updates: my employee’s clothes accentuate her chest, turning a contact into a friend, and more

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past. Here are four updates from past letter-writers.

1. My employee’s clothes accentuate her chest — how do I talk to her about it?

Lot of people in the comments from the post correctly guessed that our clients were disabled and as such, we couldn’t really fire them or deny them services. Our nonprofit is often the last option for them, so we try not to do so unless they commit something truly egregious.

But honestly, it turned out the greatest reason for my struggle wasn’t really the dress code or the behaviour of my subordinate. It was mostly the fact I didn’t want to be a manager and I really didn’t fare well in the position. I grasped at straws like the chest thing to try to deal with the enormous pressure I felt.

In the end, I was forced to fire my subordinate by higher management — not for dress code stuff, but because she didnt do her assigned work. After that, I told them I refuse to do managerial work anymore and strongly considered quitting.

However, it turned out for the better. I was just “demoted” and a new, much more experienced manager was hired. Demotion might seem like bad news, but I am much happier back at my post working directly with clients and not doing management. My pay is lower but its worth it for my mental wellbeing.

As for my subordinate, she truly had the dress code badly calibrated – to share a occurence, she once wore a t-shirt printed with cute kitties and shorts to a meeting with state officials. Who then called me, because they didnt believe she was from our organization but just a random passerby who wandered in. (while our dress code was relaxed for work in the office, it was expected to dress formally for such meetings and she saw me dress as such when I did them) I tried to work with her, but it truly was not to be, both from her side and from mine.

2. I want to turn a professional contact into a friend

I can’t believe it’s been half a year since I wrote in! Shortly after I wrote the letter, I contacted Covid while traveling and was stuck across the country. Thankfully I recovered and made it home, and not too long afterwards I started a new job in a different industry that I’m enjoying a lot. I want to thank you for your excellent advice—while I didn’t end up taking it, I think you were absolutely right that when there’s a clear overture it’s okay to respond and see what happens! Your call for updates definitely made me pause and realize how hard it’s been for me to reach out to old friends or try to make new ones—I know I’m not alone in that, given the past few years, but it’s definitely something I want to work on as I settle into my new job. Thanks again, Alison!

3. Should I tell my boss I’m thinking of leaving? (#3 at the link)

When I reached out to you earlier this year, I was just “ghosted” by an employer after completing 3 rounds of interviews and having all my professional references checked by their HR person. I was pretty upset at that time. However, now that I had a chance to reflect on the things said by that hiring manager and her team, I’m convinced that they weren’t sure about the type of people they were looking for. I wish they would at least send me a short e-mail letting me know their decision. On the other hand, I had another hiring manager who personally called me and apologized that she decided to hire an internal candidate but thought that I gave a kickass interview. We need some universal standard rules of engagement in this hiring process!

Shortly before I sent you the email, I received a LinkedIn message about an opportunity with a medium-sized agency as a consultant. I had 3 rounds of interviews and met with the HR person, my future boss, my future boss’s boss, a VP with whom I would have a very close working relationship, and a member of the team I was going to join (I would never accept an offer again if I could only talk to the HR person and the hiring manager prior to the acceptance). I’m happy to report that I received an offer from the agency at a compensation level that I had never reached in my entire career before. Besides that the work is more interesting here (and absolutely no sales!), I have my 2-day weekend back.

I also wanted to reply to some of the comments left in the original post. Specifically, some of you said that they would never accept a sales job. During the last 8 or 9 months, I talked to a lot of people (recruiters, friends and former coworkers) to get a sense of what my next career move should be. My conclusion is that if you want a career in sales, it’s better that you could be your own boss (i.e., you own your practice/you could do your work your way). If you work for a big corporation like I did, you will eventually be caught up with corporate policies and procedures, and more importantly, office politics. Unfortunately, I worked with a group of people who cared more about their scorecards and sales numbers than our clients’ wishes and well-being. My old employer makes some of the best “teapots” in the business, which attracted me to this employer. However, how does that matter if the customer service level is not up to par, or I’m told to sell the “teapots” to those who couldn’t understand and/or shouldn’t have the products? I hope that my old co-workers’ attitudes don’t represent what my old employer is about at large and that the problem is confined to the territory where I was unfortunately placed.

And Alison’s advice not to let my old boss know was spot on! My old boss was pushing me into getting her the sales number right to the end of my tenure to a point of suggesting I should do something that, in my opinion, was borderline unethical. When I told her about my resignation, I felt that she wanted us to end that conversation as soon as possible. In the past when I left my previous employers, I always could reach out to my old bosses for HR-related issues. This particular old boss gave me a 1-800 number to call and would not offer her support for anything else. I felt that I was basically dropped dead in the face of her earth. If I had told her earlier my wish to leave, I probably would be pushed out before I was ready.

My old boss would be the first person I met throughout my career that I wish I won’t have to cross paths with in the future.

4. Declining to travel for a work event that feels unsafe (#4 at the link)

I did take your advice and was open and honest with my manager about being reluctant to attend the in-person meet-up and why. He was very understanding and said it wouldn’t be an issue. There wasn’t really a way to participate remotely, though, so I ended up just being the only one “in office” and being the contact person for the rest of the company for any issues that came up.

My immediate impression was that it was fine that I stayed home; however, shortly after everyone got back, my manager’s attitude towards me started to shift. Before the meet-up, he’d had nothing but positive feedback for me. After the meet-up, though, the feedback became much more negative. He started questioning my competence and whether I was a “team player.” I was ultimately fired in July, with one of the primary reasons given being my unwillingness to communicate and be a team player. The whole experience left a really sour taste in my mouth, and left me thinking that, even though this was a remote role, the expectation of meeting in-person wasn’t as optional as I would have liked it to be. That said, I’m not sad to not have the job anymore. Any remote role that would require in-person meet-ups like that isn’t really for me anyway, and my family member’s safety is definitely worth more to me than that job.

{ 55 comments… read them below }

  1. squirreltooth*

    There’s so much going on with the employee in #1 that it’s puzzling to me that OP latched on to the chest “issue.”

    1. Momma Bear*

      OP said themselves that they were poorly suited for management and grasping at straws, basically. Sounds like they are much happier in their new/old role.

    2. mlem*

      That’s the one clients were commenting on, and there was the possibility that one of the clients was showing up to video appointments shirtless in “response” to; and the OP didn’t know what (if anything!) could be said to the employee about it. The other factors might have cropped up later. (Having to be forced to fire someone who isn’t doing their job … comes across strangely, but OP admits not having wanted the job of supervising in the first place.)

    3. Cmdrshprd*

      It was a little unclear from the initial letter, but it did seem that while the office was generally casual t-shirt/short being okay that is/was different from tank tank tops being okay. It seems the dress code may not have been clear and/or written down.

      At the time the employee was new so the chest issue was the tip of the ice berg that OP could immediately see, issues like work product can take a little be to present themselves since at the beginning most people are not expecting a lot of output from someone.

      1. Ellis Bell*

        I have no idea if this workplace would fit this description, but more and more I keep encountering workplaces that are too modern and cool for anything as drab as a tied down, clarified dress code. Yes, of course the no dress code route can often be done very well! I also agree that “no dress code” still doesn’t mean absolutely anything goes, and of course you can’t predict and pre document everything. However some of these no dress code places actually have a very specific and secret dress code which boils down to showing that you can still look privileged, even in casual wear. I appreciate the OP owning up to the fact that they weren’t great at management in what sounds like a less than explicit dress code environment; suggesting that the employee should have known simply from observing when to wear, and not wear, casual clothing when they could simply have explicitly told the employee, is a pretty good example.

  2. Sara without an H*

    OP#4: Your letter is just more evidence that we need to add “team player” to the AAM List of Red Flags — right up there with “We’re a family!” Your former manager, btw, is an ass.

    Be sure to check out the AAM archives for job-search advice, and here’s to a happier 2023!

  3. Really?!*

    There’s a philosophy that an underling should never burn a bridge with a superior, because #reasons. Every bridge is not worth saving.

  4. LeftAcademia*

    OP4, I am so sorry. This is not how it should be.

    I am remote but live in the same city as the company. My grand boss called me on my cellphone to discuss a business issue he was hoping we could resolve at our Christmas party a few days earlier. But I did not attend, because I was sick (and warned my boss in advance). It was a strange conversation.

      1. LeftAcademia*

        At the summer grill party everybody had seemed normal except for a junior, who met me for the first time in person and talked to me for one hour straight. But he became much easier to supervise remotely after the grill party.
        So I am hoping, that the correct conclusion is, I am missed at the office and not we expect you to work during parties.

  5. Momma Bear*

    It’s a tricky thing to be remote and be seen as a team player. Sounds like in the end it worked out for OP to leave, though sorry to hear it ended that way.

  6. Yangtze River*

    “…it was expected to dress formally for such meetings and she saw me dress as such when I did them”

    OP1, it really is best that you stepped down from management. Part of management is laying out expectations for meetings like this one. Regardless of whether you think that she should have just picked up the expectations from looking at you, you still had a responsibility to tell her in words that she needed to dress more formally for these meetings. it’s good that you have the self-awareness to know that you are not suited for management.

    1. GreyjoyGardens*

      It *is* good that OP1 has that self-awareness. Being unsuited to management is NOT a character flaw, any more than not being suited to be a career actor or a construction worker. People have strengths and weaknesses.

      In the business world, many people who are very competent as llama groomers, (or whatever) and happy to be llama groomers, get promoted to management because they are good at their jobs, and because a promotion involves more money, and they wind up miserable. Llama grooming, or teacup design, or working with clients, are entirely different skills from management, yet the working world seems to think “hey, Helaena is a terrific entomologist, let’s promote her to manager!” And then get all surprised Pikachu when it doesn’t work out.

      1. TomatoSoup*

        Yes! Management is its own set of skills and should be treated as such, rather than a step beyond something entirely different.

      2. Chaordic One*

        OP1, you modeled good behavior and dress, but not everyone is going to be able to pick up on it.

    2. HannahS*

      I also think that “You need to explicitly tell employees to dress formally when meeting with state officials even though the dress code seems obvious to you” is a really, really standard mistake for new managers to make (how many times have we seen similar things on AAM?) and not one that uniquely points to the OP being unsuited for management. If she was someone who wanted to be a manager, it wouldn’t be more than a learning point.

      1. Myrin*

        Yeah, I don’t think the sentence Yangtze picked out is a particularly good example for why someone might be unsuited for management.

      2. Empress Ki*

        Coming to a meeting with state officials in shorts is a lack of common sense. My manager wouldn’t need to ask me to dress formally. It seems very obvious, unless perhaps the employee is on their first office job.

        1. Ellis Bell*

          I would say the fact that these clothes were established as ordinary to wear in the office on a usual day, makes it a little different.

          1. Observer*

            Not that much. Most people realize that there is a difference between ordinary office dress, unless you are in a really formal office, and what you wear to meet with Important People.

            That said, I do agree that it’s the kind of thing that is helpful to point out to people new to the workforce, but also that this error was not one the proves that the OP was not cut out for management.

          2. No Longer Looking*

            I would respond that this seems indicative that your sense of norms might be off. Regardless of normal office dress once should always expect to dress up for Official Visitors to the office, and more-so if leaving the office to meet with someone official. The only question is whether to go up to Formal or Semi-Formal.

            1. Ellis Bell*

              Oh it’s something I’m aware of; my point is that you may need to be extra explicit with incoming people if there’s a dual dress code. Not everyone comes from professional families.

          3. rebelwithmouseyhair*

            I’d have thought it went without saying that you need to look smart when meeting with clients. It was like that at my first job, an incredibly casual start-up managed by a geek before geeks were even a thing. We were all wearing lumpy jumpers and torn jeans (before pre-torn jeans were even a thing), but if we had a meeting scheduled, we were suited up. There was no dress code at all, but we just did it like that.

              1. Giant Kitty*


                My dad worked in a professional environment that required collared shirts with ties, but he was an engineer so those dress shirts could be short sleeved & his ties, clip ons. He had to wear nice slacks & dress shoes, but could wear any kind of jacket, including extremely casual/sporty ones (and I can clearly remember him wearing the classic 80s Members Only to work after he liked the one my HS age brother got for Xmas lol.)
                And as my mom had retired to raise a family & wore nothing but cute doubleknit polyester pants (until leggings first came around in the 80s, then leggings 4 lyfe) with form fitting knit tops, I had no clue what people wore to work at “real jobs”. I remember my dad yelling at me to go change before I went to a job interview in torn jeans & a sweatshirt because I was more worried about looking “normal” and other than that, didn’t have a clue how to dress.

        2. Yellow aeroplane*

          Agreed. I think there’s a level of professionalism that you should be able to expect of staff – and knowing there’s a difference between everyday in the office, and meeting officials is one.

          Although a colleague once pointed out to a junior that they had to go home and change as they could not meet a member of the Royal family in old rumpled clothing. So clearly it isn’t obvious to everyone even if it should be.

          And personally I’ll push back on the idea that just because A can look appropriate in something everyone should be able to wear it. I’m a bigger woman. There are clothes that look perfectly acceptable on thin women, that on me look indecent. Our bodies are different, so wearing the same thing we look very different.

        3. Seven hobbits are highly effective, people*

          Sounds like this employee was, in fact, on their first office job.

          Some people are good at looking around and picking up norms from watching everyone else, and other people will do better with an explicit explanation. (It also helps if the place you’re trying to pick up norms for is operating under a similar set of norms as previous places you’ve been, of course, which is strongly influenced by class and home culture.) I know that in school if I needed to dress differently for some specific event, that’s something the teachers or professors would usually mention because students weren’t expected to “just know” that one dresses up for [whatever]. As a kid, I would have also relied on my parents to suggest how to match outfits to occasions, although I certainly had some screw-ups along the way. (It didn’t occur to me to dress up to go to the opera when I got free tickets through school when I was 12, and I showed up in ripped leggings and an oversized t-shirt when all of the other students were dressed to, you know, go to the opera. My family never went to operas so I didn’t know that it was a formal-clothes thing, and I’m not sure my parents were completely clear on what kind of performance I was going to as opposed to “have free tickets to [specific opera they weren’t familiar with, with a title in Italian] at [venue that hosts a lot of different things] on [date] at [time].”)

          An experienced employee who has been in a job with a certain set of dress expectations for several years shouldn’t need to be prompted to continue dressing according to those expectations even if that means navigating different types of clothes for different work tasks as long as those tasks and dress expectations are familiar. However, if this is the first time the new person has had a job where they weren’t wearing a uniform, or the first time where they would need to dress differently for work depending on that day’s tasks, then it makes sense to go over those expectations explicitly and make sure the employee has the context needed to adjust their clothing to their day and start building those norms in their head so they can make better guesses going forward.

          1. whingedrinking*

            When expectations collide…
            A friend of mine once asked me if I’d like to go to a concert headlined by a Mongolian death metal band he liked, and I said sure. I decided I didn’t feel like getting all rigged out, so I just wore jeans and Chuck Taylors and my husband’s bomber jacket, plus a little black eyeliner, and hoped I wasn’t being too boring.
            I was a little puzzled when my friend drove us, not to a club or similar venue, but to the symphony. I wasn’t surprised that most of the crowd was Asian, but there were more retired folks and families with young kids than I was used to seeing at shows. Also a lot more suits and Sunday best type dresses.
            As it turned out, the concert had been arranged by a local Chinese cultural association and presumably promoted to all its members about equally. I got a distinct vibe of the association wanting to have an event that teenagers might be interested in, but also one that their parents would let them go to.

        4. Captain Swan*

          It never hurts to give reminders to people if you want or need them to dress differently for a particular day/event.
          I worked at a place filled with midlevel/senior career employees and the dress code more or less amounted to please wear clothes but no tank tops, shorts, or shirts with writing on them. So there was a lot of variability with what folks wore.
          When the C suite was going to visit, the higher up managers sent out email (and sometimes verbal) reminders that everyone needed to be in business formal that day.

  7. OP1*

    Thanks for posting my update! It feels like a lifetime ago now. I know several comments under my first post were really kind and helped me frame what I needed to do. (and some were… very uncharitable. which, didn’t really help.)
    I was essentially forced into management role I didn’t want, given basically zero training on how to do it and I badly struggled at it. Perhaps my managerial attempt may have been better if I was given some guidance, but alas, it was not to be. I was given a new hire (which I didn’t pick myself) and I tried to do well by her, but we both floundered in different ways. She was new to the working world, I to management and I didn’t know how to give her the needed instructions. She wasn’t doing all the assigned work because she was trying to deal with a long term illness in her family and I tried to cover for her. This was after the whole dress code affair, not during. We actually made improvements on that issue and discussed specific ways of dressing and whats acceptable and whats not.
    I didn’t want to fire her as I thought her work would improve, but I got overruled. She wasn’t the only one – our management fired almost half of the work force and demoted several managers. There were similar systemic issues in the whole organization and new higher-ups tried to correct it.

    I still keep in touch with my former subordinate sporadically, she moved to a different city and is working in a completely different field and I think she is much happier. I stayed at my old org – lot of it its due to the fact I enjoy working with the clients and type of work I do. My job is also very flexible and understanding of my own disability, which is bit rare in this part of the world. But I don’t plan to stay forever – hopefully after my health improves, it will widen my options.

    1. HannahS*

      I have a lot of empathy for you, OP. I work in healthcare, and like social services, management roles tend to be thrust upon the nearest person and not necessarily taught in any explicit way.

    2. Fae Kamen*

      Thank you for sharing! I think your reply clears up a lot of concerns/speculation in the comments—maybe Alison could post it as part of the update too.

    3. Ellis Bell*

      I think it was clear that you felt a responsibility to your employee.. and that no one felt any towards you and in helping or guiding you through some pretty tough client situations.

    4. Michelle Smith*

      You seem like a really good person and I’m glad you’re in a position where you’re happier now. I actually get a lot of comfort from your update. I have never wanted to be a people manager either and have gotten pressure from others (like my family) to be more “ambitious” and step into a managerial role. It’s not that I don’t have drive and don’t want to be a great individual contributor! I just don’t want to deal with the mess that comes along with managing others. I had a taste of it before through managing people on specific projects and boy did it suck. I am glad to know I’m not alone in wanting to achieve outside of management!!

    5. GreyjoyGardens*

      I’m glad things worked out for both of you. One, not being “good at management” or wanting to be a manager is NOT a character flaw or deficiency. The working world seems to have a lot of this “Oh, Fergus is great at teapot design! Let’s promote him to management!” When the fact is that teapot design and management are two completely different sets of skills. And if Fergus is pitched in at the deep end and given NO training, just told “here, go manage! Good luck! Thoughts ‘n prayers” the surprised Pikachu when Fergus is out of his depth or just cannot do his job is really, really galling (ok, rage inducing).

      I think it’s especially awful when the only jobs in a field that pay anything like a living wage are management jobs, thus forcing people into something they do not want just to keep the rent paid and the cats fed.

      Two, it sounds like Former Subordinate is happier in a different field. The job she had with you was her first and no doubt she was still finding her feet. She needed a manager who wanted to manage (and was trained), and also the whole field sounds like it wasn’t for her. (You said it was her first job, and I wonder if most of her ideas of what work was like came from movies, TV, light novels, etc. where part-time jobs at cafes pay for expensive city apartments. Hey, if Carrie Bradshaw can dress like that, why can’t I? People whose parents don’t have career jobs, or their parents don’t talk about their jobs to their children, and who don’t pick up casual jobs while in high school or college, can have some mighty weird ideas of what actual work is like.)

    6. LinuxSystemsGuy*

      Ironically based on these comments I’d say you’d probably be a pretty good manager if given some guidance and half a chance. It’s one thing to say “management is not for me,” quite another to say “being thrust into a management role with no training or guidance is not for me.”

    1. Cohort 1*

      John Boehner. He recently gave a tribute to departing Speaker Nancy Pelosi at the unveiling of her official portrait which included tearing up. If you’re a tearing up kind of guy, it’s tough, but I’m not aware there’s much to do about it. OP1’s boss, though, sounded like he went full-on tears down the face and actually had a problem more intense than “tearing up.”

      1. Michelle Smith*

        I think you guys might have the wrong post for this comment thread. There was nothing about crying in these updates.

  8. TG*

    So sorry For #4 but your boss sounds like a jerk and I’m glad you’re out of there! I just will never understand people who behave that way….my boss said his job is to make me shine when he promoted me out of my old department. That’s what we all deserve!

  9. LB33*

    It still sounds to me like the employee in #1 was treated really poorly.. Not necessarily by the OP but why the incessant need to comment on women’s bodies? Oh no a tank top! Where’s the fainting couch?

    1. GreyjoyGardens*

      Under most circumstances I’d agree with you – one’s body is one’s own business, and wearing a tank top is not a license to say “Comment on my body please!” But LW1’s company appears to be a nonprofit providing services to the presumably developmentally disabled and/or severely mentally ill (LW said that their nonprofit is often the last option for them).

      I think the clients simply were not taught proper boundaries and appropriate behavior. It’s absolutely possible to teach these to someone with a developmental disability; but if parents or guardians are lackadaisical or abusive, or the disabled person is shuffled through the foster and group home system, that’s unlikely to happen.

      What was inappropriate dress on the part of the employee was wearing a cutesy T-shirt and shorts to meet with higher-ups. That’s a “should know better” situation. It would also apply to a man who wore an anime T-shirt and cargo shorts to meet with higher-ups. “Dress for the occasion” applies to everyone.

      1. Giant Kitty*

        If it’s appropriate for a man or a small busted woman to wear a tank top, then it’s appropriate for a large busted woman to do so as well REGARDLESS of how the clients act, and even if it’s because they have disabilities because disabilities don’t excuse boundary violating behavior.

    2. busty*

      I disagree, kind of. Yes, it’s awful that she had to deal with inappropriate comments about her body, but unfortunately, that’s something that comes with the territory sometimes when you work with disabled people.

      I do evaluations for people seeking disability, and also autism and ADHD testing. I’ve had men propose to me. I had a guy with a traumatic brain injury which made him have absolutely no inhibition say the most vile things to me with total nonchalance as though he were talking about the weather. I had an autistic girl point out my acne. I had an autistic boy tell me I smell good and am pretty (tbh he was the sweetest thing and he wasn’t doing it in a creepy way at all, but not appropriate for a 16-year-old boy to say).

      On the other hand, I wonder if OP’s attempts to shield her from the comments was misplaced because it really is something that comes with the territory. I’m busty myself, and I do make sure to always dress very modestly because I don’t want to deal with any comments, but if the comments aren’t bothering her, then her manager didn’t necessarily have to step in, except to calmly explain to the clients not to comment on the employees’ bodies and hope it sticks.

  10. UrsulaD*

    Those norms vary wildly across cultures, though. When my manager was out I was tasked with escorting visitors from the US. Jeans here (nice ones) are appropriate wedding attire, so without knowing American norms it wouldn’t occur to me that jeans could be viewed as unprofessional.

  11. Inkognyto*


    FYI – It is not uncommon to have organizations that do not allow managers to give references. I have one and I basically have to by-pass it. If you have any “Can I call your former manager?” I have to give them the 1-800 number, a few balked at it, and I told them it’s that companies policy not mine.

    I do have a manager I use from that org though, but it’s because it was someone I reported too prior to the acquisition from the company. I list them as a reference of “Said company (acquired by New Company)”. They are fine with it because they also understand that if I didn’t have someone not HR, there would be an 8-year reference gap. It’s only for mgmt, but my former co-workers refuse to give reference because they feel it’s also the company policy even when I pointed it only says mgmt. It’s fairly annoying.

    1. OP #3*

      I wasn’t asking for a reference. I was asking for things such as when my employer’s sponsored insurance would end its coverage, or when my licence would be released by the employer so that I could work for someone else. I needed that letter from my ex-employer indicating that I had been released.

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