earlier, a whole routine, and tons of product. Curls are a whole ‘nother ball game.

          1. Hlyssande

            A former roommate had gloriously curly hair that falls in perfect ringlets and she had a nightmare of a time finding someone who could cut it properly. She now seeks out places that specialize in African-American hair because they know how to handle it, but it took a lot of frustration for her to get there.

            It can definitely be a curse in so many ways.

      2. Cath in Canada

        Ah, curly hair. Never looks the same two days in a row.

        The best my hair has ever looked was the winter day I ran out to the store with wet hair, and it froze – I could hear it jangling! When it thawed out it looked fabulous. I haven’t been able to recreate that look since!

        1. miki

          Curly haired person here! Last two days I felt pretty much as a sheep: very frizzy hair doesn’t go/look well in humid weather. I don’t straighten it (ever) so the only reasonable option is a clip halfway through or pony tail. Ugh.

        2. Mints

          Hahah! That’s so funny. I think it makes intuitive sense that it looked amazing because the moisture did the styling with no after effects. But I would rather not risk hypothermia to try it (am I overreacting? That’s sounds nightmarishly cold)

      3. simonthegrey

        Ugh. I have combination hair – perfectly straight on top, but the underneath layer is very wavy and was curly when I was younger. If I wear it down, the underneath gathers “volume” and I end up with big, Hermione-Granger, “Is that what my hair looks like from the back” hair. If I scrape it up into a pony tail, it frizzes at the ends. There is no winning. Straightening it looks nice, but takes forever because it is waist-length and super thick. I wear it in a bun very often. I hate it, but I have no other recourse.

    3. Rebecca

      I thought the same thing – as a staff assistant, are you paying her enough to afford the type of clothing you want her to wear? She may be at the mercy of whatever she can find at thrift shops or consignment shops, and as long as it fits OK, she’s probably good with it.

      1. Sadsack

        OP mentioned clothing doesn’t fit quite right. Even when buying only what one can afford, maybe the conversation will cause the employee to consider this, even if she is shopping at a thrift store. There is a difference between being just being able to fit into something and it actually looking good on.

        1. Allison

          Some people don’t instinctively know what it means to have an outfit fit right. They might not know what counts as too loose or too tight. They might not know that pants and blazers that pucker look bad.

          1. Katie the Fed

            And some of us lose/gain weight faster than a Kardashian marriage (well, gain, losing is always slower). Weight changes are a big part of why people’s clothiing doesn’t always fit.

            1. Sadsack

              Yeah, you and Allison are right. I know when I was younger (and maybe more recently!) when I figured, hey, I can still breathe, so these pants still fit!

            2. Arbynka

              As someone with chronic thyroid condition, amen to that. Unfortunately I am also battling high cortisol levels right now. Screw the weight gain, I am used to that, it’s the way of putting it on. While I have pretty slender arms and legs, I have kind of a hump on my upper back, round moon face and huge stomach. Sometimes when looking at myself in the mirror, I can’t help but think of Humpty Dumpty. Nothing fits right. Nothing. I think I am gonna finally break down and try maternity clothes.

              1. Sarah

                I have a GI illness and I am about to take some pants to the tailor to have maternity waists put on

                1. Soupspoon McGee

                  I’m in the same boat. I’ve had to increase my prednisone in the last few months, which makes me gain weight in weird places (my jeans fit fine in the waist, but the thighs are suddenly too tight). gah!

                2. Nashira

                  Preach. I just bought two pair of new pants because this IBD flare means months of prednisone, and I’m getting weight shift. Haven’t gained, thanks to a new Ingress addiction, but it’s just… Moved.

            3. Julie

              That’s the truth! My thyroid acts up and my meds can’t keep up at times. Last week I swear my pants felt tight and this week I needed a belt and had to go over 2 notches more than usual. I know I look sloppy on the bottom but I can’t wear a dress on days I need to setup events so they’ll just have to do. Next week the pants might look like they are straining. I keep 2 sizes of pants in my closet most of the time and just hope 1 will work but right now I’m in between yet again.

    4. Ezri

      I have frizzy hair too… When it was long (note the past tense), it had good days and bad days. Sometimes I could leave it down and it would be perfectly behaved, other times it would frizz up looking like it had never met a brush. Last year I moved down south (humidity) and had to wear a ponytail or bun every day at work. I ended up cutting it all off. I could have spent the effort making it presentable every day, but I hate messing with my hair soooo much.

    5. Kelly L.

      I have this same hair, and I wear it in a plain braid a lot. I think until a few years ago it presented as frumpy–thank the fashion gods for Katniss, Game of Thrones and Frozen. :D

    6. C Average

      I love my natural curl! I spent years torturing it into something approaching straightness, and at this point I have given all the fucks I can give about that aspect of my appearance. The curls are winning. I don’t care if it gets me pigeonholed.

      The curls, the lack of makeup, and the extremely hippie-ish first name my parents bestowed on me have pretty much carved out my destiny as a free-spirited creative type. I know that’s limited me in the corporate world. As I embark on my freelance journey, I am going to do nothing but embrace it.

      1. Sospeso

        I love the sentiment here. I also have a… creative first name. And curly hair. I don’t mind a bit anymore.

    7. Amy

      You can get really nice office attire on ebay for pennies. There is no excuse anymore for not dressing appropriately for the job.

      1. Laura2

        Yeah, but first you have to know what brands and cuts fit, and not everything on eBay is exactly as described/pictured.

      2. Anonymous For This

        Pennies? Really? Come on now.

        And I’ve looked at, especially the “lots” on ebay and the good stuff is not cheap and the cheap stuff is old and hideous. So, yeah, no “pennies.”

    8. Allison

      That first bit was . . . right on the money.

      My first job paid about $15/hr, and most of my clothes came from H&M. I suppose I could have gotten clothing at higher quality places like Ann Taylor, but then I wouldn’t have money for much else, and saving to move out would’ve been tricky.

    9. themmases

      I have similar hair and I try to just not worry about it. I like my own waves, seriously envy other women whose hair is curlier than mine, and I figure if I am so admiring of this hair type then probably others are too.

      Hair maintenance is an incredibly common topic of conversation, I find (A: “You cut your hair!” B: “Yeah, it’s so much easier now…”), and it’s not exactly unknown that long or curly hair takes work even for unconventional results. If there are seriously people out there who think it needs to be, e.g., flat-ironed to look professional, it sounds like they have managed to go through life without talking to or remembering anything about people even trivially different from themselves. That says a lot.

    10. Traveler

      “I’ve tried to maximize the curl/wave to have someone make a snarky comment like “I guess some people don’t feel the need to comb their hair anymore”

      Ugh. I’m jealous of these people, because they must not have had to struggle with curly/wavy hair. It’s expensive to upkeep both in terms of time and products, and even the best most expensive products won’t keep my hair from looking like a hot mess if its a hot humid day.

      1. Julie

        Yes, yes, and yes. I now pay double for a proper haircut, my product costs an amount that makes me cringe every time, but I look fabulous 19 days out of 20 which is better than my past ratio. Naturally today and its severe thunderstorm warning is that 20th day and the frizz is real and I used up all my spare hair ties. The struggle is real.

    11. Anonathon

      I have super-thick, super-curly hair. I used to watch movies while I de-tangled it in the morning — it took forever. My solution for the past 7-8 years has been keeping it about 3 inches long. When short, my curls get even curlier and they air-dry nice and fast. I do worry sometimes that this makes me look younger than I am though. (A co-worker once referred to me as Curly Sue. Sigh.)

    12. Wander

      Yep, I’m on the same hair boat. My hair’s not curly, but it is very thick, and the waves tend to look unkempt. I can spend 20 minutes brushing it and still look like I just rolled out of bed. (Favorite related story: my boyfriend, who’s hair is very fine, refused to believe mine is just that hard to manage and thus attempted to fine comb it. He spent half an hour on a quarter section of it before giving up.) There are some women for who professional, neat hair is a challenge, and it may take Jane a while to find a style that works for her. This is especially true if she just wasn’t brought up with that kind of thing (which sounds like it may be the case); I still have trouble with buns.

      1. simonthegrey

        And depending on her ethnicity, the standard she’s being asked to hold may not be feasible. I have a friend who, on first glance, does not ‘present’ as her ethnicity (most people ask if she is Hispanic, but she is Black) and she’s said many times that her hair is just not manageable without treatments. She works in a field where it doesn’t matter (we’re all adjuncts here). It’s possible Jane could have issues if the way she’s being told to do her hair won’t work with her ethnicity.

        1. reader

          This. I briefly worked somewhere where the dress code included a “smooth, sleek bun” and if you’re not a white person with naturally straight hair, that just isn’t happening.

          1. DMented Kitty

            I have really straight hair — but it’s so thick (even at shoulder-length) I can never put it in a bun without it falling apart after five minutes. I’ve tried making two buns — still didn’t last. I would need a kilo of bobby pins to put up my hair in a nice bun. I can’t even use rubber bands to put it in a nice ponytail because it’s that thick. That is why scrunchies were my thing. I don’t care if it’s so 90s.

            Unrelated rant: For some reason, my hair seems to be the holy grail of stylists. One thing I loved with the salons in the US (at least the ones I’ve been) is they never question my decision on what to do with my hair. I have my hair long and want them to cut it to chin-length (e.g. minus half a foot), and they do it — back where I grew up in the salons I’ve been, if I made this decision they’d go, “OHHHHHH WHYYYY??? You’re hair is sooooo nice why do you want to cut it off????” Well shut up — my hair, my rules.

    13. Mints

      I would just like to put this out there for everyone commiserating with Katie (my hair also matches that description):

      My favorite hair product ever that I use literally everyday is Aussie “sprunch” leave in conditioner and mousse. (I comb it with a wide tooth comb, put mousse everywhere, twist it, and let it air dry). It costs $3.50 at the drugstore and it’s the elixir of the gods

  8. AMG

    I suppose I’m in the minority for thinking that makeup helps to appear more professional.

    One thing I did really well when I was in college and starting my career was that I was seasonal (i.e., Christmas) help at Banana Republic. They had a great discount program for their staff and I was able to stock up on a great professional wardrobe relatively inexpensively.

    1. Katie the Fed

      It’s one thing to think it, but it’s another to tell someone that essentially their face isn’t good enough for the job and needs some help

      1. some1

        This. I feel more comfortable in make-up (and with shaved legs, for that matter), but I don’t care what other women do.

    2. hayling

      As a feminist, I hate to say it, but makeup does make women look more professional. I hate wasting time putting it on in the morning (and then taking it off at night), but it does make me look more grown up.

      Also, I’m going to guess that “Jane” isn’t skipping the makeup as a way to combat gender norms – she either a) doesn’t know that her unprofessional image is hurting her career, b) is too rushed in the morning to bother, c) doesn’t feel like she knows how to do her makeup nicely, or d) a combination of the above.

      1. TheLazyB

        I dunno. With me it’s a) environmental and b) feminist. It has been for about 15 years. I look professional these days, but back then, I had poor clothing choices as well. Might be unlikely but definitely not impossible.

      2. Adam

        Would you say that’s because of a cultural expectation of professional women wearing makeup, or does it more have to do with the clothes women wear should tie into her more general appearance, sort of like how men don’t look professional with bad haircuts and unkempt fingernails.

        Or is it something else entirely?

      3. Judy

        I remember once at my first job out of college, a female colleague stated that if her skin was as nice as mine, she wouldn’t wear makeup. I promptly responded that if I wore makeup, I’d need to wear makeup to cover my skin blemishes. I learned that one in high school, that my skin doesn’t play well with makeup. No one has ever mentioned me not wearing makeup in a work setting over the last 20 years.

        Just last year, a friend who stopped wearing makeup stated that the first few weeks, her skin flared quite a bit, and then it became so much nicer than it ever had been.

        I try to make healthy eating choices, why would I put all those chemicals onto my skin to be absorbed?

        1. Marcela

          Because everything is a chemical? Seriously, I’m trying to have a healthy lifestyle, so I understand the challenges, but it is ridiculous that we are using “chemical” as synonymous of artificial, synthetic or toxic. Everything is made of chemical elements, hence everything is a chemical sustance.

      4. Too old for this

        Make up can make a woman look more professional, but IMHO, only when it’s so understated as to be almost unnoticeable. It quite often (to me) makes a woman look less professional. Depends a lot on how it is done.
        It strikes me a very weird that so many see it as somehow required. I see it as little different from requiring the veil. If women’s faces are not acceptable, unaltered, what’s the difference between a few layers of makeup and some fabric? Cost, mostly. The veil is reusable.

    3. Lanya

      No, I’m with you, makeup absolutely does help to appear more professional.

      It doesn’t always need to become a ‘men-don’t-have-to-wear-makeup-so-neither-should-I’ equality type of argument, especially since there are some men who do wear makeup. Makeup is just a type of war paint that boosts the wearer’s confidence and self-esteem. It’s not really for others.

      But I would never suggest to an employee that they should wear it. It’s a very personal choice.

      1. Ann without an e

        Look at it this way, men have to shave and I don’t. It takes way less time to slap on mascara and gloss that it does to shave a face. Like Jeff Foxworthy says, “Men and women are the same just in different ways.”

        Example: Women share scented candles, if we smell something nice we share it: Courtesy Sniff

        Men: “Will share the most disgusting smell they have recently discovered in an attempt to out do each other, like those gym socks that festered in a dark bag for a week: Courtesy Sniff”

        Its a great skit and is an analogy for most things men vs. women

        1. Helka

          So does a woman who has to shave then get a “get out of makeup free” card?

          The point is that all of this “men do this, women do that” crap reinforces the same kind of rigid gender roles that hold women back in a lot of areas. It’s not a good thing, or even a value-neutral thing.

          1. Joey

            that’s a bit unrealistic no? Surely you don’t think all clothes between genders are interchangeable and acceptable at work.

            1. Helka

              I’m curious where you got that out of my comment.

              I’m calling out the notion that “well, men shave, so women should wear makeup” as falsely dichotomous, and the general idea of “women do these things and men do those things and that’s just how society is” as being an integral part of the social dynamic that disadvantages women in the workplace

              1. Joey

                Correct me if I’m wrong but it sounds like your argument is the standards for women and men should be exactly the same. If that’s what you’re saying that’s not realistic. Similar professional expectations, yes, but not the same.

                1. Helka

                  No, my argument is exactly what I said it is.

                  – “Men shave, so women should wear makeup” is falsely dichotomous.

                  – “Women (implied: all women) do these things and men (implied: all men) do those things, ne’er the twain shall meet, and that’s just how things are” is a foundation of the rigid gender roles that disproportionately disadvantage women.

                  That is my argument.

                  For the record, though, I do think standards should be the same for men and women. If Bob from accounting wants to come to work in a kilt, more power to him! Just make sure it comes down to his knees, same as Sally in Finance with her business skirt.

        2. Worbs

          “Look at it this way, men have to shave and I don’t. ” Wow, you get away with having unshaved legs all the time too? Man, I wish I was that lucky.

          1. Tinker

            Yeah, I’m also thinking that probably places where men who grow facial hair (#notallmen, y’all) are required to shave probably are not places where women who grow facial hair would get away with open displays of same.

        3. Tinker

          Hmm. What sort of scents does Jeff Foxworthy say that nonbinary people share?

          (Judging from my hyperlocal experience, the answer seems to be BPAL sample vials.)

      2. the_scientist

        As a member of the adult acne club, I almost always wear (expensive, skin-friendly) makeup. Not a lot, but enough to even out my skin tone/hide blotchiness/cover up my ridiculous dark circles. I don’t know that makeup necessarily makes me look more professional, but it certainly makes me look more polished. I think it can be tricky to distinguish between the two- it’s like the dude wearing the too-large off the rack suit and the dude wearing the immaculately tailored suit. They are both dressed professionally, but one is going to look more polished and that might be really important in certain places.

      3. Molly

        It absolutely does have to be an equality thing. We live in a world where women, practically from birth, are made to feel like they need to wear “war paint” in order to be acceptable in public. Men have the privilege of choosing what to do with their own faces when they wake up in the morning, and it doesn’t much affect their income or career prospects. Many, many women don’t have that privilege.

        We can’t separate make-up from feminism by arguing that we’re “choosing” to do it because it makes us feel confident; we only feel more confident wearing make-up because we’ve been trained by society to think we’re not good enough without it.

        1. Joey

          Um I beg to differ. Regular shaving, plucking, trimming, grooming are all things most men I know do in an effort to look polished. Granted we don’t usually do makeup, but you’re making it sound like men can just role out of bed and go straight to work.

          1. Katie

            Women are expected to do every one of those things you listed if “needed” and are expected to do even more- makeup, hair that requires more styling than a comb and gel, and clothing that is much more binding and shoes that are unsupportive (yes, of course anyone can opt out, but then there’s often a negative consequence to not adhering to societal expectations) . I can’t believe there are commenters here arguing that men have equal pressure by society to maintain their appearance. They absolutely don’t.

        2. Lanya

          Don’t forget that makeup has been around since people could grab berries and rub them on their lips and cheeks. Long before advertising or feminism was a thing. Back then, nobody was brainwashed by society to think that applying berries would make them look better…they just looked at their reflection in the local pond and saw that it really did make them look better. That’s why this does not have to be a an equality thing. It can just be a simple matter of aesthetics.

          Also, last time I checked, Big Advertising was not holding me up against my mirror every morning at 8pm to make sure I make the right choice for my face as a woman. I’m pretty sure men and women both have the privilege of choosing what to do with our faces every single day.

          1. Sospeso

            Yes, but our perception of what’s aesthetically pleasing is based – at least in part – on our experiences. We have all picked up on cultural standards of beauty/attraction/what-have-you through our life experiences.

          2. Tinker

            In theory, sure, makeup can be entirely an aesthetic thing that doesn’t involve inequality at all — men and women can wear makeup if they want to or refrain if they want to. As you say, people of all genders and in all cultures have worn various forms of makeup and other sorts of aesthetic enhancements. Eyeliner can be a great look on a guy, and I’m 100% in favor of seeing more of that around. If they want to, that is. Is that what you’re going for here?

    4. Xanthippe Lannister Voorhees

      Properly applied makeup can make you look more professional. That pendulum can swing the other way real fast.

      1. Mimi

        I agree. A light, skillful application of makeup is professional.

        It may not be politcally correct to say so, it may not be fair, you may not like it, but appearance counts in the workplace, or we wouldn’t be discussing this at all. And makeup for women is part of it. And in some jobs in order to move up you need to follow the norms and expectations for appearance and attire.

    5. Taryn

      We have the idea that makeup makes women look more professional because we have cultural conditioning to expect a higher level of facial flawlessness from women than from men. You’re definitely not the only person who thinks it looks more professional, AMG, but that opinion in general because of our cultural expectations of how women present themselves. It’s certainly up to individual women whether they want to make that sacrifice for workplaces where that cultural expectation is more prominent than in other offices (for women who would not otherwise want to wear makeup on a regular basis), but the sense that makeup makes a woman more professional cannot exist objectively, as the whole thing is so entrenched in a sexist culture that we’ve all been raised in.

      1. Joey

        This is like saying suits arent objectively professional because we’ve only conditioned ourselves to define them that way……and your point is?????

        1. Violet Rose

          Saying that suits look professional is not inherently sexist; people of all genders wear suits.

          Saying that members of one (and only one) gender *should* wear make-up to look professional is a sexist double standard.

          1. Traveler

            Though, when yoga-pant gate happened, there was a great post on how suits are “too sexy” for men to wear in the work place.

          2. Joey

            oh gosh, how can everything be exactly equal when we’re different. men don’t get to wear open toed shoes in the summer or dresses or short sleeved dress shirts or go without a constricting tie in many places or have long hair.
            We’re too different to have the exact same appearance standards.

            1. Traveler

              It’s generally frowned upon for women to wear open toed shoes at work. Or at least, most of the places I’ve worked at have banned this, and not just because of potential injuries.

              I’ve not worked at a place that banned men from wearing short sleeved dress shirts however. Is this a conservative business thing?

              1. Joey

                Yes in many professional offices women can wear short sleeves, sling backs, peeptoes and other shoes that are much cooler than men’s dress shoes. And Short sleeved dress shirts on men aren’t considered professional. They’re more a blue collar dress shirt or casual wear.

                1. Traveler

                  I think that depends on where you live, as I’ve known a host of men that work in white collar jobs that wear nice polos or short sleeved dress shirts during the summer for this very reason. One place I can remember that was especially conservative. So I don’t know that the dividing line is white/blue collar. But I could see where company culture or industry could come into play.

                  As a side note, they may not be as cool, but maybe more comfortable?

            2. jhhj

              Are there a significant number of business-appropriate open-toed men’s shoes or slingbacks? I’ve never seen these, just casual sandals.

              In any case, saying “well, things are unfair in X ways” doesn’t lead to “things must also stay unfair in Y ways to balance the unfairness”. Also, note that men wearing standard business shoes year-round is actually cheaper for them than summer and winter shoes. Makeup is just plain an expense in both money and time that men don’t have.

        2. esra

          The point is men can go to work without makeup on with all the same skin issues a woman might have and it isn’t a problem. If two people, equally dressed, hair done appropriately, are in the office, they are equally professional.

        3. themmases

          I think this is an important point because many professional norms are social norms, and therefore very little is “objectively professional”. Those norms change with time and place and depending on who is participating in them. Suits are a great example because they have been with us as a professional norm for a long time. But even they aren’t eternal. And their style, who wears them, and when have obviously changed a lot even within living memory.

          I would even say that it’s *inevitable* for social norms (and therefore professional norms) to change. Since we know professional norms will change with time anyway, it’s reasonable and even responsible to think about what changes we want to see and to consider whether “professionalism” is getting more or less fair and inclusive.

          There are obvious benefits to adhering to professional norms, which makes sense because people invented them. Maybe my patients feel at ease because they see me as a competent person with good hygiene. Maybe I benefit personally from getting other people to see me as conscientious. But that doesn’t make the content of specific norms benign if they exclude competent people or are more expensive for some groups than others. That’s when it becomes important to think about whether something is “objectively professional”– as professionals who can change the expectation and as people who want to treat one another fairly.

          1. Sospeso

            “That’s when it becomes important to think about whether something is ‘objectively professional’– as professionals who can change the expectation and as people who want to treat one another fairly.”

            This, yes.

      2. fposte

        I’m not sure it’s as cultural as you make it sound, though. I’m thinking about the studies where people generally prefer faces with more luminance–contrast between the dark and the light, basically. I think that’s more deeply wired, along the lines of standards of beauty working across cultures.

        1. Katie

          But that’s true for attractiveness of both men and women, yet only women are expected to wear makeup (and men would generally be dinged for wearing it!).

      3. Michelle

        Exactly, Taryn. Spot-on.

        Being raised by a single father with virtually no female role models other than teachers, make-up was not high on the list of priorities. I do not feel like it has held me back and I currently work in a office where every other woman wears full make-up and spend tons of time checking their compacts to make sure it stays in place and is smudge-free. I do get compliments on my complexion quite a bit from my female coworkers and even my boss. He said “Your skin is rosy and glowing”.

        I tried make-up once when I was in my 20’s. I spent a pretty penny on Merle Norman products because they were supposed to be so good. It just made me break-out and look like I had eczema on my face.

    6. Amy

      I think make-up is regional, cultural and may relate to the type of business. In New York it’s rather standard. In more casual parts of the country it’s probably not that important.

    7. Traveler

      It makes you appear more professional if you know how to do it properly. Meaning, you have a foundation that is the correct shade (very difficult to do on the cheap if you don’t have a common skin tone) and you fix it midway through the day when and if it oxidizes, everything is well blended, your mascara and eyeliner aren’t smudged or applied wonky, etc. There’s a lot of places you can trip up, and I think there are a lot of people who (for good reason) do not want to spend time or money on it. I’d rather see a bare face than a bunch of makeup mishaps because I find that far more distracting.

      1. Nerdling

        It’s amazing how much of a difference being able to apply it correctly makes! When I was younger, I used the whole gamut of products: concealer, foundation, powder… But it never was quite the right shade or applied right, so I didn’t look all that well put-together. Now, I use a specific type of concealer, basic powder, and some tinted gloss or lipstick, and suddenly it all works because I know what I’m doing now. But it’s taken over a decade to figure it out and to be at a point where I can splurge on the more expensive brands without feeling like I’m taking money away from something else we’re saving for that we need more.

  9. Adam

    I think Alison’s response is great, framing it more as a mentor type conversation rather than a performance one. The employee looks to do great enough to continue her regular job, but if she wants to move up she needs to take things up a notch and sometimes presentation is part of that.

    What I’m curious though is what should the OP do if the manager is of the opposite gender from Jane? Is there a way to handle this subject without stepping in the proverbial “it”? Unfortunately, if I were in the OP’s position I think my natural inclination would be to let things be rather than risk it becoming a thing, even if my staff member and I had an otherwise good relationship.

  10. JMegan

    I would have the conversation at the end of the day if you can, or offer to let her go home right away if she wants. She’ll likely be embarrassed no matter how gently you put it. And the only thing worse than having to have this conversation with your manager, would be to have to go back to the office after the conversation and spend the rest of the day worrying about how you look. If you can give her the space for a graceful exit for the day, that would be a decent thing to do.

  11. some1

    I know it’s an old letter, but are these clothes actually too casual for the dress code, or in the LW’s opinion, too casual to get promoted?

    1. fposte

      I interpreted it as more or less both; not that there was a dress code that she was failing, but that her front of office appearance really wasn’t what the workplace wanted to project, and that it would also prevent her from moving up.

    2. Vanilla

      That’s what I was wondering.

      Several years ago, when I was just starting out in my career, I worked in an environment that had a fairly casual dress code. Because I was broke (and dumb), I wore jeans, sweatshirts, t-shirts, and flip flops constantly. If I had important meetings or client visits, I would dress nicer (a pair of dress pants and an Oxford shirt/cardigan), but if I was just in the office, I would dress very casually.

      Someone mentioned to me that I should dress for the job that I eventually wanted, and I took that advice to heart. I shelled out some money for professional clothes (nothing crazy expensive – mostly shopped the sales at the mall stores) and found a good tailor. I also learned how to properly apply make-up. I looked – and felt – a lot better and as a result, was more confident in my work/abilities. I ended being promoted several times during my time at that company. I think the company viewed me as taking my position seriously and making an effort, especially when other colleagues continued to dress very casually.

      Oddly enough, at my current company, I’m known for being a “fashionista” and I laugh to myself, because I wish they could have seen what I used to wear to work! ;)

  12. Gwen

    I got a version of this talk (it was less “you look sloppy” and more “now that you’re going to be interacting with more senior employees, you probably should wear fewer novelty socks”), and what really helped me was getting specific feedback on outfits/things I was already wearing that were good so I knew what direction my manager was envisioning for me. I was definitely kind of shell-shocked by it (and in my case, it really was a minor change), but I appreciated the feedback & she made it very clear that it was coming from a good place. She wanted me to know this because she wanted me to succeed and grow.

      1. bkanon

        Hah, me too. I actually don’t own any plain socks. I have some very subtle patterns, and I’ll choose them over the neon pink leopard print when necessary, but novelty socks is What I Do.

      2. Hlyssande

        I’ve gravitated more to boring socks in the last few years, but this!!11 Fun socks are a fairly cheap and easy method of retail therapy. And they’re awesome to boot.

      3. brightstar

        I’m wearing turquoise socks with typewriters all over them that I got from Modcloth. I was told to just make sure my pants are long enough to cover them when walking down the hallway.

          1. Christine

            Darn you! I started reading comments at 7:15 am. Clicked on your ModCloth link shortly after, and over an hour later I still haven’t accomplished any work :-)

        1. bkanon

          … Oh sweet green fishes, I have to look for something like that. They sound awesome. I’m wearing bright orange with spiders right now.

      4. Gwen

        I was SO sad about my socks, especially bc novelty socks are all I’ve gotten for holidays/birthday presents from certain family members for YEARS. I will admit that I do occasionally still wear the more subtly patterned ones (hearts over Santa Claus flamingos) if I think they’ll go unnoticed… (shhhhh)

    1. BadPlanning

      It sounds like it was couched in terms of “circumstances changed, so appearance needs to change as well” which might take the sting out of it a bit — versus, “you’ve always look like a mess, but we didn’t bother to say anything until now.”

      1. Gwen

        Yeah, that is definitely true! It’s hard to be upset about “I’d like you to dress more professionally” when it comes along with “…because we’ve decided to offer you a full time position.”

  13. Sparrow

    I had to laugh at the picture on Inc with the guy wearing colorful, striped socks. I wear crazy colored and patterned socks all the time in colder weather. However, I wear them with dress slacks and ankle boots or with tall boots so no one ever sees them. It’s not like mens pants and lower shoes where the socks are exposed.

    1. Persephone Mulberry

      My husband watches NFL Network in the mornings, and although I’m usually too busy getting ready to really watch, I always pause to check what kind of crazy socks the stylist has put all the dudes in that day.

      1. peanut butter kisses

        If George H. Bush can now be known for funky socks, then they must be a part of a professional look, jmo.

      2. Anon369

        In my field (not-conservative finance), and with many lawyers we work with, fun socks and pocket squares on the guys are a thing with suits.

    2. Karyn

      Reminds me of my favorite SVU District Attorney, Rafael Barba. No one has ever accused that dude of not being up to his job, and he wears super bright colored/patterned ties, shirts, suspenders (I never knew these could be so sexy) and socks.

      http://www.tvequals.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Law-Order-SVU-Season-14-Episode-10-Beautiful-Frame-4.jpg – seriously? SERIOUSLY?

      I’m actually going as Lady Barba for Halloween, and I bought myself a skirt suit (needed one anyway) and purple-and-black striped tights. Also need to find suspenders, a tie, and a pocket square, obviously.

    3. ThursdaysGeek

      I don’t even bother with making my wild socks match. I just grab 2 socks from the drawer and go.

    4. Tinker

      Yeah, I’ve often been wearing hand knit socks (some of them in self-striping yarn, some of them in ombre or near-solid colors) with Chrome bike sneakers that are more or less an upscale version of Keds. It’s fun!

  14. Xarcady

    There are probably industries where makeup is expected. I suspect the receptionist at Vogue is expected to wear makeup, as much of the magazine’s advertising is about makeup.

    There are also probably regions of the US where makeup is expected more than in other parts of the country. Where I live, a great many professional women do not wear makeup, or wear only lipstick, while a great many women in pink collar jobs wear a ton of makeup. But in other parts of the US, I think makeup is more the norm.

    A quick check of the 12 women in my department shows two women with makeup on today. One’s the admin assistant, and the other is the youngest professional employee in the department. The VP, the chief manager, the managers (it’s a very woman-centric department), the professional staff with the one exception, do not wear makeup.

    I also think good skin care can take the place of makeup, if all other grooming is up to par. A good haircut, nicely kept fingernails, polished shoes, ironed clothes–all have a part in a well-groomed, professional appearance. I’ve never worn makeup, but I do use good products on my face–to the point where people have thought I was wearing makeup!

    1. HeyNonnyNonny

      OK, as someone who often struggles with skin issues– what do you use that makes your skin look like it has makeup??

        1. _ism_

          That’s about the most I’ll do for makeup on the rare occasions I do. (I’m weird, I put on makeup for a gynecologist appointment AFTER work). Aveeno tinted moisturizer with SPF, and a clear mascara (sometimes I’ll use it as a brow gel because I don’t even bother to neaten up my brows with tweezers very often) and Chapstick.

      1. Karyn

        Tinted moisturizer or a BB cream. I like Laura Mercier Oil-Free Tinted Moisturizer – it’s $40 at Sephora, so it’s expensive, but my tube lasts me for 6 months at a time and I wear it every day. You only need a dime-sized amount to cover your whole face. And it won’t clog your pores because it’s oil free. I have acne-prone skin, and it’s the only one that hasn’t broken me out wildly.

        I will say that a lot of people swear by CoverFX as well – I wasn’t a fan (I was allergic) but so many people buy it from my store (Fancy Makeup Store That Rhymes With Endora).

        1. Guava Cheese

          I second Laura Mercer tinted foundation! I wear no make up, ever, but decided recently I wanted to polish my appearance a little bit as I wanted to move up in my office. I wouldn’t even consider tinted moisturizer makeup since it’s still you, just a “damn, she must have had 8 glasses of water yesterday” you.

          Also, I look for super sales at J.Crew, the Rack, the Loft, etc. It takes time and patience and some penny saving, but it’s worth it!

      2. Xarcady

        Nothing. Really, I found a good-for-my-kind-of-skin skin care line back in my early 20s and have been using it ever since–I’m in my 50s now. I’ve changed products a bit as my skin got less oily and pimply, but that’s about it.

        And I’m pretty faithful about washing/toning/moisturizing my face morning and night, and exfoliating once a week. And lots of exercise, so my cheeks are red. (Well, half the time my entire face is red, but them’s the breaks.) Plenty of sleep, no smoking–I really do think these things show up in your skin.

      3. fposte

        You can wear makeup without touching the vast majority of your face, too. You don’t necessarily have to wear foundation or base–eyeliner, mascara, and lipstick, for instance, are often enough.

      4. Vanishing Girl

        This is seriously not a shill for an infomercial product, but I have been using Proactiv since 1999/2000 and am really happy with it. I don’t use the entire system everyday anymore, but I find the combination of salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide works really well for my skin. That is then followed up by a lightweight unscented moisturizer for sensitive skin.

        Right now I use grapefruit acne control facial wipes, the Proactiv repairing lotion, and moisturizer every day. Then a couple times a week I use the 3-step proactiv system. I never wear makeup and often get compliments on my skin. I also don’t smoke, stay out of the sun, stay pretty well hydrated, and rarely drink. But I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all solution.

        1. Windchime

          I break out if I’m not careful, and I’m in my early 50’s. I tried Proactive many years ago, but it was too harsh–it cleared up the acne, but made my face red all the time.

          The biggest game-changer for me has been gentle exfoliation. Now I just use Aveeno Daily Skin brightening scrub (close enough on the name) and then an Aveeno moisturizer with sunscreen after. That’s it for skincare. I own a Clarasonic but can’t tell you the last time I used it.

          When I wear makeup, I just use Smashbox CC cream as a foundation. Today my skin looked OK and I was tired, so I skipped that.

  15. Erin

    So glad Allison didn’t say to push the make up agenda. I can’t STAND for women in the workplace to be told they have to wear makeup (unless wearing makeup is actually part of performing their job . . . like, if your job is as a Sephora sales associate, then yeah, wear makeup). Sometimes coaching someone in how to dress more professionally gets a little sexist without meaning to (for instance, an employee once objected strongly when it was pointed out that her skirts should try to cover more of her upper thigh, but to me, that isn’t sexist. I would say the same thing to a man who wore his button down shirt unbuttoned so that you could see his chest [and I have]), but in my opinion, telling a woman she needs to wear makeup to be taken seriously is 100% sexist, all the time, no excuses.

  16. C Average

    I know some of you have already discussed the whole makeup topic, but I want to add another reason not to go into talking about makeup in this scenario.

    If Jane has already demonstrated that she’s not entirely clued in about how to dress for work and how to wear her hair, she may not pick up on how much makeup is the right amount, and what kinds are the right kinds. She might simply take the “you need to wear makeup” comment and run with it. And in my experience, wearing the WRONG makeup looks a whole lot worse than just not wearing any at all. I’ve seen some women who wear particularly heavy or dramatic makeup become the topic of unkind gossip, and I’ll bet their seeming obliviousness to makeup norms has cost them some opportunities and respect. They’d be better off going barefaced.

    You could find yourself having a whole ‘nother awkward conversation with her in six months about toning down the red lipstick and blue eye shadow!

    1. Stephanie

      Yup, this. I wear makeup sporadically, but I was pretty clueless. It took going to Sephora and being like “I have no clue what I’m doing.” And even then, it still took practice to figure out the appropriate amount. There are cringeworthy photos of myself where I put on too much foundation it used lip gloss that left me looking like I just ate a greasy burger.

      1. Cath in Canada

        I had to get a friend to do my makeup for my wedding, because I have literally no idea how to do it myself. She did a good job, and I was really happy with the photos, but man what a hassle putting it on, constantly touching it up, and remembering never to touch your face! I’m so glad I work somewhere where not wearing makeup is seen as perfectly normal.

    2. Allison

      In general, if you give someone a direction to go in, you should probably specify how far they should go in that direction, because you always run the risk that they’ll keep going and going until they hit the other extreme. Or worse, go right to the extreme.

      1. fposte

        And I think this is true for the discussion of clothing and hair, too–the OP would need to point her co-worker to good examples and sources of good information. “Be better than you are” is not a helpful directive.

  17. Cordelia Naismith

    I agree with Alison’s post, but I’d just like to point out that this conversation might be more of a minefield if the employee in question is outside the normal range of clothing sizes — plus size, petite, tall, or what have you. Combine that with a potentially limited budget, and the clothes she’s wearing might be literally the best she can do. Shopping on a budget is always hard, but shopping on a budget when you have a very limited number of stores that carry clothing in your size and those stores are always more expensive than their straight-sized equivalents? That’s just awful.

    1. nona

      +1. I’m tall and I deal with this. I’ve known very short people who had the same problem.

    2. Amy

      You can buy anything online & find something at your price in any size. It’s not like the old days.

      1. Cordelia Naismith

        I am plus sized, and I can say for certain this is not true. Plus sized clothes cost more even when you buy them on the internet. They just do. And, no, I cannot always find pieces that I want in my size or that fit me well. It’s certainly better now than when I was in my 20s, but you are overstating the case.

        1. Hlyssande

          Amen to this! And even places I used to be able to get things reasonably have raised prices like whoa over the last ten years (I’m looking at you, Torrid).

          Trying to find a pair of nice, professional pants anywhere online is going to cost me at least $50 unless they’re clearanced. And that’s out of my price range.

        2. Helka

          Ugh, for real.

          Plus size clothing tends to be very, very bland, have an extremely limited selection, and if whatever 2-3 basic cuts they’re selling this season don’t flatter you, well, too damn bad, because there are so few sellers on the market that do more than just nod in the vague direction of plus sizes, there aren’t alternatives to go look at.

          In addition, this whole business of sizing things 14-16, 18-20, and so on means that it’s quite a bit harder to find a cut that actually fits well enough to look polished. Something vaguely splitting the difference between every other size does not make for well-fitted or flattering clothing, unless you happen to hit the same size as that vaguely-split difference.

        3. Laura2

          Yep. I don’t really understand this idea that you can just shop online and find tons of great stuff that fits well. Part of the problem with online shopping is that you just don’t know how something fits (even with measurements provided) unless you’re actually familiar with the brand. And since we’re talking about getting well-fitting clothes: I’m guessing the employee in question isn’t wearing clothes that are a couple sizes too big/small, but clothes that just don’t fit quite right. I think most people have had the experience of buying something online that technically “fits” but still looks sloppy.

        4. Marie

          Ordering online means potentially ordering a lot of things that won’t fit (not even with tailoring) or look unbelievably awful on you, or look completely different than they did online. Which means returns. Which means shipping and handling (for most online stores, some are free, ModCloth, heyyyyyyy). Which means people who can’t find clothing that fits in brick and mortar stores essentially have to pay a fee to try on clothing.

          Imagine if Target charged you $10 every time you accessed the fitting rooms. And, on top of that, you don’t get to actually touch or look at the clothing until you get into the fitting rooms — they just hand you a catalog, you have to point to what you want, and then pay $10 to go into a room and try it on. If that didn’t fit? You have to pay another $10 to try a size up or size down. You’d probably shop for clothes a lot less often, and conversely, have to set aside A LOT more time to do it (because you’re going to make that $10 count).

          Buying a pair of pants when I could shop in brick and mortar stores was an hour of my afternoon — see an item I like, pick it up, look it over, check the tag, try it on, buy it or don’t. Nowadays, it’s quite a few hours of intense online research (who’s the manufacturer? what are the materials? what’s the sizing chart? are there reviews where people discuss the sizing chart and whether it’s accurate? are there pictures of models wearing it? are there pictures of models who look like *me* wearing it? are there pictures in different lighting so I can see if the color is accurate? is it see-through? can I get a close-up of the stitching?), then ordering, then waiting for it to arrive, then trying it on, then possibly sending it back with more of my money because it was cheaply stitched, see-through, not the color it appeared to be on the website, and looked awful, all things I could have just known for free and with ten minutes of handling in a store.

          “Just get it online!” is what people who have never had to depend on online shopping say (not to mention, my god, imagine if I spill coffee on or rip or lose through and airline luggage fiasco some of my best clothing — I can’t just nip out to the store to get a new one!).

      2. Lia

        Oh, how I wish. I am tall with a very short torso and long legs, and I avoid online shopping for any garments. I really need to try things on in person, and I do not have the money or the time to handle endless trips to the post office to return most stuff that doesn’t fit.

      3. Xarcady

        You can find clothing in any size on the internet. Finding good quality professional-looking clothing at a reasonable price is a lot more difficult.

        Finding average quality plus-size clothing? Stuff that will hopefully last 2-3 years? You’re looking at *sale* prices of $50 or more for a pair of pants, $40 or more for a shirt/top, $90 or more for a jacket.

        And a lot of the more affordable plus-size clothing is a) simply not professional, b) frequently very trendy, so it will be out of date in a year, which is not practical on a limited budget and c) very poor quality, so it will look worn and unprofessional in a few months.

        I live on the East Coast, in a built-up, settled area, but not in a major metropolitan area. I have to drive at least an hour to get to a brick and mortar store that sells plus-size professional clothing. The malls near me have either trendy, young 20s goth stuff, or fuddy-duddy old lady clothing. Chic, timeless suits or separates? Have to drive an hour and a half to Boston to have a hope of finding anything, and when I do, it will be expensive.

        And a last note about buying on line–returns simply add to the cost of building a wardrobe. I have three pairs of pants ordered online from the same company–and they are three different sizes. Ordering your usual size doesn’t always work, when the company messes with the cut and fit of an item. Spending $7-$10 to return an item is $7-$10 you can’t spend on upgrading your wardrobe. It would be easier and cheaper to shop in a real store, where I could try on the clothes and only buy those which fit and flatter.

        1. fposte

          FWIW, it’s not necessarily the company messing with the fit. Companies move manufacturing around to different suppliers, and that’s enough to make a considerable difference sometimes.

        2. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)

          Also, there are in fact sizes that you can’t find, even on the internet. Plus sizes up to 24W are pretty well served. Up to 32W there are some options, but not likely “professional” clothing. Above 32W? There’s essentially nothing out there that isn’t custom made.

      4. Kathryn T.

        Buying clothes online where you can’t try them on is a minefield, though, particularly if you have fit issues beyond just size like “broad shoulders” or “short waist” or “giant, ham-like upper arms,” not that I’m bitter about the current trend for sleeves to be cut extremely closely or anything

    3. B

      I’m petite, do not make a lot of money, and a bit chesty. How do I find clothes that wear well and I can afford… sales at good quality outlet shops (Bannna Republic and Ann Taylor Loft especially), signing up for emails from those same stores for discounts at the regular shop, Marshalls & TJ Maxx.

    4. Brett

      +1
      I’m a male with 23″ inseam and 36″ waist. Off the rack is impossible. Even finding off the rack that can be tailored to fit is extremely difficult. I actually used to wear misses petite size 2 back 15 years ago when I had a 26″ waist, but those days are long gone.
      The online custom stores typically want $150+ just for a basic pair of jeans and several hundred of a pair of dress slacks with those sizes.
      (A 27″ shirt length with a 33″ sleeve length 18″ neck, 44″ chest 16″ bicep is no piece of cake to find either, but a lot more can be done with tailor shirts off the rack. The cheapest suits for me are way over $1k.)

  18. LizNYC

    I’m a few years removed from “early in my career,” and I still have conversations with myself in the morning: “Is this OK for the office? Would [stylish person from the office] wear this?”

    Women’s professional clothing is a huge potential landmine, which I’ve learned reading Corporette. Giving her specific things to keep in mind, like “collared shirts are best” or “don’t wear jeans other than Friday,” could go a long way. You could also suggest, if she’s just starting to build her wardrobe, of taking up a “uniform” of sorts, like cardigan + shell + dress pants/skirt + nice-looking flats/heels (they don’t have to be expensive!).

    1. C Average

      There used to be this amazing website called thestyleup.com. (It seems to have gone inactive, unfortunately, and I’ve never found anything to replace it.) You’d sign up and they’d send you an email every night with an outfit suggestion based on a profile you set up and on the weather forecast for your zip code. It really helped me know learn how to dress in a corporate environment. Sometimes I ignored the advice because I just didn’t care, but at least when I was dressing badly I *knew* I was dressing badly.

      (And that’s something the OP should be prepared for: for Jane to shrug, say something noncommittal, and not change. If she’s within the dress code and likes the way she looks, she might find the advice perfectly valid but still choose to disregard it based on her own comfort and tastes.)

        1. C Average

          Just checked it out. Apparently I only own and want to wear floaty black dresses with various scarves. I knew this, but it’s nice to have a second opinion.

          (I am still awaiting the demise of skinny jeans and pencil skirts. I’ll keep waiting. I’m patient.)

          1. esra

            Skinny jeans are so comfortable though! Just like tights. I want tights to be in fashion forever and ever.

            1. Windchime

              For me, skinny jeans = strangled thighs and butts, and can’t sit down. And despite what a lot of people think, they don’t look good on everyone.

            2. Clever Name

              ???

              If tights were made with denim and had no give. Or maybe you’re thinking of “jeggings”, which are a knit fabric printed to look like denim.

            3. DMented Kitty

              I don’t mind skinny jeans that are more straight-cut than those that are as tight as a scuba suit. They give my legs room to breathe, and I don’t feel like a bratwurst. I am petite, and these help me look a little less short (I also still have boot-leg cut jeans).

              Oh god, I’m now addicted to elastic-waistband jeans — I have like five pairs of them. I think I won’t go back to button-down jeans anymore. Elastic-waistband jeans reduces the muffin-top effect as well as plumber’s butt, and I can visit a buffet and pig out without feeling like a noose is being tightened around my midsection every minute. Granted the elastic-bands are pretty high-waisted but with my personal style I hardly tuck-in shirts anyway, so it works.

          2. Soharaz

            I saw that high waisted jeans came back in with the 70s style resurgence and got ridiculously excited. My SO did not understand my squeals of glee as I read my copy of Elle.

    2. Cordelia Naismith

      Interchangeable basics! Slacks + blouses/tops + jacket/blazer/cardigan = a work-appropriate outfit. Two out of the three pieces should be in a neutral color, like black, gray, navy, white, dark brown, etc. Then the third piece can be whatever color/pattern you want, and the whole thing looks put-together.

    3. themmases

      I agree, rules like this and having a uniform have helped me a lot. Women’s clothing can really be a minefield because even if you buy a bunch of lovely, theoretically appropriate things you still have to put them together. I used to have some beautiful, slightly oversized yet not baggy sweaters (I bought them in multiple colors they were so great) that were modest and fun with a pencil skirt, really sloppy in retrospect with trousers. Not that it stopped me when I had to be at work by 7 a.m. and just wanted to cover myself.

      The blog Already Pretty has helped me a lot. She writes frequently about picking a favorite silhouette you can do over and over again, being creative with what you already own, making an outfit a little more special when you’re not sure what’s off about it, and figuring out what kind of clothes make you happy so you can put your thought and money into that. She also posts excellent links and has a great, diverse group of co-bloggers who have various styles and sizes. The blog isn’t all about work clothes but I think it definitely applies.

  19. Amy

    Just go ahead and say it and don’t worry about offense. Dressing appropriately for your position is part of working life and she needs to know what the standards are. (It should have been explained on her first day at work, but better late than never)

  20. Stephanie

    I might be in the minority that makeup can make her look more professional. That being said, she just needs a polished face, which can be achieved many ways, makeup being one method.

    Going to the threader regularly and getting my eyebrows cleaned up and my upper lip and chin hair removed (thanks for the hirsute genes, Mom!) helps me keep a groomed appearance without makeup.

    1. Hlyssande

      Does threading hurt more or less than waxing? I’ve always wanted to try it. My moustache is mostly invisible but my eyebrows definitely get a bit bushy if I’m not careful. And all the chin hair. Yep.

      1. Karyn

        Threading hurts in a different way than waxing. It feels more akin to plucking but taking out ALL the hair at once instead of one by one. I am in and out in 10 minutes flat, the lines are perfect, it gets all the baby hair, and no redness afterward! I’m addicted.

        Plus, my place is $10 for a brow thread, whereas waxing is upwards of $25. Much more economical, and it lasts longer the more often you do it. I’ve been threading mine for a year now and I only have to go once every 6-8 weeks.

      2. Stephanie

        What Karyn said. I find the chin hair removal pretty painless. I prefer it as I found waxing broke me out or caused ingrowns. (I wish my moustache was invisible. :( )

      3. Cordelia Naismith

        Depends. I once had a threader who was older and obviously very experienced — it would just take her a few minutes, and, boom! She was done. It was pretty awesome. That barely hurt at all, it was so fast. Then she retired and the salon got a new aesthetician who had been trained as a threader but had not had much practice at it. She was slow. Very, very slow. Imagine all the hair on your chin and upper lip being ripped out by the roots as…slooooooly…as…possible.

        Yeah. I did not go back. Waxing all the way.

        1. katamia

          This is what happened to me, too, except that I never had the benefit of an experienced threader, just the horrible pain. I’m never having threading done again.

    2. Sospeso

      “That being said, she just needs a polished face, which can be achieved many ways, makeup being one method.” We tend to expect men to keep “polished faces,” too – trimmed/no facial hair, consistent haircuts, etc. (Well, for the most part. There are obviously industries where less importance is placed on this.) It seems reasonable for the OP to frame it this way, if the OP would have a similar conversation with a male staff member.

  21. Mallorie, the recruiter

    I just thought you all might like to know I’m wearing a Little Mermaid shirt today.

    ….I hope no one has this conversation with me. Having been with this company for 8 years, that would be pretty awkward.

    “Mallorie, no one takes you seriously because your shirt has ‘Princess 89’ on the back of it.”

      1. Mallorie, the recruiter

        My building is SUPER casual. Jeans everyday. I wouldn’t be surprised if some people were like, Really? about this shirt, but its definitely not outside the realm of normal. We are non-customer facing and I ALWAYS dress nicer for meetings and whatnot… but still. My Disney clothes do probably raise eyebrows.

        Also in my repertoire:
        a tie-dye dinner shirt
        a Paddy’s Pub shirt
        a ‘Trust me, I’m a doctor’ Dr. Pepper shirt
        a Power Rangers shirt

        ….I’ll see myself out now.

    1. Rita

      I work at a small software development company, where we never have clients visit (we always visit them). Our dress code is super casual. I’m pretty sure the president of our company regularly wears track pants every other day.

      I have a Marvel Tokidoki shirt on today, with a grey zip up sweatshirt and jeans. I rarely blowdry my hair, let alone put on makeup (which I own several hundred dollars worth, and I’m pretty handy at applying it). But if I’m going to a meeting or a conference, professional all the way.

    2. LP

      My fiancé only wears video game themed or what I call ” ’90s kid” themed shirts to his non-customer facing IT job. Power Rangers, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Mario are all in his repertoire, and it’s complete normal there.

      Meanwhile I’m buying everything on Corporette’s Frugal Fridays when I get paid because I’m trying to look more professional now. This morning I accidently grabbed vertical striped pants and a horizontal striped shirt. Dressing in the dark is fail.

  22. Amy

    I have had this conversation with a few people, and I have underdressed in a couple of positions.

    In the internet age, someone on a tight budget can go to ebay and find acceptable work wear for a song. You can buy nice slacks or a skirt for the same price as a pair of jeans. Payless shoes sells pumps. Blouses go on sale all the time.

    My problem with the OP is delaying the talk. It should happen on the day of hiring: we expect you to dress in office attire because you are on the front line. Then the first time she shows up in the wrong thing, say “that’s not what I meant by office attire.” If the hiree doesn’t understand, then explain it.

    1. Brett

      It’s not that simple for everyone. Last time I was in Payless, I found 3 pairs of shoes in the entire store that fit me (including the kids section). Even checking the Payless website, they only currently carry two styles of dress shoes that fit me.

    2. fposte

      Agreed–it’s a much bigger thing because it’s gone on so long.

      Brett–is even Zappo’s a barren desert for you? That’s really frustrating! I’m one of those people whose sartorial world expanded with the internet–I don’t really buy anything at brick and mortar retail any more.

      1. Brett

        Yep, Zappo’s and a few other places do have shoes in my size. But everything on Zappo’s in my size is over $100, and most shoes are in the $170-$250 range. I can always eventually find clothing that fits; but I have to pay a significant premium for it.

        1. Cordelia Naismith

          At least they have free shipping if you need to return anything? Man, I’m sorry. That must be really hard to deal with.

        1. DMented Kitty

          Hear, hear! 365-day returns! :)

          I always get complimented on my shoes by my coworkers, and I think they are pretty tired of asking me where I got them, because I keep saying, “I got them online — Zappos.” (or Amazon, for clothes).

          I’ve long since given up with going to stores — I’ve tried Payless or Aldo stores several times and I always couldn’t find a shoe that I’d go crazy for — I used to buy some from them but these shoes don’t last long even with non-extensive use. I’ve long since decided that I would rather put more money down for quality and comfort (I look very closely at undersole traction, footbed comfort/material, strap material, etc.). I have shoes that have lasted me years (and counting) — and the only problem I have is that now I don’t have an excuse to buy more shoes because none of them broke.

  23. Alma

    When preparing for one summer internship, I found two linen-look blazers on sale (one in navy, one in cream), and bought six cotton t-shirt like dresses from “The End of the Land” in different colors. They mixed and matched, and were very easy to care for. With scarves, belts, or chunky jewelry, the look changes again. It was like the man’s suit thing – after the first week, no one would’ve noticed that I had worn the same thing two days in a row because it was my uniform.

  24. Bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover

    I’m just wondering what Jane wore to the interview. She presumably fitted the organization’s standards then. Or maybe it wasn’t a deal breaker at the time.

  25. AW

    It’s important to remember that there’s a difference between most people doing something is not the same thing as there being an expectation that everyone do it. Even if most of the women in an office happen to wear makeup doesn’t mean that people look at the few that don’t as odd or less professional. Unless you’re in an industry were it is actually a reasonable expectation (entertainment/fashion) and a lack of make-up, in and of itself, is going to hurt her perception, there’s no reason to bring it up.

    If the OP points to a few women as examples for the employee to follow in looking professional, the make-up part may take care of itself anyway. It might not be right away: as others have pointed out, it takes time to figure out how to put on make-up but it also takes money. If the employee has to choose between nice shirts and pants and buying multiple foundations to find the correct shade, they’re going to buy the clothing first (or at least they ought to).

    1. fposte

      It is tough sometimes to tell whether what you–meaning the OP–view as a standard is really a personal standard, or whether you’ve correctly noted that every other woman in the company does the same thing.

  26. ArtsNerd

    Something that helped me when first building out a work wardrobe was, when shopping for any clothes, to try to figure out if I could dress items up for the office or not. If not, I had to have a VERY good reason for buying it.

    Another one was to “channel” people whose professional sense of style I looked up to. 5 or 6 years ago, I was at Target and saw a top that reminded me so much of a woman in my office who I admired. Ordinarily I wouldn’t have paid it close attention since it felt expensive to me at $20, but bought it. It’s still one of my first work shirts that I wear after laundry.

  27. Today's anon

    When I got my first professional job at a different place, a professional colleague where I was working as an assistant (in jeans) took me out Macy’s and showed me the professional clothes I could wear and how to put them together. It was so incredibly helpful and generous of her. And it gave me a chance to ask questions I would be way too embarrassed to ask at work.

  28. ThursdaysGeek

    A lot of this conversation is making me somewhat grumpy. I know it doesn’t apply to the letter writer, since she is facing customers, and looks do matter there. But I was hired to work behind a computer, I sit in a cube and my bosses are in another state, and what I look like does not affect my work in any way. I’m clean and not offensive to those around me. I also don’t wear makeup ever, do wear my hair down, never do things to my eyebrows, shave my pits, or any of the other things only women are supposed to do. I don’t want to deal with appearances. I’m happy with how I look and my bosses and co-workers are happy with my work.

    Why should what I look like have anything to do with professionalism, as long as I am clean and neat and follow a standard that works for both sexes?

    1. Karyn

      I think the comments above are not saying that you can’t look professional without your hair and makeup done. You don’t have to look like you walked out of a Sephora to look professional! But in some offices, there is a higher expectation (particularly in “visible” roles) of dress/grooming than in others. My brother can roll into his office in jeans and a t-shirt. I can’t. My sister can have tattoos showing. I can’t. Fancy Makeup Job requires makeup. My office doesn’t, though most women wear it.

      I think the point is that, like it or not, we are all judged somewhat on the way we present ourselves to the world. Tim Gunn kind of put it well: you don’t have to look like a runway model, but what you wear (in the sense of fit, style, and appropriateness for the occasion) and how you put yourself together does make an impact on how others see you. For example, if I show up to my office in a full business suit at my Fancy Makeup Job, people would look at me funny, because even though it’s professional, it’s not appropriate for my particular situation. It’s not about WHAT you wear, it’s about being on point for whatever your particular environment requires.

      I hope any of this made sense.

      1. Rebeck

        I adore Tim Gunn, but he lives in NYC and has money. I’ve been trying to revamp my wardrobe (I have a uniform for work) and I am reaching the conclusion that I will have to sew my own if I want colours and styles that even vaguely suit me. Online stores use American sizing that I can’t even begin to translate into something meaningful, and I don’t have a good eye for how things will look on me as opposed to a clothes hanger.

        We’re going to the city for the weekend so I suppose I could try to take advantage of the city stores, but our weekend is already planned to the gills and I doubt there will be time. And in the stores around home, well, if coral and lime green are not your colours, wait till next year.

        1. Karyn

          That’s true, he does live in NYC and has money, but he shops at J Crew! He doesn’t own Tom Ford. He goes out of his way to say that you don’t have to wear expensive clothing – you just have to look appropriate. And I WISH I could sew my own clothing because I am a… well endowed girl with a small waist and hips. So nothing ever fits unless I have it tailored. :(

    2. fposte

      On the one hand, I agree and am happy I’m at a similar job. On the other, though, why should neat matter, and what do we mean by neat? Why does clean–say, dirty hair–matter as long as it doesn’t smell? Why should going barefoot matter as long as nobody steps on a nail? Why should it matter what font you use and how you organize your resume?

      It’s all custom. None of it has any kind of real logical justification behind it. But how we observe custom is how we identify and position ourselves socially and professionally. I’ve positioned myself as somebody who does well in a realm where most of those things don’t matter, but plenty of other customs matter here that don’t elsewhere, and you’re not going to do well if you can’t read or adhere to those customs.

      1. ThursdaysGeek

        All true. I’ve used the line that I’m a geek, I’m not supposed to know how to dress myself, and so many people fall for that stereotype that I can get away with it. :)

        I guess it is fine that others consider all those customs important, and fortunate for me that I’m in a job where it doesn’t seem as important. Although being able to come to work barefoot in the summer would be awesome!

      2. _ism_

        Footwear dress code is important for safety regulations in many workplaces – closed-toe shoes in a place where it’s possible to drop stuff on your foot, you need non-skid soles on hard floors in a high activity area, don’t wanna expose innocent patients to your fungus, heel height limits reducing the risk of employee accidents, etc.

  29. Too old for this

    Allison’s advice is good. In my early working years and first and only corporate job, an older woman coworker made a “mentoring” attempt like this with me. It was well intentioned, I’m sure, but backfired badly. I was probably perceived as somewhat “unkempt” as well, had trouble with findly a professional style in the days of big shoulders and mannish big bows with suits. So this coworker took me aside and offered to help me, go shopping with me, even buy me some things. Problem was I didn’t like her style, which was very preppy…professional, perhaps, but unattractive to me. And it seemed very paternalistic. It really pissed me off. I politely declined the help, saying I would be uncomfortable accepting such a gift and that our personal tastes were very different. If she had said anything about makeup it would likely have sparked a less polite reply including full on feminist rant. In retrospect, it did make me think more about professional dress. May have been another thing that led me off the corporate path. (I always used to say, I would have been a lawyer if I could stand to wear pantyhose.)
    So in addition to advice here, I’d add, do not offer to pay, and make sure you precede anything with “what are your goals, do you want to move up here, and are you interested in advice on that?” And if her goals are to leave that job/field/area, and no, and no, do not give unasked for advice.

  30. Lunchy

    I’m so glad the makeup comment was addressed. If someone suddenly told me I had to wear makeup, I’d be at a loss. I’m 26 and have never worn makeup. My mom lives 250+ miles away, and I have no friends who know about makeup, so I’d be on my own in learning how to put it on. Not to mention how expensive makeup can be, and now I have to factor in additional time in the morning to look “just so.” It’s incredibly sexist. Jane can look professional without wearing makeup. Any woman can.

    1. fposte

      I don’t wear makeup either, but the fact that you don’t have friends who wear makeup doesn’t mean you can’t learn to, any more than having friends who live in yoga pants means you can’t learn how to dress more professionally. There’s a whole wide internet of great information out there :-).

    2. Karyn

      There is some GREAT drugstore makeup out there (currently wearing Full & Soft mascara by CoverGirl and Revlon balmstain!) and YouTube is a godsend. I learned to do winged eyeliner that way!

    3. Lola

      What I’ve found through experience is that: yes, as Allison says, you don’t need makeup to look professional. But for most women past certain age, you do need makeup to look alive and well. Otherwise, people come to you and ask if you’re sick. That doesn’t inspire confidence.

  31. Lisa

    I really wish OP would consider giving this employee a gift card to go get some clothes especially if she is the front line person. You are making it part of her job, but probably not paying her enough money to buy new clothes in one shopping trip. If you want the change to happen more quickly, but can’t up her salary – consider a one-time gift card to macy’s – with the express understanding that she come away with at least 3-5 professional outfits from this petty cash offer.

  32. Laura

    This could be about me. I recently lost 20lb and none of my clothes fit. My hair is basically terrible, and I almost never wear makeup. And I know in the longer term it is holding me back. But for now I cant…. I have a negative amount of money coming in each month, I commute 4 hours a day by public transit and I get about half the sleep I need because 2 year old. So getting up earlier, finding someone to watch the baby while I clothes shop, and having the budget for an extra bus ticket, much less new clothes that may not fit long is really more than I can manage. Some of my bills are hopefully going away soon and my husband is starting to make some money. I have been hanging onto my excellent performance at my first professional job by my fingernails for the last 6 months. I know my appearance is not adequately professional, but to be sat down and lectured on it by my boss would probably be the opposite of encouraging.

    When all the pieces come together for my family to move to where I work, or I pay off my bills, I can assure everyone that my work presentation will be high on the list of what to focus on.

    If someone was thinking this of me, I would hope they would wait until I asked for advice, or else to frame it in terms of a tangible benefit to follow like “I would like to recommend you for x opportunity but I am worried about your appearance.” If I have to give something up in order to make this happen, I want to know it is for an equally valuable reason.

    1. Lola

      Such a valuable perspective from someone on the other side of this dilemma. What upsets me about this whole issue is a lot of “looking professionally” is just a code for “looking thin and rich”.

      1. Lisa

        I don’t know about the rich part, but I am pretty sure my disheveled appearance is overlooked because I am thin. I come into work with wet hair, the same clothes every week (same purple shirt usually on Mondays, blue one on tuesdays, etc.), hair in a bun, no make up, half asleep, and wear jeans everyday. Its a casual environment, but I am aware that others look more professional, while I look like I just rolled in out of bed – but that is cause I did just roll out of bed 10 min ago, threw on clothes, brushed teeth, hair in a bun – at work now.

  33. Xarcady

    Another thing to think about, for someone in the OP’s position who is going to address this matter with an employee, is trying to find a good role model for the employee to follow.

    Back when I graduated from college, in the late 70s, it was the peak of the “Dress for Success” era. There was an actual handbook of what you should wear and how you should look. Now, no one I knew followed the advice in the book exactly, but most of us read it and took the information under consideration. We at least had a clue what we should be looking for when we went clothes shopping.

    The Mary Tyler Moore show was on TV, and weekly we got to see a professionally dressed woman at work. These days, a lot of the women in professional jobs on TV are not dressed . . . professionally. They are dressed stylishly, trendily, sexily, but not what I would consider normal for the average office job.

    And in general, clothing rules have loosened up a lot, and in some industries, really anything does go, so I can see how confusing it must be to many younger professionals who are just starting out.

    So pointing a young colleague in the direction of someone in the company who dresses appropriately, or a celebrity that dresses appropriately, or a political figure, or even a TV character if you can find one, would help.

  34. Lola

    Why is it that, 9 times out of 10, it’s women being chastised for dressing unprofessionally? A man can simply look slightly better than a hobo at a bus stop, but god forbid a woman wears her hair down and a dowdy blouse.

    1. Erin

      YUP. My younger brother wears wrinkled chinos and a button-down shirt (that he can buy 2 for 20 at Marshalls because they carry a large assortment of men’s sizes) and the same pair of shoes every day. He shaves maybe once a fortnight, does nothing to his hair, and often comes in with bags under his eyes. He is considered professionally dressed.

  35. Maxwell Edison

    This whole topic and discussion is making me even happier to be working from home now. It’s all hair scrunchies and yoga pants these days, and I love it. I don’t mind dressing up on occasion, but I never wear makeup and if I worked at a place where I had to, I would jump out the window before a week was up.

  36. NotFunny

    Let’s do a thought experiment and pretend the letter writer is asking about Jimmy, not Jane.

    I’m having a problem with one of my staff members, let’s call her Jane. Jane is a staff assistant and a hard worker who wants to stay in the office and move up the ladder.

    *** Jimmy is the first person you see when you enter our office, and his clothes are overly casual and often don’t fit quite right, he doesn’t wear make up, and his hair is kind of a mess. He’s young, and I’m sure some of this is inexperience. My concern with coming out and saying “You need better clothes, to wear makeup, and get a new haircut” is that Jimmy will get offended. ***

    Well, now that we’re talking about Jimmy, the “needs to wear makeup” idea can go straight out the window. In my opinion it should be the same for Jane. Nobody *needs* to wear makeup, though many prefer to. And it’s certainly not something another person gets to decree for any of us.

    How do Jimmy’s clothes fit “not quite right?” Are they too loose, or too tight? Either way, you’d want to suggest “clothes that fit.” Don’t say “your clothes are too big for your body” or “your clothes are too tight for your body.” And I bet if it was Jane in question, the only issue would be clothes that are too tight (unless she’s wearing saggy pants hip-hop style or something silly like that to work)

    As for the hair, I wonder what specifically is the problem with it. Some people try to keep their hair out of their face, combed or pulled back at the very least, but their hair type is prone to “misbehaving” – frizz, flyaways, cowlicks forming over the course of the day. Don’t harp on that. If her hair looks like she just woke up from a 3-day sleep and hasn’t even washed or combed it, though.. then say something about neatly groomed hair. It doesn’t have to be perfectly sleek, sophisticatedly styled, etc, does it? Not everyone is capable of that.

  37. _ism_

    In my view, there’s a distinction from “makeup” when it comes to the tinted moisturizer-and-lipgloss girls like myself. I wouldn’t say I wear makeup, but I do wear tinted moisturizer on my face and reapply a very translucent lipgloss or tinted lip balm after lunch. It takes just a minute to get my face ready in the morning but those tiny things make me look more alert, younger, fresher, etc just by “smoothing over” some skin issues that would be visible and possibly distracting to someone who prefers to see female faces fully made up – lined eyes, enhanced lashes, complete foundation coverage, lipstick, etc.

    1. Erin

      Someone else’s distraction at seeing my rosacea-d skin and freckles when they’re used to seeing airbrushed models is 100% NOT MY PROBLEM.

      1. _ism_

        +1 I agree, actually, but I didn’t word my comment very well to reflect that :/ I just meant to distinguish that one person’s “makeup” is another person’s “no makeup” and we don’t know what level of makeup the OP even thinks the employee “needs.” (Which is her own opinion and she should keep to herself. Hair can be touchy too, but I do think she should say something about the clothing)

  38. LP

    If this were me, I would wait until she looks really nice one day, or at least a little more professional than normal, and really compliment her and tell her you’d like to see that more often because you’d like to see her move up in the company and that dressing professional is one way to be taken more seriously and any other reason that doesn’t come across as “women should look pretty, it makes you look more cheerful, come on and smiiiiiiile”.

  39. Emily

    This easily could have been written about me. I’ve been trying to move up recently and I know my appearance is holding me back and i think my boss doesn’t know what to say. Despite being almost 30 i have the skin of a teenager and my weight keeps fluctuating so my clothes are either super tight or super baggy. I usually dress in a shell/tank, cardigan, and plain black skirt so while I don’t look unprofessional I know I could look more polished but I have absolutely zero style sense. I go to the mall and try on clothes for hours and I end up buying a different brand of cardigan and black skirt. I also cannot get the hang of makeup despite repeated attempts of emulating youtube beauty gurus and trying stuff out in Sephora/Ulta. I wish looking professional wasn’t so much a part of moving up!

  40. SlayThePatriarchy

    How dare you judge a person based only on her clothing and lack of makeup? If she is hygienic and comfortable with her body, she has the right to decide how she presents herself. You worry about her being offended because if you try to dictate what she puts on her body? Well, she should be offended, no matter how you phrase it! Trying to place your archaic notions of female dress on her are patriarchal, classist, sexist, and downright offensive.

    1. Melissa

      Well, everyone has the right to decide how they present themselves – but that doesn’t mean they have the right to be free from judgment. Being hygienic and comfortable are not the only considerations. What if she’s a trial lawyer showing up in khakis, or a teacher who wears low-cut blouses and tight skirts? (The corollary for men being…a trial lawyer who shows up in khakis or a teacher who wears muscle shirts and those hipster shirts that are cut all the way down the chest.)

      Different places have different dress codes, norms, and expectations. I think most people agreed that the makeup part is a little slippery, but there’s nothing wrong with expecting people to dress a certain way at certain workplaces.

  41. Blurgle

    I wish you hadn’t left out the serious legal issues with respect to makeup. Cosmetics (and that may even include eyebrow plucking) are absolutely forbidden in many faiths, including some flavours of Christianity. Requiring or recommending makeup is a very good way to find yourself on the wrong side of a religious discrimination lawsuit or tribunal.

    I’m also not on with recommending makeup because there’s the outside chance that the person has had more serious issues than a mere rash. It’s inappropriate to expect an employee to “try brands until you find one that works for you” if the possible result is an pricy ambulance ride and treatment in the ER for anaphylactic shock.

  42. Willow Sunstar

    As has been pointed out, some people have religious restrictions on not wearing make-up.

    If she is young and just starting out in her career, she probably doesn’t have a great deal of spending money, may be paying off student loans, and may not know where to go to find inexpensive dressy clothes. Yes, there are consignment shops and thrift stores, but younger people may not know about them and may also have the impression from their parents, friends, relatives, etc., that they’re not supposed to use them.

    There are discount stores that do also sell new clothing that looks professional, but doesn’t cost a great deal of money. No, you won’t find Armani there, but you will find button-down tops, pants/skirts, and maybe even some blazers.

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