my coworkers complain I’m violating the dress code, but I’m not

A reader writes:

I started a new role in a very corporate environment in December. At the time I was actually interviewing for a lower level position with Company X but the department managers who interviewed me apparently liked my skill set and interview performance enough to create an entirely new position just for me. They unfortunately chose to call my position “senior job title,” which I believe offended a few longtime employees right off the bat.

The first month or so I was here, the weather was simply awful and I saw a lot of folks dressing accordingly. Winter gear, big sweaters, rain and snow boots, boots, puffy vests, parkas. Our office dress code is business casual, jeans only on Friday. So when I wore a pair of clean, new duck boots to work on a horribly slushy day and was called into my manager’s office for a mild reprimand, I was quite surprised. (I had shared the elevator that morning with someone wearing the same boots!)

She laid out a few things that are “not Company X acceptable” like tennis shoes, flip flops, leggings — which I have since seen many many coworkers (including management) wearing regularly without any apparent issue. I felt a little attacked but I upped my wardrobe game to mostly tailored skirts, slim pants, suit jackets, silk shells, and dresses and mostly skip casual Fridays altogether.

Since then I have been receiving consistent praise for my performance, including being called into upper management level projects, two peer-nominated awards for excellence, a bonus, and a pay raise. My schedule was adjusted to a more desirable one as well. I absolutely feel appreciated and believe I am doing well, but I have reason to believe I am ruffling feathers among my coworkers unintentionally.

Last Friday was absolutely sweltering. I wore a flowy maxi dress that covered collarbone to ankle. No fewer than four people, including my boss, complimented me on the dress and I even sent a link to purchase it to another coworker. There was absolutely nothing about this garment that was prohibited by our dress code and it was definitely professional and worn on our “casual” office day. People were wearing shorts, flip-flops, and tee shirts that day, for reference.

Monday morning I was called into my manager’s office to be told that “someone” had complained about the dress. She made it clear she disagreed with the complaint, said she thought the dress was lovely and not a violation of any provision of our office dress code, but said she “had to” say something to me and was going to go to HR for a revision to our company dress code for “clarity.”

For some reason I am really upset by this anonymous complaint. I don’t want to be the person who polices anyone else’s wardrobe, but I did point out all the inconsistencies I see around the office with regards to clothing. It was really disheartening to feel as though someone is looking for the tiniest reasons to go to my boss about me and I have no idea who it could be. Every morning now when I get dressed, I am wondering what this person will complain about next.

If you have any suggestions as to how I might handle this I would be grateful. I really enjoy this job, I am learning a lot and have received company-wide recognition for my performance and contributions. I’ve made several friends here and I can see myself staying here for a long time. I do not, however, feel it is fair to be held to so much more formal wardrobe standards than those around me. Thoughts?

Your boss really sucks here. If she disagrees with a dress code complaint, she does not “have to” pass it on to you, nor should she. She’s supposed to have the judgment and confidence to say to the person complaining, “I disagree, that’s well within the dress code standards of our office” and leave it there. Passing the complaint on to you with “I disagree but I’m obligated to tell you” is ridiculous — it’s an abdication of her responsibilities as a manager, as well as really thoughtless about the way that’s likely to make you feel.

There are some exceptions to that, like if the feedback comes from an influential higher-up. It would be different if your boss had said, “I know it’s not prohibited by our dress code, but Very Important Person has a real thing about open-toed shoes and will make a big deal about it if anyone in our department wears them.” That’s making it clear the issue isn’t you but offering info about how to thrive in your particular culture, under a person who wields influence. But that’s not what happened here (or at least, your manager hasn’t conveyed it’s what’s happening).

As for what to do: First, are you by chance a different race/age/gender from most other people in your office or most other people in your position or at your level? Sometimes this kind of targeted, nasty campaign has a race/gender/age component to it, and if that might be in play, it can be helpful to name it explicitly to your boss — as in, “Based on what I see other people wearing in our office regularly, it looks like I’m being singled out for different feedback as the only X on our team, and if that’s the case I’d ask that you address it with the people doing the singling out rather than passing it on to me.”

If that’s not the case, you could still go back to your boss and say something like: “I wanted to revisit our discussion about the dress code. Twice now you’ve shared anonymous complaints with me that I’m outside our dress code. From my understanding of the dress code, both what’s written and what I see people wearing around me, I’m solidly within our office’s norms. You noted that you disagreed with the most recent complaint felt you should relay anyway, and I wanted to ask: If that happens again and you disagree with the complaint, would you be willing to push back on the person who’s complaining? It’s demoralizing to hear anonymous feedback about my clothes when you acknowledge it’s wrong. Every morning now when I get dressed, I am wondering what this person will complain about next. So if you don’t agree with it, I’d really appreciate you telling them that rather than bringing it to me — because I have no idea what I can do other than hold myself to a more restrictive dress code than everyone else, which I know you agree wouldn’t be reasonable.”

An alternate version: “I’ve realized that when we spoke about the dress code, I didn’t come away clear on what actions you wanted me to take. You said you disagreed with the complaint but had to pass it on, so I want to get clarity from you: Is there something I’m doing that you need me to change? I know you wouldn’t ask me to follow a more formal dress code than everyone around me, so I wondered if I was missing some other subtext from that conversation.”

There’s a good chance this will nudge your boss into realizing how she’s handled this isn’t reasonable. But if you get a response implying that you should indeed dress more formally than your colleagues just to keep the peace with them, then it might be worth saying, “If that’s the case, I’m concerned something else is going on. If I need to adhere to a different dress code than others in order to keep the peace, it doesn’t sound like that would solve whatever’s causing that tension to begin with — and I worry it will just come out in other ways. Is that something you can help me dig into?”

You could also choose to bring HR into this at some point, as I doubt they want you held to a different dress standard than everyone else.

But your manager’s wimpiness is the core of the problem.

Read an update to this letter

{ 384 comments… read them below }

  1. Amber Rose*

    Is the only option with a wimpy manager to find a new job?

    Currently wondering how to cope with my own.

    1. Clefairy*

      You can also decide that you’re going to let things up to a certain level roll off your back, and if they do cross the invisible line of things that you can’t let roll off your back, you can resign yourself to the fact that there’s going to be some managing up with clear conversations about what you’d like to see happen from your boss, and hope they they agree with you.

      1. NotBatman*

        I did some managing up with a past wimpy boss, and it worked to change his behavior a little. Told him “I need more feedback, and blunt is preferred — I won’t be hurt and it will keep me from worrying” and later “I don’t have the power to disagree with senior people, and need your help to do that.” His problem was down to being too nice, so framing it that way did the trick.

        Still proud of the time 6 months later I told him a senior colleague had given me 2X as much work as what we’d agreed, and he immediately went charging out of his office to see grandboss and demand that we all meet with senior colleague to change my contract.

    2. ferrina*

      I’ve been able to do some extreme upwards management with wimpy managers. In one case I basically established a whole shadow management structure where I ran the department for the manager (that whole company was bonkers).

      Basically you need to operate under the assumption that your manager won’t do their job. That means that you need to be able to advocate for your own raises and promotions, giving your manager the documents and process to advocate for you. You need to balance your own workload and priorities, always ensuring that your manager signs off so you can CYA. You need to identify and fight for your own resources (easier at some organizations than others).

      Depending on the organization, team, and individual, some people do just fine under a wimpy manager. Others are put in an impossible situation. There’s a lot of variables.
      Good luck!

      1. Eldritch Office Worker*

        I’ve done this too, very successfully, but I want to call out that it can be a LOT of work, especially if the wimpiness gets under your skin at all and you’re constantly trying to manage your own frustration. I was able to reframe it in my head a little bit as ‘management coaching’ and used a lot of targeted AAM language in the process, and it became a sort of mini-project for me (condescending way to think of your manager, probably, but we do what we have to do to get through the day).

        But if you have a hard time letting things roll off your back, don’t feel like you’d be naturally good at managing up, or are already feeling really demoralized – this can be really hard.

        1. Fushi*

          Yeah, I have done this in a couple if jobs to some success, but I always get to a point where I’m constantly filled with rage and have to quit.

        2. Career Bureaucrat*

          I’ve done this too, but the success only occurred after wimpy boss was demoted and then resigned, and I stepped into his position (which was a pretty easy transition since I’d been doing his job for almost a year anyway). Til then, it was all the frustration of middle management without any ability to ensure anything got done unless I chose to bypass wimpy manager and risk having my hand smacked.

          In retrospect, having me take on so much of his job helped him limp along longer than he would have if he’d been allowed to fail on his own. Still, I’m not sure I would have done much differently.

        3. Hannah Lee*

          Plus it’s one thing to be successful and successfully manage a wimpy manager in a neutral or consistently not-great environment.

          It’s a whole other thing to do that in a situation where you, specifically, are being targeted by … someone or someones. The wardrobe complaints are a symptom of something more serious than a bad manager. And simply teeing the manager up to help you do your/their job day to day will quickly become exhausting / demoralizing if someone keeps tugging at the rug under your feet.

          This sounds like a situation where LW has to 1st try to get the manager/HR to clarify the company rules for all employees, but also task the manager/HR with getting to the root of what’s going on and making it stop.

          If manager/HR are unwilling or unable to do that, then, yeah, ramp up the job hunt and get out because it’s not going to ever get better, LW will always be on the defensive with an anonymous unseen co-worker who wishes them ill.

        4. Anonymous Engineer*

          If you can figure out a way to do this while also getting some (deserved) credit for taking on management-level tasks, it can turn out to be great for your career. I had a wimpy manager that I basically managed while setting priorities for our whole team. Fortunately, my manager was self-aware enough to give me credit for taking on managerial-type work.

          1. Eldritch Office Worker*

            Yes! Also, if everyone knows wimpy manager is a wimpy manager and notices that things somehow just run so much better when you start/when you’re involved in a project, they typically put the pieces together. So it just depends on the circumstances.

        5. Tio*

          Yeah, the other issue is, I was able to semi-successfully shadow manage my wimpy manager, but then whenever he got separated from me and put in front of or against a non-wimpy boss, he would fold like a lawn chair. So the extent of your influence can be very limited in certain cases.

          1. ArtsNerd*

            Ah yes, the “manager agrees with whoever spoke to them last in any particular moment” way of running a department. Been there, rage-quit that.

          2. Deidre Barlow*

            Oooh yes, I’m currently dealing with exactly this with my line manager AND the director above him- they both like to be liked and will say whatever the person they’re speaking to wants to hear, they do it to each other! So frustrating

        6. Marie*

          yeah, I think it’s worth doing this if your direct manager is one wimpy cog in an otherwise amazing place to work but it’s hard!

    3. Hlao-roo*

      If depends on what your manager is wimpy about, and how willing/able you are to push back on or work around the wimpy-ness.

      In many cases, wimpy managers want to take the path of least resistance. In the case of this letter, the manager has decided it’s easiest to tell the complaining coworker, “I’ll talk to LW about the dress code” and then tell the LW, “someone complained about your outfit, but I don’t agree with the complaint.” If the LW uses one of the suggested scripts, the manager might decide it’s easier to tell the complaining coworker, “LW’s outfits meet the dress code, stop complaining about them” than it would be to continually have the LW push back about being held to a different standard than others in the office.

      1. Cyborg Llama Horde*

        I definitely agree about the specific wimpy-ness. At one point in my career I had a wimpy manager who was wimpy partly because our department head was overly territorial and not good at making space for people to grow into, and partly because he was a very new manager and hadn’t really internalized the power shift that came in that role. We had a really good relationship, though (had been peers before he got promoted, and he probably considered me more of a friend than I would want to with anyone I managed). There was at least one occasion (I don’t remember what it was about, sorry) where he said something like, “Well, that’s the way it is, and we can’t do anything about it,” and I said, “Can’t you? As Llama Walking Manager, I think do you actually have standing to push back about that,” and he got a really thoughtful look on his face. And while he didn’t mature as much as a manager as he would’ve under a better department head, by the time I left, he was starting to do a better job of advocating for his team. I think he really just needed someone to point out that this was part of his role now and he could in fact do it, and nudge him now and then to see places where it was relevant.

        1. Smithy*

          Absolutely the reason for the wimpyness matters so much. And I think it can also be helpful to think of that wimpyness as a savvier strategy for a specific employer, than just a supervisor not wanting to help.

          Used to work at a super dysfunctional place and got a new manager who was trying to figure out why something had been managed by her interim coverage in a certain way. I said I didn’t know, but that often those decisions came down from above with no input from our team. She went to her supervisor to have a straightforward and professional conversation about how she’d approach this workstream and changes she wanted to make. The result was she was screamed out of the room and after 6 months, effectively demoted.

          That place was 100% the hotmess express – however, I think versions of that kind of caution until someone feels more certain in specific office politics are smarter long term. For direct reports, can easily feel like wimpyness, but may be more strategic for that workplace than is immediately obvious.

    4. I should really pick a name*

      Use the wimpiness to your advantage.
      Make it easier for them to side with you than the person who’s complaining.

      1. GammaGirl1908*

        Especially because the complainer’s issue is likely not the clothes; s/he will move the goal posts if LW addresses the clothes and will complain about other things. If LW starts wearing different things, the complaint will be that LW is too flashy with her clothing. If she shows up in a plain black floor length skirt and top, the complaint suddenly will be that she laughs too loudly. If she modulates her voice, the complaint will be that she’s not appropriately authoritative. The issue is that the complainer doesn’t like LW, not that LW is actually doing anything wrong.

        LW can make her complaint much more clear-cut and easier to agree with.

        1. Just Another Cog*

          This is my feeling, too. It’s so weird that OP is being singled out because of her dress, which sounds perfectly appropriate. OP says the new job was created for her and she was given an impressive title which put some noses out of joint. The complainer might be struggling with OP’s successes.

          In any case, OP’s boss sucks.

    5. Managing Up and Out*

      Several middle managers and I managed to eventually get a very conflict averse (but also conflict causing and incompetent) director moved out of our organization, but it was a years long process and we all ended up leaving the group anyway!

    6. Overit*

      A wimpy manager is unlikely to grow a spine because it is a product of their nature. I have seen it happen once in my 40+ years of work. So IME, odds are not in your favor.

      1. MigraineMonth*

        I disagree; I think that behavior is generally a product of the environmental context. Even the most assertive manager learns to be “wimpy” if the company punishes assertiveness (or the manager loses their job).

        1. Uranus Wars*

          I also think some growth is required. I was a very wimpy manager when I started and having people point things out to me helped turn me into a manager that most people like working for. Unless they don’t do their jobs and then they hate me because I hold them accountable.

          To be clear, still lots of room for growth on my planet here.

    7. Beth*

      Depends on how they’re wimpy. If ‘wimpy’ means ‘will go with the path of least resistance,’ then that’s often manageable–you just make sure the path of least resistance is the path you want. You want a promotion? If you’ve got all the materials right here and organized for them, you’re checking in regularly about whether you’re on track for it and what you can do to improve your chances, they know you’ll follow up and ask for feedback and explanation if you don’t get it…odds are you’ll get it, because that’s easier for them than continuing to have this conversation over and over again. This is less ideal than having a manager who will advocate for you of their own accord, but it’s manageable.

      If ‘wimpy’ means ‘will never advocate for you or stand up for you,’ on the other hand, that’s a bigger problem. If your manager is so deferential (to higher-ups, other teams, clients, whoever) that you are never going to get their support no matter what you do, then you need a new job.

      1. That's True*

        This. It depends a lot on if they are wimpy up *and* down the corporate hierarchy, or just up. If both, you can use the wimpiness to your advantage by pushing them on stuff that’s important to you. But if they’re wimpy upstream and an enforcer downstream, it’s probably a lost cause.

    8. Donkey Hotey*

      I don’t know if it’s the “only” way, but it is, at its heart, the same thing as “people don’t leave bad jobs, they more often leave bad managers.” My last job, my boss nearly qualified as an invertebrate. I left after he consistently refused to back me up on issues where I was right because he “didn’t want to rock the boat.”
      I was in the Navy; real boats rock.

    9. Someone Else's Boss*

      Yes, or go above them. Develop a comfort with HR or your grandboss. This can be bad, if your boss is wimpy, but influential. If your boss is wimpy, but loved, there could also be backlash if people realize you’re going above them. It depends on the political capital you hold and how willing you are to give it up.

    10. KtheP*

      I come from a family of attorneys and have control issues, so I am very much a “figure out which rules you can bend until you’re in a position to enact the Change” kind of person.

      I also almost always have very good relationships with coworkers/management/those under me, so it’s all about choosing the battles and playing the long game (if you have to).

    11. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      Alison’s use of the “I know you wouldn’t want me to [do something ridiculous]” is very deliberate. It’s a method that Captain Awkward also recommends to get unreasonable people to do reasonable things because you’ve kinda backed them into a corner. Treat them as though *of course* they’re going to be reasonable. They then have to decide whether to go along with you or break the facade that they’re reasonable.

      In this case, it’s putting pressure on the wimpy manager. If the manager doesn’t have the intestinal fortitude to tell the complainer that the LW’s clothes are fine, odds are high that she also won’t push back and say “no, I totally do want you to [do the unreasonable thing].”

      Alone, it doesn’t solve the problem that the complainer needs to mind their own business – which is something I’d want to tackle directly, because who knows how they may escalate whatever campaign of nonsense they’re doing. It would hopefully mean the LW can stop hearing about the baseless complaints from the wimpy manager.

    12. Amber L.*

      My name is Amber Rose, lol!!!

      Additionally, honestly, yes that is sometimes the only recourse. It sucks, but living in end-stage capitalism sucks in general.

    13. LW4*

      No. You can choose. You can decide to let things go and not allow them to bother you and just keep your head down and do your job. It gets mislabeled as quiet quitting by some folks, but it’s just being professional. Sometimes the need to keep a job (because of the hours, because of the pay, because people are relying on you to keep the lights on, etc.) outweighs the aggravation of a so-called wimpy manager. But if you can’t change yourself to adjust in that way, you do have to get out. You can only change you, not other people.

    14. amoeba*

      It also depends a little on how much you need them in your everyday work – if you’re very independent, I’d say living with it can work quite well. Just do your own thing and inform them, basically. If you need them (to have your back, to make decisions on projects, whatever..) it’s worse.

    1. Pastor Petty Labelle*

      Who was given a higher job that “they” think she should have.

      As long as the important bits are covered, shoes are appropriate for safety and no one is wear anything obscene/offensive can we just let adults be adults?

      1. AnonInCanada*

        THIS !! Someone’s not taking the fact they’ve been passed over for the job OP has, so they’re making these petty complaints to cause grief. OP’s manager needs to get a spine, shut up the complainant(s), and keep OP out of the drama.

    2. Paris Rhino*

      “& that the complainants are not.”

      Intent is difficult to read over text, so I’m not sure whether you thought about how this might come across or not. The phrasing sounds a little bit like you think jealousy is the root of the complaints. The point about attractive young women being commonly police for essentially being attractive while wearing clothing could have been made without the second half of your comment.

      1. Maleficent2026*

        Jealousy could very well be at the root of the complaints, especially if they’re from other women. I’ve seen it way too often

        1. Ally McBeal*

          Thoroughly agree. Jealousy could absolutely be the culprit, especially if OP is as beautiful as she is professionally successful. This is one of the big drawbacks of “Pretty Privilege” (although, ahem, I am not speaking from personal experience).

          1. rebelwithmouseyhair*

            I call it Pretty Tax. Also includes being hit on in places you thought you might be left in peace.
            It subsides when you start getting close to 40 but then you have to learn to deal with being straight up ignored, which is hard when you’ve never needed to attract attention to yourself before.

        2. Pita Chips*

          I’ve seen it too. I had a woman complain about one of my direct reports wearing something “too sheer.” She went to HR, who went to me. HR said I could use my discretion and I shrugged it off because, like LW’s situation, it was a sweltering summer, and I didn’t see anything wrong with what my report was wearing in comparison to anyone else.

          Then the woman complained a second time and I was given a copy of the email. The language was so salty and petty I was shocked HR even responded.

        3. Mrs. Hawiggins*

          It’s flat out happened to me – with those words used.
          “Sansa complained about the pant suit you were wearing yesterday,” (yes a PANT SUIT) she thought it made you look like you were at cocktail hour so you might want to be aware of that.

          “Yes all that ankle I was showing really had to upset the masses,” I said. My boss muttered about “jealousy” and used the phrase you love to hear, “that’s just how SHE IS.” So I spoke to Sansa and asked her to be another way about my clothing shoes, jewelry, life. As in “out of it.”

          “I didn’t say anything!” Well your tomato face says otherwise.

          1. AngryOctopus*

            “I didn’t say anything” Funny, then why was I just in my boss’s office with your actual name being told to me as a complainant.

            1. Mrs. Hawiggins*

              She had issues, no doubt. Not only was the boss a liar but my clothes all of a sudden became “so nice.” That, and the “that’s just how she is” thing was just another chapter in my book of toxic jobs.

        4. Spinner of Light*

          Jealousy of the PROFESSIONAL kind could very well be at the heart of this problem: “They unfortunately chose to call my position “senior job title,” which I believe offended a few longtime employees right off the bat.”

          But the real problem here is the manager’s weak response to the anonymous complaints; she should have shut them down right off since the OP’s office workwear is NOT in violation of the dress code! In fact, the manager should have pointed this out to the complainants and asked them why they lodged this invalid complaint in the first place. (No, she would NOT have been told “I’m saying this because I’m jealous and being spiteful and petty is how I deal with jealousy!” But she WOULD have alerted the jealous colleague that she’s onto their little game and that it will get them nowhere.)

          1. Hannah Lee*

            I had an employee once who was complaining about a co-worker’s such and such.
            The co-worker was well within norms, didn’t even work directly with the complainer day to day.

            I looked at him and essentially said “if you can show me where in your job description it says you’re responsible for policing and enforcing the company’s (dress codes, work schedule, whatever) we can keep talking about this.
            Otherwise, you need to focus more on your own work and stop focusing on what other people are doing. Because if you’re busy keeping track of other people, that tells me you’re not focused on doing your own job”

            I think have left the door open for the employee to bring things to me if it was *directly* impacting his ability to do his job, because he had a history of rules-lawyering and disruptive “compliance”, and I didn’t want to deal with him trying to shift blame for missing deliverables because “i’d told him not to tell him stuff”

        5. Momma Bear*

          Especially if they think that it’s unfair that LW got a new, senior, role created just for them. It can certainly be rooted in jealousy, sexism, racism, etc.

          I like the pushback suggestions – I do think that LW has earned enough capital and proven herself enough to be a little “what gives?” This is demoralizing and it should be her boss’ job to buffer her from stupid complaints. It’s not that the boss needs to check the HR policy, but that the boss needs to have enough spine to enforce them – in this case in favor of LW. Something is fishy and it’s not LW’s boots.

          The other side is that LW knows she’s within dress code so she should continue to wear what she knows is appropriate. Maybe wear that dress again to see if it’s flagged again. If it was, I’d say to my boss, “We both know this is within code and it’s becoming harassment (and then quote that HR handbook because I bet it says something about harassment, too). Someone has an issue with me and I can’t address it if I don’t know who they are or what their problem is. I don’t think the real issue here is my outfit.”

          I’ve personally never reported someone for their attire to their boss. I think that’s the boss’ job to monitor and adults should be treated as such. Someone is being petty.

      2. Sloanicota*

        Oh, I read the comment a different way, like the people complaining are older men who feel entitled to police a younger woman’s wardrobe.

        1. froodle*

          this was how I read it also. In my case when it happened it was a man directing it at women he saw as “beneath” him, so my experience definitely shaped my interpretation.

      3. deesse877*

        I don’t think that’s necessarily the implication. All women are subject to misogyny, and other women can be the vectors, but there is a noteworthy special case where **succeeding at femininity**, especially when you’re younger or young-looking, will prompt people to hunt around for more clever ways to bully. This has been by far the worst and most consequential form of misogyny I have encountered, and to my knowledge younger women who like clothes etc have never been the problem. They just say “great tights!” or whatever.

        1. froodle*

          this was how I read it also. In my case when it happened it was a man directing it at women he saw as “beneath” him, so my experience definitely shaped my interpretation.

      4. CattyWampus*

        Jealousy may well be the, or at least a cause, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the person complaining isn’t “like” OP in age, gender, or attractiveness. Some of the most petty, spiteful, back-biting behavior I have ever seen came from someone who was at the same level, or even better off, than the person they were jealous of. And just because the comments are focused on dress doesn’t mean the complainer’s jealousy has anything to do with age or appearance. It’s amazing how easy it is to start picking at everything about someone when the envy is about one thing that may be vastly different from what’s getting comments.

      5. Catgirl*

        I meant jealousy but also that the complainants may be men who are “distracted” by attractive young women in the office and blame her for their wandering eyes.

      6. Observer*

        The phrasing sounds a little bit like you think jealousy is the root of the complaints.

        Indeed it does. What I don’t understand is why you think that this is wrong. While it’s true that it could just be a matter of the OP being young, attractive and possibly of another demographic that tends to get policed more that others, it is extremely likely that actual jealousy *is* absolutely at play. And given the specific complaints, I think that it’s more likely than not that jealousy is at play.

    3. B*

      They could also be a larger person, as they tend to get policed on their clothes and behavior too (that ‘nobody wants to see that’ basically).

      Basically there’s a million reasons somebody could be targeting your clothes and not others but it all boils down to your manager failing at their job for just passing it along

      1. Middle Name Danger*

        Or even just larger up top. Before I had top surgery, I could wear the exact same shirt with the exact same coverage as someone with a B or C cup and be reprimanded while they weren’t.

      2. Yorick*

        This could be, especially when you think about the rain boots example. People view the same things as sloppy or unprofessional on larger women.

        1. B*

          Or any group that makes it easier to read you as ‘unprofessional’—size, race, accent. Anything we’re looking for an excuse to read as being not classy in some way

          1. whingedrinking*

            It’s also a situation where it can be impossible to win. I’ve seen someone grouse about their sister-in-law not dressing up enough for family gatherings – but also complaining that she was a gold digger who liked “nice things” too much. In my head I imagined this woman showing up to dinner in a crop-top, leggings, and a diamond tiara.

      3. Jillian*

        This. I got three “concerns” from upper management when a female employee (mid-forties, about a size 18) wore an above-knee denim skirt and sleeveless blouse. Did she look great in the outfit? No, but it was within dress code no one complained when younger thinner women wore much skimpier outfits.

    4. Kelly*

      I got that impression as well. A friend of mine’s husband joined a fraternal organization that sometimes hosted dinners for the members to bring their wives. My friend is drop dead gorgeous and dressed perfectly appropriately for one dinner (church appropriate dress) and she still had some of the older ladies making remarks about her similarity to sex workers during the event. She started refusing to attend.

      1. deesse877*

        yeah, this is the real story: it’s not really the clothes, just a way to say “slut” and pretend that’s some kind of objective evaluation.

    5. Lisa*

      Or is a bigger woman either weight wise or endowed. It doesn’t really matter, but I would honestly go to HR about the complaint in hand and say that you are confused and have a print out of the dress too. Ask them to point it out, what is wrong with it as your manager was vague and said she didn’t agree with the feedback and couldn’t explain further? I’d have fun with the HR person and put them on the spot? Is it me as a woman wearing any dress? Is it my weight? Is it my chest? Force them to say – no and stutter over the answers. Then recap email back to that HR, the overall HR boss or email, and your manager.

    6. MicroManagered*

      Can we stop speculating on what the OP’s body might look like? It doesn’t change the advice and it’s weird.

      1. dawbs*

        I understand not wanting to speculate on bodies, but I would add “body differences” to the list of possible reasons that Alison gave.

        I think “body slightly different than the norm” is a significant chance to be a reason for a woman to be policed–regardless of what level of socially acceptable the body in question is.

        1. merida*

          Agree! I would also add “body differences” to Alison’s list of possible prejudices. Though for OP’s sake I hope it’s not that…

      2. Liz the Snackbrarian*

        Plus size women are far more likely to be dress coded than women who fit into straight sizes. Thin privilege is real. It may not change the advice, but it still happens, which means we still need to talk about it.

        1. MicroManagered*

          Mentioning that size privilege exists is lightyears away from the speculation happening in these comments — ESPECIALLY the speculation about the body type, age, etc. of the complainer. It’s not adding anything to the advice.

      3. Nesprin*

        The interactions of dress + ethnic background, or with being full figured, or with being non-gender conforming may play into the advice we give the poster, and I think its worthwhile to point out that people with non-conforming bodies are often policed more strictly than those who fit the dominant type.

        1. Parakeet*

          We can do that without suggesting anything about the complainer’s body, age, or level of conventional attractiveness, though.

      4. Lisa*

        It is relevant as how to push back with HR. Wouldn’t size whether weight or chest be discrimination (health / gender) to call out in the HR meeting? That is why I was mentioning it to not dance around it and get HR to squash all talk.

    7. Beth*

      It seems to me that OP getting a higher job title, awards, interesting projects, bonuses and raises, etc has created some jealousy, and someone is trying to nitpick at OP through whatever avenues they can. Her work sounds exemplary, so dress code is their entry point of choice.

      OP, if you’re reading this–dress reasonably professionally (as determined by your official dress code and the actual norms of your team–whichever is more formal, as unfortunately “yeah everyone does it but technically it’s against the rules” is a weak spot when someone is targeting you) and stop stressing about it. It’s clearly not holding up your career, so it’s not really your problem if someone doesn’t like how you dress. If your manager continues to bring these complaints to you, turn it back on them: “This is the third time this has come up, and each time you’ve said that there’s no problem with my clothing. I’m always interested in hearing actionable feedback, but I’m not sure what to do with this. Is there something you would advise me to change?”

      1. Charlotte Lucas*

        Why is the OP (who has done nothing wrong) being forced to hear any of this?! HR or the manager should be telling the complainer that OP is within the dress code and offer to go over the dress code policy with them.

        The OP should have never heard about the complaints.

        1. Beth*

          Yeah, but we don’t have OP’s manager here, or their HR. We just have OP, if they read the comments. OP can’t make her manager stop telling her this stuff. All she can do is push back–being like “I don’t see an action item here, what do you want me to do with this feedback?” is the professional way to say “why are you even telling me this?”

          1. Observer*

            OP can’t make her manager stop telling her this stuff. All she can do is push back–being like “I don’t see an action item here, what do you want me to do with this feedback?”

            Yes, and that’s where she should start before deciding that she’s going to need to change the way she dresses.

      2. She of Many Hats*

        Don’t ask what you need to change because then you going to be the one who ends ceding all the control to the person making the ridiculous complaints. Go with: “This is the third time this has happened, we have reviewed policy etc and I am compliant even when many others are not. Who needs to handle these complaints that are starting to look like personal attacks?”

      3. DJ Abbott*

        Agree on following the dress code. At my job they say no jeans or denim, and I am the only woman who is following that. Partly because I was struggling last year and didn’t want to give them any excuse, and partly because I wear non-denim skirts to work anyway.
        I did hate giving up the beautiful denim jacket I got in a thrift store last year. I had to wear the same old sweater all summer because I have nothing else. But I’m not giving them a reason because I was often singled out when I was younger, and I’ve learned to be cautious.
        So OP, you’re not the only one. As much as possible, don’t give anyone a valid reason for criticism. Document every instance, no matter how ridiculous it seems.

    8. AngelS.*

      Bingo! A mom once complained to my supervisor that one of the therapists was “showing too much”.
      She dressed appropriately, but her body shape could only be concealed so much. I figured she was worried her 11-year old son was starting to notice that!

    9. Nesprin*

      I’m betting on LW being young, female, and of a different ethnic background than the rest of the office.

      1. irritable vowel*

        Yup, my first thought was “tell me you’re not white without telling me you’re not white.”

    10. TG*

      Agreed – very jealous of both that and the Senior in her title. She’s also getting a lot of deserved and positive acclaim. This Manager is not good to accept this when she/he clearly doesn’t agree either.

    11. Hexiva*

      My first guess was that she has darker skin than them and that they think clothes look “less professional” on her (because they’re racist).

    12. Looper*

      I once had a male boss tell me about complaints about the way I was dressing, and the entire rest of my team was women. This went on for months and alienated me from the rest of my team. Turns out, no one made any complaints, he did this to every woman who worked for him to keep us from getting along and speaking to each other. He turned out to be a creep in other ways. It’s not always the Jealous Older Woman who is at fault in these situations.

    13. sulky-anne*

      There are so many possible explanations that guessing which one is at play becomes something of a Rorschach test. It must feel similarly frustrating to the letter writer. Unless they get the sense that they’re being singled out for discriminatory reasons, though, it probably isn’t all that helpful to speculate about what’s behind it. Their manager sucks for dumping this awkwardness in their lap.

    14. Miette*

      Alternatively, she is a woman of a certain size and must dress to a certain standard lest she be accused of appearing slovenly. Either one is unacceptable.

  2. mango chiffon*

    As someone who is more ahem “full figured” in both the chest area and general weight, I’ve also found that something that is deemed “inappropriate” on my body can be acceptable on other thinner people. People really can be offended by the body’s curves.

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      I am SO careful about cleavage in a way no one else in my office ever is, but I know if I bend over and someone gets an inch more boob in their eyes than they may find acceptable I’m going to get tutted if nothing else.

      I like my curves but clothes become difficult.

      1. Critical Rolls*

        Which is extra dumb because flat-chested people are much more likely to actually flash “unmentionables” when we lean over! A loose neckline and you can get a clear shot to my belly button if I don’t mind myself.

      2. WS*

        +1, I was cautioned for showing too much cleavage when I was covered right up to the neck but was busty. There was no actual visible cleavage!

      3. ANinnyMouse*

        I’ve got a large chest also. I make sure that my neckline is appropriate. fair, not always but I also don’t want to be known for my chest…it’s dehumanizing. Thank God for Second Base half camis! V-necks are accessible without spillover!

      4. Ismonie*

        I’ve stopped being careful about my cleavage. Like, I don’t try to show it off, but it’s very much there and it’s migratory.

    2. LGP*

      Yeah, my first thought (in addition to the race/gender/age element) was that LW might have a body that is less “acceptable” by society’s standards (fat, disabled, etc.)

    3. Keymaster of Gozer (she/her)*

      That was my thought too. I’ve had the ‘that’s inappropriate’ thing when I’m wearing the same clothing as others just because I’ve got a H chest.

      Or the ‘you can’t show any skin if you’re fat because it’s gross, but if you’re slim you can wear shorter skirts’.

    4. Erin*

      I still remember the sense of injustice I felt in 9th grade when I was dress coded for a shirt where you could see a bit of my side when I raised my hand, and as I was being escorted by the vice principal to her office to get the giant shirt they made you wear after being dress coded, we ran into a much thinner/less developed classmate of mine wearing a full on crop top. At least two inches of stomach fully exposed while she just stood there with her hands at her sides. The vice principal happily greeted her, then continued to escort me to cover up the scandalous sliver of skin that only appeared when my hand was raised.

      1. Minimal Pear*

        I had the same thing happen but in 6th or 7th grade with my skirt riding up so it was too short.

      2. Spero*

        This happened with my sister and I in school constantly – she had a more alternative style and I had a more typical fashion sense. During a time she was being constantly dress coded I would wear the item myself the next day then march down to ask why no one had complained about me and would they like to reconsider her writeup. It infuriated me that they did it AND CONTINUED for months even after we were actively calling them on it each time.

    5. Expert Paper Pusher*

      Agreed. I’ve gotten comments that a high- neckline dress is “revealing” because it clings to the curves of my bust. I’m a G cup. A potato sack would show my curves.

      1. Missy*

        And, of course if you buy clothes large enough to not be considered “clinging” to your chest it is too baggy everywhere else and suddenly you don’t look professional enough or sloppy.

        1. Tiny Soprano*

          There is literally no middle ground between evil hussy and sloppy potato person when dressing with boobs. It’s all in the meaning other people attribute to the boobs.

      2. I Have RBF*

        I’m a G cup, and enby. If you don’t think that causes issues… People clock the boobs and expect femininity from me, then act all offended when I talk like a man. There is no binder that can compress them enough, either.

        I dress in men’s clothes, don’t wear makeup, don’t carry a purse, and I still get read as female. Then I have the resulting expectations of femininity in speech and “style” to deal with.

        But unless I want to do the whole “take T and transition to male” thing with binding, etc, I am not going to be able to get top surgery unless I can pay for it 100% out of pocket.

    6. DaniCalifornia*

      Yes this is sadly true! Just got a flashback to high school chem class when my teacher made me cover up after wearing the same summer shirt my lab partner had on a week earlier. I “filled it out” more than she did. At the time I was embarrassed and cried. I wish I had had the guts to say something to her face in class in front of everyone.

  3. ferrina*

    I recommend Alison’s second script. It lands the ball solidly in the manager’s court, and if there’s another complaint, you can say “Manager explicitly said that my dress is okay.”

    The first one can get backlash if the manager reads the subtext (i.e., you need to manage in a different way). I’ve had some bosses (particularly new managers) that appreciated the subtext (especially because they thought that they had figured it out on their own, not that I had explicitly added subtext). But more often folks can get defensive about their management style. I wouldn’t risk it with this manager.

    You may also want to casually mention it to a more senior person that you are friends with. Not as a complaint, but as a “funny thing that happened!” It can help to make the senior people aware of what’s going on; it means they can keep an eye out for similar occurrences that you may not know about. Definitely sounds like some politics going on.

    1. Megan*

      Yeah, I agree that I think the second script is more likely to go over better and get the results OP wants bc it’s approaching more as “I’m confused- please provide clarity to me” without it seeming like an attack on the manager’s techniques.

    2. Sloanicota*

      It also sounds like OP is *already* holding themselves to a higher standard of dress code than everyone else, such as by skipping casual Fridays, so I would flag that too. She’s already doing more than everybody else and apparently it’s still not enough.

  4. Yup!*

    10000000% not surprised this was directed at a woman. Never, in schools or work places, have I heard a man being called up and called out for violating a dress code (and if there are, then they are flagrant exceptions that make the rule).

    1. thatoneoverthere*

      Yupp, I worked somewhere that nearly everyone wore business casual. It was my first job out of college. The guys wore khakis and polos. I (she/her) wore nice sweaters, blouses and dress pants. I was reprimanded for not wearing a suit everyday. I asked why the guys didn’t have to a suit, and it was never brought up again. So lame.

    2. Retail Dalliance*

      This is absolutely 1000% true. I work in a male dominated environment and still the women get condescending emails about our dress code. (The worst one, now probably 7-8 years ago, included a paragraph on “performing the ‘bend over’ test before leaving the house each day, to see if you reveal too much cleavage when you bend over.” People were Not Happy to be receiving that message.)

      1. Paris Rhino*

        How about a memo on the keep your eyes where they belong test? It could contain instructions on averting your eyes when somebody’s normal movement caused their clothing to reveal some thing that should be concealed.

      2. RVA Cat*

        Imagine the reaction if they asked men to test if their nipples were visible through their tight polo shirts or if their chest hair peaks out of their collar.

        1. RVA Cat*

          Or even better, for men to test their pants to check their bulges and if it’s visible whether they “dress” to the left or right.

          1. Seeking Second Childhood*

            That exact thing hit reddit a while back!
            But I suspect I remember it because of its novelty…”the exception that proves the rule.”

    3. Eldritch Office Worker*

      My husband ripped the seat of his pants at work yesterday and no one commented (or noticed, from what I can tell. He asked someone once he noticed). I’ve gotten “pulled aside” for my bra strap being visible – not even all day visible, like shifted while my arms were full visible.

      We can’t win.

      1. Overit*

        I had that happen with a terribly misogynistic (and prudish) boss who wanted me to take unpaid time to run to the nearest store for double stick tape to keep my strap in place. I told him I had an easier solution. Went to the bathroom and removed the bra. Given that I am well endowed, it was obvious. Given that he was a prude who pursed his lips when he said “bra strap”, he could not bring himself to say anything.

        1. Ally McBeal*

          Ha! Good for you! Reminds me of an urban legend at my college – we had one of those bigoted campus “preachers” who carried signs and held forth at length on the campus quad about how evil we all were. One of his favorite rants was about the fact that women can attend college and wear whatever they want, and he would specifically single out women he saw that he considered to be Jezebels. According to legend, one woman stopped, stripped to her underwear in front of him, and continued on her way. I hope it actually did happen.

      2. Throwaway Account*

        My husband has TWICE, while at work, discovered holes worn in the seat of his khakis that showed his underwear. He had no idea how many days he was wearing them with holes. He teaches at a university! No one ever said anything. I think he noticed it with the first pair, I noticed it the second time.

    4. Justme, The OG*

      The program director in my suite wears shorts and flop flops all summer. Nobody ever calls him out on it.

    5. online millenial*

      Men are called out for dress code issues, but they are almost ALWAYS along racial lines. A white man with shoulder-length hair? Fine. A Black man with shoulder-length dreadlocks? Unkempt, unprofessional, etc.

      1. Sloanicota*

        This was my thought. When men are called out at work or school, it’s generally men of color for something that falls along racial lines. It used to be terrible at my old school for “gang affiliated” stuff that was in fact really innocuous – it only became “gang affiliated” when a male POC wore it.

        1. MigraineMonth*

          So true. As a “fun” game, try to find a color that isn’t affiliated with any gang, then only wear and hope no new gang adopts it.

      2. Cute As Cymraeg*

        Also if they’re queer. Wear anything that isn’t absolutely 100% perfectly gendered “””correctly””” (gag) and the vultures will descend.

      3. Sharpie*

        As a white woman, I honestly love dreadlocks or braids on guys. I think they look amazing!

        This is from someone whose brother has longer hair than I do although I’ve never seen him wear it in any style other than down.

        1. Kesnit*

          Where I practice, all but one of the male public defenders have either a pony tail or “man bun.” The one exception is the newest hire that graduated from law school May of this year. I joked to one of my co-workers that the new guy wouldn’t last because he doesn’t have long hair.

    6. Sage*

      I had a manager venting at me about how a certain male coworker used to dress (as if it was a Sunday and he planed to stay cozy at home), but I have no knowledge that he ever told him directly.

    7. Statler von Waldorf*

      I have, once. He was wearing a safety jacket, steel toed boots, and absolutely nothing else.

      The sad part is that he probably would not have not been fired for that alone .. until he peed on his boss when the boss went to talk to him about it. That was the end of his career with the company, even with his uncle owning it.

      In comparison, I have seen my female colleagues get dress-coded over many stupid things over the years that I as a man have never been bothered about. The double standard is real, especially for younger and curvier women.

      1. Sloanicota*

        I guess I’ve seen men get called out for egregiously offensive t-shirts but they were really far over the line – and still got some wink-wink-nudge-nudge “warning” – compared to the level of surveillance aimed at women

        1. Distracted Librarian*

          Yep. The only time I ever asked an employee to dress differently, it was a middle-aged guy who wore a t-shirt with a swear word printed on the front. He worked with the public, so I couldn’t let it go.

      2. A Simple Narwhal*


        But +1000 to the point that different body types are held to different standards, especially (/almost exclusively?) for women and girls. I remember reading a story where two students wore the exact same outfit as an experiment and only the curvier girl got dress-coded. I’ve also seen multiple cases of teachers getting shamed for their outfits, where they’re absolutely dressed appropriately they just happen to be very attractive women. What are women supposed to do, leave their bodies at home??

        1. Sloanicota*

          It sucks, and sometimes the exact same item fits differently on a larger body (curvy hips make the skirt shorter, if short length is the factor in the dress code) so I also blame the clothing makers who don’t know how to size up garments.

          1. Charlotte Lucas*

            In high school, my taller skinnier sister was the same (number) size as short, curvy me. (This was the 80s, when clothes had a roomier fit.) We could literally wear the same outfit (and I mean, the actual same clothing) the same week, and it wouldn’t register to people that we had done so.

        2. Katherine*

          I went up 3 cup sizes when I was breast feeding and was spoken to about wearing “revealing” clothing; ie a scoop neck top that I had worn multiple times in my B-cup days without anyone commenting or expressing concern.

          1. A Simple Narwhal*

            Ugh I feel you on that! I finished my breastfeeding journey not too long ago and I’m still struggling with tops that no longer fit – either formally modest tops are now cleavage central or full coverage tops are now too short and have become semi-crop tops. Not to mention all of the dresses that no longer zip up past my rib cage.

            I’m hesitant to buy all new clothes because I’ve heard things can go back down but now I’m stuck rotating between the limited number of items that fit right and I feel relatively good in. It doesn’t help that this in-between phase coincides with a return to office mandate – it was so much easier when I only had to dress for the shoulders up!

            1. Merrie*

              I had pretty good luck with consignment stores to deal with that in-between sizing problem without breaking the bank. I did eventually lose the extra boobage (youngest kid is now 6), but the belly is here to stay. None of my shirts from the before-kids era survived because they all ended up being too short.

      3. Aggretsuko*

        What?! He went to work without pants and peed on someone?!?!

        I’m glad “uncle owning it” didn’t trump that, but JEESUS.

    8. Cute As Cymraeg*

      It does happen a lot, but IME only to one specific group of men — queer men, and AMAB people who are perceived by colleagues as being men.

      1. Bethany*

        “AMAB people who are perceived by colleagues as being men”

        Doesn’t that mean cis men? Why would they be singled out?

        1. Grim*

          “AMAB people who are perceived by colleagues as being men” could potentially cover a lot of territory— in this case I think it’s most relevant to closeted trans women, AMAB nonbinary people, and femme or gender nonconforming cis men. Basically anyone whose colleagues might assume they’re men, but might find themselves under increased scrutiny for not performing masculinity “correctly”.

      2. sulky-anne*

        I assume they mean trans women, transfem people or nonbinary/nonconforming/gender diverse people who might get read as men while dressing femme.

    9. Never Boring*

      I have. It was high school in the 1980s and our particularly Neanderthal wrestling coach/gym teacher chewed out a boy in gym class for refusing to remove an earring from an ear that had just been pierced. The boy pointed out that plenty of girls were wearing earrings without incident, but the teacher persisted. It was a big enough deal that it made the school paper. (Actually the dress code prohibited dangerous clothing, and that provision was most often applied to spiky leather bracelets and other punk-adjacent attire. Hey, it was the 80s.)

    10. Busy Middle Manager*

      I feel like we’ve been over this before many times, but general reminder that at most work places men have: pants/shirt/two types of shoes
      Women have: wider variety of shoes, open/closed toes/different types of heels, different height boots that go far higher than men’s boots, capris, tank-tops, backless shirts/dresses, dresses and skirts of a wide variety and length

      It would make logical sense that the group with a much wider variety of choices can violate a dress code more often. I mean, that’s why you never hear of men being called out for sleeveless or backless clothing or clothing above a certain level above the knee – it is impossible from a practical perspective. And if a guy came in in a tank top and tight gym shorts, I’m sure everyone would roast them

      1. Middle Name Danger*

        So you’re…blaming women? For dress codes that require a lot more of them than they require of men?

        1. pope suburban*

          That comment has intense vibes of “there’s no pay gap, women just get paid less because they don’t take hard jobs and miss work to have babies” and it is deeply unpleasant. We all ought to be questioning things like dress codes and how they are used to reinforce bias, and it’s disappointing to see folks here doing the opposite.

        2. Ellis Bell*

          I simply read that as meaning more options mean more thought and knowledge is required to navigate the variety of women’s workwear. Men basically have a uniform. Whereas women don’t know if their smart sandals/sleeveless shell top will fly until they’re acclimated at a new job.

        3. MissElizaTudor*

          They didn’t blame women for anything. They offered an explanation.

          A dress code with wider options doesn’t require more of women than a men’s dress code with fewer options requires of them. Women could choose to wear the same type of shirt and pants in different colors each day. I’m perceived as a woman. I’ve done the “work uniform” type of clothing, don’t do my hair, and don’t do makeup, and it was as easy as any typical man’s outfit. Easier in some ways, tbh, since I could adjust for hot weather more than men.

          The issue is more with societal norms and expectations for women to wear more than a couple different outfits, do more with their hair, wear make up, etc., and the judgement that women, especially ones who are additionally marginalized, face when they violate those expectations. Women tend to be judged and harmed by that judgement more than men are, especially when it comes to appearance.

          1. Distracted Librarian*

            +1 to your last paragraph. Also, as others have pointed out, even standard “work uniform” clothing will fit differently on female body types–and certain body types (like a large bust) are so sexualized, even the most boring work clothes may get called out as “too sexy.”

          2. rebelwithmouseyhair*

            I honestly think that women can just wear boring clothes at work. Look at Angela Merkel. Whatever you think of her legacy as Chancellor of Germany, the fact is that she did the job and was not subjected to sexist comments. She wore the same kind of trouser suit all the time, in various fairly muted colours. Nobody ever commented on her clothing.
            I’ll admit to not wanting to always wear the same old thing to work, I like a bit of variety in colour and length and style. And I accept that wearing different clothes gets different reactions. Luckily I’ve never fallen foul of any dress code, but I’ve mostly worked in places where formal dress is not required.

      2. pope suburban*

        Don’t be fatuous. People here are specifically talking about times when they have complied with their dress codes but still ben censured in a way that male employees are not. Defending this is nothing more than trolling and displays a remarkable amount of bad faith.

        1. Mario Fischer*

          I feel like this was a pretty innocent comment for the poster to be accused of “a remarkable amount of bad faith.”

      3. Beth*

        Men do get dress coded. It’s just usually not white cishet men. It’s black men for their hairstyles, or gay men for dressing ‘too femininely’, or trans men for dressing like men and happening to exist around a transphobe, or any number of similar concerns.

        If you’re imagining all men in the workforce wear slacks, polo shirts, close toed dress shoes, and short-clipped hairstyles, and seriously thinking that men never get dress coded, then I’m wondering about the level of diversity in the places you’ve worked.

      4. Elspeth McGillicuddy*

        Yeah. I do think a lot of it is sexism, but I also agree that a lot of it is simply that men aren’t allowed to wear a lot of what women can wear in the first place. For instance, women get judged for wearing the wrong length of skirt, but men haven’t been allowed to wear skirts at all for about 400 years.

        1. Gumby*

          This will be news to a former co-worker of mine who is male and who only ever wore kilts. Kilts with lots of pockets, and frequently in camo-patterned fabric. (It was a tech company so the dress code wasn’t strict.) No one had a problem with that. I didn’t care and didn’t really notice but I suspect they were roughly knee length.

        1. WestsideStory*

          This is fascinating especially tbe research on species and the point about men having nipples! And the buried idea that decision overload at an unconscious level is a handicap no matter where you work.
          This is a must read and thank you for sharing this. It’s going to inspire a lot of conversation…

      5. Critical Rolls*

        Yet the issue under discussion is *not* that a wider variety of clothing options lead to more dress code violations, but that dress codes are applied with wild inconsistency across genders and across bodies. Please see “detectable nips.”

    11. Pet Jack*

      Not to split hairs, but the thing that always got the guys at my company, were flip flops. My “sandals” were really flip flops but it was fine. I swear it was the hairy toes on the men.

      I did not mean to use “split hairs” and then “hairy toes.” I’ve decided not to edit.

    12. Dinwar*

      Men get called out on this. I (male) was flagged for violating our dress code. I had to come into the office from a field site (had to print off some documents), and apparently wasn’t in appropriate office attire. Of course I wasn’t–I was in steel-toed boots, safety vest, safety glasses, jeans, and a blank t-shirt, because that’s what the job I was coming from required.

      I found out that this was part of a power-play between two factions in the office. I was someone that could easily be attacked (low-level employee on the Enemy’s side), so I was made into a target. It had nothing to do with the dress code, it was all about making my side look bad. And honestly, that seems to be a common theme among the men who’ve gotten reprimanded for dress code violations that I’ve spoken with. For women it’s about policing their bodies; for men it’s about policing behavior (often not even of the man in question).

      1. DollarStoreParty*

        Did you take everything off except the safety vest and steeled toed boots and then pee on the boss at your uncle’s company? If so, we’d like a word. (See Statler Von Waldorf’s comment, above)

    13. Great Maker*

      I worked with a gay man who was reprimanded for “violating” the dress code. On casual days he would wear pristine, slim cut jeans and graphic t-shirts (think main stream superheros or Sanrio characters – always clean and pressed), which were not prohibited. This was while bro-y guys wore much more distressed/dirty jeans and rumpled sports themed t-shirts and jerseys. In fact we had a director who loved Marvel movies and would routinely wear his Captain America shirt and jeans on the same days…but, WEIRDLY, the out, slender, femme-coded gay man was the one who was unprofessional!

    14. Teacher372*

      I work at a school, I’ve only had to mention the dress code to a high school girl once (she took off her shirt and was just wearing a bra). I’ve had to talk to high schools boys every single year-they have a tendency to take their shirts off when outdoors thinking that being outside for a class means the dress code (i.e. wearing shirts) doesn’t apply anymore.

    15. sulky-anne*

      I didn’t see the LW explicitly self-identify as a woman in the post, although I’m guessing they would have mentioned if they thought gender nonconformity was likely a part of the issue. Not trying to play devil’s advocate, but as someone who is tired of being presumed female, I do think it’s worth double-checking our assumptions about gender.

  5. CTT*

    Oh man, something exactly like this happened to me when I was a summer associate in a BigLaw firm. There was a complaint that I was not dressing formally enough was made and delivered to me by my mentor. The worst parts were (1) they did not tell me who made the complaint or what the offending garment was so I had no way to narrow down what had set them off (I had also worked in BigLaw prior to law school, so I had a sizeable if not up-to-date professional wardrobe so I was like “what if it’s all inappropriate?!”) and (2) my mentor shared this information with me in the office while she was wearing yoga pants.

    Because it apparently came from a more senior attorney, I panic-bought some new clothes and it wasn’t brought up again. But! it definitely opened my eyes to look more closely at how the firm managed things and I started to notice other weirdness myself or in discussions with the other summer associates and declined the firm’s offer at the end of the summer. This isn’t an “OMG QUIT NOW,” but a suggestion to use this opportunity to figure out if you just have a wimpy manager and someone who’s a weirdo about the dress code, or if it’s indicative of more widespread issues.

    (Oh, and I later found out that the complaint came from a senior attorney who spent a lunch with the other summers talking about how she didn’t care if her son’s friends didn’t meet the grade threshold for a position at the firm the next summer, she was getting them in there! Because of course it did.)

    1. Megan*

      This definitely sounds like you most likely were being unfairly targeted for dress code for some BS biased reasons. I’m sorry you had to deal with that. The only thing I can think of that possibly could have been behind the complaint besides bias, is maybe your previous outfits fit the letter of the code, but not intent…like if they were possibly very dated or ill-fitting etc. That might not have been the case for you, but that’s a good thing for people in companies with uber high dress standards to keep in mind that part of professionalism is looking well put together in addition to wearing clothes that meet the dress code standards.

      1. CTT*

        It did cause me to realize that I had a few things that were business casual appropriate when I was a 23 year-old staff member but not as a 28 year-old future attorney, so that actually was helpful, but hilariously, based on the few number of times I met the woman who apparently made the complaint, I figured out that I had not been wearing any of those pieces at the time. I probably just wore something that she deemed Horribly Inappropriate but most other people are cool with, and she was an awful enough person she made a big deal about it.

  6. Retail Dalliance*

    I agree that whoever is doing this complaining has some bone to pick with LW that is beyond “dress code” or anything adjacent to it. If I were LW, I would want to emphasize that I am dressing to the same level of formality as everyone else in the office, and I’d want to cite specific examples of others dressing similarly–not to throw them under the bus, but to make obvious the discrepancy here.

    This would absolutely rattle me, so I want to validate LW’s feelings (I’d be fuming, personally) and echo Alison’s sentiments about asking the boss to handle things differently going forward. I’m not sure what changes have been made to “make the dress code more clear,” but enforcing the dress code unevenly is deeply problematic and probably, in many instances, actually illegal. Good luck LW. Please do update us on this one!

    1. Sloanicota*

      The only thing I’d mention is that OP should be comparing herself specifically to people at her own level – not that I think she isn’t, but if she’s client-facing or more senior the bar may be legitimately higher, and she doesn’t want to be pointing to either the lower-level admin or the senior partner as her example. She should reference her boss and other Senior X people, if there are any, or the people closest to that rank to really make her case. Ideally 2-3 people.

    2. Jellyfish Catcher*

      Not necessarily personal, I’m guessing just some opportunistic jerk, of either sex.

      My husband and I were once in the military together. Except for gendered tailoring, we wore the exact same uniform and insignia, down to the shoes. We arrived with a dozen new staff, me the only female.
      Guess who was reported for having insignia supposedly incorrectly placed.
      The difference: my (male) CO backed me up, a great manager.
      Your manager is not going to change.
      I suggest taking photos of all your supposed clothing violations, just in case you have to address this.

  7. Teekanne Aus Schokolade*

    is your workplace comprised of very religious individuals at all? My own conservative father has been ickily open about passing on hiring or writing up women with large chests because “they would be a distraction to the other engineers”. not surprising though was that my mom left him because he joined his co-workers at brothels on business trips.

    1. Texan In Exile*

      Holy smoke this makes me furious. We’re punished because some men think other men can’t mind their own business?

    2. Cheesesteak in Paradise*

      Not sure what’s religious about going to brothels or ogling women. If G*d exists, then G*d made bosoms, large and small.

  8. Willow*

    Sounds like she can’t win. Ruffling feathers by dressing more professionally than the rest of the office and complaints if she doesn’t.

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      Yeah I get the impression this has nothing to do with dress code – someone or someones has it out for for OP and will look for any opportunity to undermine her. Dress code is a simple one because it’s a “policy”.

      OP, this is really frustrating and I’m sorry you’re dealing with it – but given that it sounds like you’re being targeted, I might take some solace in the fact that this is the worst thing they can “get you” on. You must be doing your job very well if this is the only room someone has to hassle you.

      1. Sloanicota*

        Yeah honestly someone probably has it out for her, knows the office has a bugaboo about the dress code, and is using that as ammunition. I have a hard time believing someone was really so offended by that dress.

    2. MCMonkeyBean*

      I’m not sure where you get that she was ruffling feathers by dressing more professionally?

      1. Sparkles McFadden*

        That is reading a bit into the letter, but this is absolutely A Thing That Happens, especially if someone is weaponizing the dress code. Suddenly, the problem is not that you are violating the dress code, but that you are overdressing and trying to show off and make everyone else look bad. There is no winning with craziness like this.

        The boss is ridiculous though. No, the manger doesn’t “have to” pass on anonymous complains. The manager has to shut that nonsense down at the source.

  9. Paris Rhino*

    I would go to HR about both incidents right now to essentially get ahead of the issue and get your point of view recorded. Describe both events just as you have here, that you were wearing shoes that other people were wearing and that you were wearing a dress that meets the dress code, and explain that you might be seeing a trend and that you want to make sure that HR is looped into the situation so that they have the full context just in case the trend that might be developing is real.
    Also have a conversation about what the expectations are for managers when complaints with no basis come into them.In the case of the dress, your manager saw the dress and already knew that there was no basis for the complaint. More generally, I am sure they will say that managers have to investigate complaints, but it doesn’t make sense for a manager to tell you about a complaint that they haven’t already investigated unless they are asking for your take on the situation as part of the investigation.

  10. Not Tom, Just Petty*

    Yeah, OP, your boss is failing. My boss will tell people who complain about dress code issues within our group that our group is hers to manage and until it’s a problem with her, it is not a problem.

    1. MsM*

      I’m always suspicious when there are repeated “anonymous complaints” about things that really seem like they shouldn’t be problems whether the anonymous complainant is actually the person bringing the complaints to one’s attention, and they just refuse to own whatever their problem is.

      1. Caramel & Cheddar*

        I wonder about this too when I hear stuff like this. “Someone complained and that someone is actually me.”

        1. JustaTech*

          Yes to this. I had a director chastise me because “someone said you were flippant” at a group presentation – I wasn’t flippant, I was brief, because the project I was reporting on had changed drastically two days before and I had nothing to say beyond “the project changed dramatically so all previous work is now irrelevant”.

          I don’t know why the director chose to not own that they were upset at me except that I might have directly called out that his complaint was both untrue and sexist.

        2. BubbleTea*

          Yes, this is exactly what I immediately suspected. There aren’t really any good reasons to share an anonymous complaint that you don’t agree with, so either you do agree or it’s a cover story for your own complaint.

    2. Cat Tree*

      Yeah, I’m a manager and trying to imagine getting a complaint like this. I can’t even fathom my current employees making such a complaint. For someone to get to this point of reporting about the dress code, they almost certainly would have been showing other signs of poor judgment. If it was some weird isolated event I’d ask if it was a safety concern, and if not, politely tell them to mind their own business. If it happened again after that I’d be taking a closer look at their judgment in other areas of the job.

      1. rollyex*

        The closest I had was a slightly more senior manager I did not report to mention to me that since we were having a variety of online events with some places very conservative about dress for women we should consider alerting staff to this. Which I did. The content only really applied to women (since it used bare shoulders as an example) and external events involving those places – I made it clear it was only about that.

        The person who mentioned it to me was actually going to speak in the UAE or something so the issue was on her mind.

        I’m pretty tuned into staff opinions in my org (and people, particularly junior people, IM me frankly a lot) and we did not get pushback or ruffle feathers that I know of. Maybe, but I did not hear anything. It was not presented as a dress code but a request to dress for our audience.

    3. Ellis Bell*

      OP, you gave the benefit of the doubt with the shoes, but now the bud is begging to be nipped. I would be saying to the boss “When you complain about clothing that you personally approve of, and that the rest of the office is also wearing, that is truly baffling to me and it’s not really helpful to me to hear about I am perceived differently. It’s just causing me to feel targeted and at this point I’m more interested in hearing what the real motive is behind these complaints, and I’m hoping you discover and resolve what that is shortly. If the same complainant makes trouble in other ways, I’d also expect that to be dealt with”.

  11. Alas*

    Was the boss who complimented the dress and the manager who relayed the feedback the same person? I had a supervisor who loved to frame every not-technically-against-the-rules criticism as the word of a mysterious ‘someone else’ who later turned out to not exist.

    1. Sloanicota*

      I admit I had a boss who used to this. “Someone mentioned …” or “people feel …” actually meant it was her own criticism that she didn’t want to own.

    2. BlondeSpiders*

      I wonder/hope that at least one of the people who complimented her dress was an exec of some sort, or HR. Best case scenario: the person who asked for the website link.
      “Hey, did you find that dress? You’ll never believe what happened…”

    3. The New Wanderer*

      That was my first thought too – the manager is the one with the issue rather than some ‘anonymous’ complainant. That would make sense particularly if OP’s manager either a) didn’t want OP on the team and is low-key lashing out, or b) has been fielding a lot of Emotions about OP’s stellar performance from one or some of OP’s colleagues but without actual performance issues to criticize, it’s manifesting as something easy to pick on, like so-called appropriate dress.

      In any case, the manager sucks for playing this weak “someone made a baseless complaint so you have to hear about it” game. I would memorize Alison’s second script and be ready to use it next time this happens.

    4. Heta-uma*

      “You wanted to know who complained? Oh, uh, you don’t know them. They’re in a different branch. In Canada”

    5. Chirpy*

      I did call this out to a coworker once. She interestingly hasn’t made any “some people say X about you” comments since I pointed out that she was the only one who ever said that to me.

    6. Jojo*

      I had a boss who did this (I eventually told him that if he kept going, I was going to ask to have HR present and guess what stopped?). He also once told me that a coworker complained about something I did that wasn’t against any kind of company policy and told me he had to tell me because he said he would. I am so glad that dude is gone. He was such an ass.

      OP, your manager stinks. I bet if you pay a bit more attention, you are likely to see some other sketchy behaviors.

    7. Peanut Hamper*

      I once worked for someone who was the textbook definition of passive-aggressive and this is very much in their playbook.

      Just keep asking “Who?” They eventually diminished this behavior (although it never entirely went extinct).

  12. Heidi*

    So why are duck boots against the dress code? The manager mentioned stuff like flip-flops and leggings, which read as too casual, but it seems bizarre that they would be against waterproof gear when the weather demands it. The fact that it doesn’t seem to be enforced equitably and is being weaponized to make passive aggressive digs at coworkers are also reasons to update this dress code.

    1. Sloanicota*

      In my office, to be fair, walking around in rubber shoes wouldn’t be okay. It would be noticeably informal. The move is to wear the boots on the commute but then change into formal shoes once you arrive (and it would be okay to walk to your desk in them if it was obvious you were about to change). However, it’s pretty small potatoes – I might advise a new person, not criticize them.

      1. Alexander Graham Yell*

        Yep, my current office they’d be okay, but in my old company they would be the kind of thing that was fine if your jacket was on (because you’re clearly coming/going) but you’d get a reminder about the dress code if you didn’t change them once you were in the office.

        Of course, that was in a place where it was super common to have “commuting shoes” and we had a whole room to store jackets/keep nicer shoes in the office itself vs. having to have them in your bag.

      2. Dust Bunny*

        Yeah, I don’t know that I’d be reprimanded for it, but it would be conspicuous and I would want to be careful to remember “indoor” shoes next time.

      3. NotAnotherManager!*

        Yes, commuting via bus/train is fairly common in DC, and I (like a lot of my colleagues) have an extensive collection of work-appropriate shoes in my desk. If you see me wearing my sneakers, I have just entered the building and not made it to my office yet or I’m headed home for the day.

      4. Freya*

        In my office, if there’s clients in, we formal up a little. No clients? One of my coworkers has slippers under her desk to keep their toes warm in while they type, and I have sneakers I’ve put elastic laces in. Some of us like being a little dressier, and they get compliments for it, but those of us who don’t face no penalties and I LOVE IT.

    2. Cyndi*

      I did work in an office that was very casual overall; no one would have batted an eye at wearing your snow boots all day. But they loved their security theatre and, shortly after I started there, quietly changed the dress code to only allow ankle high boots. This didn’t ban duck boots per se but this forced most people to either buy a new pair on short notice (they made the change in November) or start bringing a change of shoes to work every day to an office with t-shirt-and-jeans level formality.

      This was a mandatory “leave everything in your locker” place too–and the lockers were tiny.

    3. rollyex*

      I’m not sure about rules, but duck boots look outdoorsy and made for mud. They have a serious “I am oftn be walking in mud” vibe.

      I take off shoes in my home, but not in my office. At home I sometimes let visitors keep their shoes on, but duck boots would scream “no no no, get them off” to me. Not rational, but that’s the vibe. If other people were wearing dress shoes or dressy boots, they would not look so good.

      Not saying I’d reprimand someone, or even mention it to them. But in a business casual place where most people wore dress shoes or dressy sneakers, they’d look bad.

  13. JP*

    I used to work for a company owned by a Mennonite family and in a conservative area. Most of the employees were conservative Mennonite or Brethren. My boss was very spineless, and I would get pulled in regularly to his office because “someone” had a problem with what I was wearing three days ago, or last week, or something similarly vague. Every woman, except the most conservative ones who wore knee length skirts and head coverings, were subject to this treatment. HR flat out told me I had to dress very conservatively because otherwise I’d get the field guys worked up. It was my first job out of college, so I had no basis for how out of hand this all was.
    I eventually got a new boss who, while somewhat conservative, wasn’t an absurd, spineless pushover, and suddenly I stopped hearing about these complaints. He later told me that he basically told most of the complainers to pound sand.

    1. ThatGirl*

      This is definitely not exclusive to Mennonites, but yeah, I can see that (and as someone raised a more liberal strain of Mennonite I’m very curious where this was lol)

      1. JP*

        This was in Pennsylvania Dutch country. Some of my coworkers were more liberal Mennonite women, and they weren’t immune to it, either.

        I did get to overhear some of what these devoutly religious field guys would say when they thought they could get away with it, and they were absolute pigs. But, they were never the ones reprimanded. Always the woman’s fault.

        1. Veryanon*

          I interviewed once for a position with a company based on the edges of PA Dutch Country, and most of their workers were Amish/Mennonites that they bused in from Lancaster County. I wore a suit with a jacket and matching pants to the interview because it was February and cold! I’m still convinced that’s why I didn’t get the job.

        2. ThatGirl*

          Yes, I am familiar with the “it’s always the women’s fault for tempting the men” types. Again, certainly not exclusive to Mennonites, but rampant in more conservative circles. (I split my childhood between the Philly area and northern Indiana.)

  14. Trawna*

    I’m going to go full cynical on this, and speculate that this wardrobe non-issue is entirely the manager’s doing.

    Manager loves how good LW’s work performance makes them look. Manager wants to keep that reputational gravy train going for themself while also keeping LW not quite sure of herself so she doesn’t move up via internal application or become a rival for manager’s job.

    Other option – someone else on the team feels this way and manager is their dupe and patsy.

    I’ve seen it. I’ve been the target. Luckily, I was later in my career and didn’t give a hoot.

    1. ILoveLlamas*

      That was my cynical initial thought as well. I had a manager who would always use the “other people” way to critique silly things.

      1. Ellis Bell*

        I would force a boss to spell this out though: “Well as long as it’s fine with you! You are the boss! I’m sure you can explain your standards to people just as well as you have to me!” and if they start naming shadowy more senior figures I would be so very helpfully curious: “So do they only object with certain people? Because it seems like the general dress code is actually against their wishes?” while making notes, obviously.

    2. Texan In Exile*

      I had a boss tell me that I needed to stop using “big words” that “make people feel stupid.”

      I asked him which words? Which people?

      He could not tell me.

      A co-worker laughed and said our boss was talking about himself.

      1. Jojo*

        I had a coworker criticize me for using 50 cent words early in my career and I have no idea where this came from, but I turned to him and said, “Well, for you Bob, I’ll try to stick to 25 cent words.” It’s the rudest thing I’ve ever said in a professional setting, and all these years later, I still think back to his face, and it was SO WORTH IT. Of course, it wasn’t my boss, so I never heard about it.

    3. ccsquared*

      Right, I was coming here to ask LW if there are other ways in which her boss benefits from her excellence but tries to subtly keep her in her lane so as not to be outshone? Because that’s honestly what it sounds like to me, having dealt with a boss who loved the impact I was having but hated sharing the limelight.

  15. TootsNYC*

    I remember once being in a horrid job situation in terms of my relationship with my boss.
    And then my boss called me into her office to say, “I’ve been told you are trashing me to other people—you need to remember we have friendships that overlap.”
    I was stunned. I had actually isolated myself from my friends, and I’d had a heart-to-heart with ONE person. I was beating myself up over my indiscretion.

    Later my husband and I went to dinner with a longtime friend, and when I told her about this conversation, she got really heated, and the first thing she said was: “What was the problem with those friends? They had NO business repeating anything to her. For your sake, AND for hers.”

    So yeah, I like the idea of asking the manager to “please not pass on to me criticisms that you actually disagree with. It gives me a huge burden that seems unfair, especially since you don’t think I need to do anything with it. Other people’s opinions of me are none of my business, especially if there’s nothing I should be doing differently. People are allowed to dislike me, but I don’t want to hear about it. That’s demoralizing.”

    1. Pizza Rat*

      “—you need to remember we have friendships that overlap.”

      I had a boss who said about a person in another department, “X is my friend and I will always support anything they say.” That including taking their side against his own team.

      I was happy to get out of there.

    2. Goldenrod*

      Agreed. I had a manager pass along “feedback” to me that was clearly a complete fabrication. When I dug into it, asked around, and entirely disproved it, I went back to her with my evidence.

      Then it became, “Oh, well, so-and-so (the person with the “feedback”) is just really stressed right now, and under a lot of pressure.” Oh, gee, well that explains it.

      It clearly never occurred to her that maybe she should not pass along every bit of nonsense that she heard.

    3. soontoberetired*

      oh man, I know someone who would repeat anything said to her about someone to that person. She loved the drama but it ended up with her having no work friends. No one showed up to her retirement party.

  16. Caramel & Cheddar*

    “Passing the complaint on to you with “I disagree but I’m obligated to tell you” is ridiculous — it’s an abdication of her responsibilities as a manager, as well as really thoughtless about the way that’s likely to make you feel.”

    Thank you for saying this. I don’t know why so many managers do this (other than that they’re bad at managing), but I always wonder what the recipient is supposed to do with the information they’ve received that both they and their boss agree was a ludicrous complaint in the first place. The only takeaway I ever have is “you have to be careful in this weird pit of punitive vipers” but I suspect that’s not what they intended the takeaway to be.

    1. Sloanicota*

      Sometimes it comes from higher up, and that’s why they do this, particularly if they don’t want you to know who it was because you’d resent the grandboss and it would be obvious that’s who said it. But I agree that it’s annoying.

    2. Ex-prof*

      Especially when it’s anonymous. Like “From now on, please spend the day side-eyeing your coworkers.”

    3. Busy Middle Manager*

      OMG yes, the “dress code” part is barely registering in my brain but this is 95% of what is infuriating about this letter. I am a manager and after enough years, I’ve heard everyone complain about everyone. Sometimes stuff slips out when people are having a bad or difficult day, and they’ll something not very flattering about a coworker who is perhaps having a lazy day. It’s happen in every direction. If I repeated it all to everyone else, there would be such discord on the team and between teams!

    4. NotAnotherManager!*

      Yeah, I’ve gotten my fair share of dress code complaints over the years, and I’m not passing on the ones where what someone is wearing is not a dress code violation just for the sake of sharing. Nor am I telling the man who worked an overnighter on an emergency client project that the office busybody is “concerned” his polo shirt wasn’t tucked in when he saw him in the elevator when he hadn’t been home in 24 hours. I also did not pass along the “feedback” from someone known to be catty that one of my senior folks needed to “smile more” (prepare to be shocked, but this was directed at a woman of color) – I did provide some feedback in the other direction on that particular one, though, which was clearly not what Catty Cathy intended to have happen.

    5. i drink too much coffee*

      Yep… I once had one of these conversations because a “higher up” apparently overheard me talk about how sexism is real when I was jokingly complaining that my pants didn’t have any pockets.

      For the record, sexism IS real and I do think my pants need pockets lol

      1. Sharpie*

        I don’t see very well but one of my future projects once the house is longer upside down is to put pockets in a pair of my trousers that doesn’t have even enough pocket for half an index finger. It’s positively ridiculous that women’s clothing comes with itty bitty pockets, if they’ve got pockets at all

      2. merida*

        Wait, does that mean you had a higher up tell you that what you said was inappropriate somehow?? As a fellow feminist who also wants pockets I’m curious, haha :)

    6. Goldenrod*

      “The only takeaway I ever have is “you have to be careful in this weird pit of punitive vipers” ”

      LOL. I love that! That was my takeaway in those situations – that, and guess it’s time to start job hunting.

      1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

        Yup, the lesson here is that (at least some of) your co-workers suck and your manager does not have your back.

    7. fhqwhgads*

      Yeah, like, unless “but I’m obligated to tell you” = “plus infer the subtext that the CEO is the one who complained”, no, you weren’t obligated, and even if CEO did complain, this is a particularly unhelpful way of framing it.

  17. Keymaster of Gozer (she/her)*

    Complaints that ‘someone’ objected to you but can’t specify exactly why nor how you’re doing wrong are absolute hot garbage and shouldn’t be even entertained.

    I strongly suspect whoever it is knows that they can make a complaint about literally anything, even if it’s not against policy, and they’ll be considered in the right. It’s a personal vendetta.

    Definitely go back to your boss with a ‘unless they can point to an exact violation of our dress code that I’m committing I don’t want to hear these nebulous complaints. They’re not actionable’

  18. ElsaBug*

    It’s difficult to see this in anyway but gendered. I remember being reprimanded as a young female student teacher for my dress not being formal enough while all the older male teachers dressed exactly like the part time coaches they were.

  19. mb*

    I personally would document what other people are wearing who are dressed more casually than you are every day for a month. Not to throw anyone under the bus – just to show the inconsistency of the interpretation and enforcement of the dress code. Then also go to your boss and ask them not to pass on vague criticisms of your wardrobe if they are baseless. As Alison said, frame it as “of course” the manager wouldn’t want them held to a different standard, particularly if the OP belongs to a protected class and it could be interpreted as discrimination.

    I would LOVE an update on this at some point.

    1. Peoplesuck*

      It would be interesting if the LW would start going to other people’s managers about their not complying with the dress code, then it would become an office wide problem that HR would have to address.

      1. Cute As Cymraeg*

        I was witness to a spectacular example of this being used for great justice.

        AMAB colleague, ‘Rey’ (I’m not clear on how he identified, but I found out later that he happily used any pronouns) interviewed for a job with us ‘in boy mode’. And he stuck to boy mode for a month or so, until he felt comfortable enough to come in wearing his preferred attire: dresses. Really cute dresses, all roughly kneelength, and ‘goth girl’ platform boots. We were a very, VERY casual office and nobody had ever had a problem with people’s clothes… but somehow, suddenly an AMAB person who was wearing smarter clothes than almost anyone else in the building was ‘inappropriate’.

        His manager put up with (read: ignored/rebuffed) all the whining, until the scruffiest and most inappropriate person in the place (thought nothing of standing to hoike her tights up in front of God and everyone) decided to join the bullying.

        At which point, Manager made it known publicly that if she heard ONE MORE WORD about Rey’s clothing, she would institute a strict dress code for the entire office. She would send people home if they didn’t stick to it. _And Rey would still be allowed to wear a dress._

        Silence reigned thereafter. Rey remains extremely gainfully employed, still wearing his pretty dresses.

  20. Jayne not Jane*

    I admit I am spoiled by having nearly 10 years of extremely lax dress codes. Basically as long as you don’t come in sporting PJs or a tshirt with the F word on it, you’re good. I am not a fan of extremely strict dress codes. In fact I turned down an interview for a law firm (in a support role), bc I didn’t want to dress up every day LOL. I really do think people need to mind their business a little more, when it comes to policing people’s outfit choices. Unless of course safety is at risk.

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      My office came back from COVID lockdown and everyone threw the dress code out the window. Everyone. And it was clearly a “what are you going to do, fire all of us?” silent protest against having to wear pants again (no one showed up in PJs but the ‘casual’ part of business casual is getting a lot more play). The CEO occasionally gets miffed about it but also shows up in jeans fairly often now.

      We only request people look nice to meet with clients (waist up, to meet with clients virtually). Otherwise, not a battle worth picking.

      1. Critical Failure*

        Same here. I’m so glad bootcut yoga pants have come back in style because I’ve mostly replaced my work pants with those :D As long as they aren’t stuffed-sausage tight I can swap them out pretty easily and no one seems to care.

  21. Laure001*

    Ok, now I think nobody complained and this comes from the “wimpy” manager. I know, paranoid fanfiction!

  22. WellRed*

    I haven’t read anything this gendered and appalling since the letter about the very pregnant lawyer or exec whose sexist boss wanted her to wear business formal like sheath dresses.

    1. A Simple Narwhal*

      Oof I forgot about that one! I’m glad that HR stepped in immediately and there was ultimately a happy ending.

        1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

          Hooboy, I hadn’t seen that one. I would have been very curious what he would have come up with if asked for links to clothing for sale that he found acceptable.

        2. daffodil*

          I forgot about that one. Can you imagine telling a pregnant woman to wear a belt?!? I’m surprised he didn’t evaporate from collective scorn the minute the first letter published.

          1. commonsensesometimesmakessense*

            And no empire waists or side ruching … ummm, does he not understand how pregnancy affects the body? It sounds to me like he was trying to find a really flimsy excuse to fire her for getting pregnant in the first place. Which actually feels absurd to me, because I worked in corporate America and sadly, managers would just flat out say they weren’t hiring or promoting someone because she was pregnant (it being illegal did not matter to them).

        3. commonsensesometimesmakessense*

          Somehow I missed that one before, but I found the update both really surprising and yet not at all surprising at the same time!

  23. Ex-prof*

    It sounds like LW is suspecting that someone who hoped for more promotion themselves is behind all this, and I think she’s right.

  24. Young Business*

    Ah, the wimpy manager! I have been trying to articulate the dynamic between me and my current boss. They are letting their boss dictate my role and they don’t advocate for me or my position.

    LW, hope your wimpy manager gets a backbone and hope you stop being nitpicked/targeted.

  25. Veryanon*

    Work dress codes are such a waste of everyone’s time. JFC. And I say this as an HR professional who has had to write my fair share of such dress codes. If people are productive, not in customer facing roles, their bits are covered and they’re not wearing anything offensive, who cares if they wear rubber boots or jeans?

    1. Ssssssssssssssssss*

      Agreed. It creates animosity where none was warranted.

      I worked at a place where jeans/denim were not permitted at all. My coworker Quiet Quinn was so annoyed that someone else – from a different floor! – was wearing corduroy pants that were cut and styled like a pair of jeans, with all the rivets in the right places and felt it was pushing the limits of the dress code.

      And did it impact my coworker in anyway? Nope. But it triggered her in the worst way. Mind, Quiet Quinn saw the world rather often in black and white terms and loved her rules. But her annoyance was over the top for a minor thing.

      1. House On The Rock*

        Years ago, when I worked in Corporate CubeLand, we had a pretty strict dress code and it actually called out “jeans style pants with rivets” as being forbidden. That struck me as such an over the top thing to police, but it was probably born out of just such a scenario.

        1. ArtsNerd*

          On the other hand, I knew someone who worked at a small law firm that issued a memo stating that “blue jeans” were not appropriate office attire. She started wearing black denim because “they’re lawyers; they should know better.” No one said a word!

    2. Critical Failure*

      I wish most dress code rules would just die. I work at a university and I don’t think any of the students are impressed by any of the clothes we wear. I also fail to see how a tech person who just had to dart across campus on a Texas summer day and has drenched their slacks and dress shirt is any more “professional” than if they were able to wear something more appropriate for the weather that made them more comfortable.

      I’m also of the opinion that if my organization wants me to dress a certain way (beyond common sense/safety reasons) then they should provide the clothing to me.

    3. Jelly*

      Also, would love to not have to wear a blazer, blouse, and slacks if I’m interviewing in 100-degree weather, especially if interviewers are going to count my sweat against me. Talk about a catch-22.

  26. HonorBox*

    OP, I’m sorry that you’re going through this. I agree that your boss is a wimp and you didn’t need to hear about the complaints, especially when they disagree with them.

    A conversation with HR might be helpful, for a couple of reasons. First, they should probably address your boss and point out that what they did with the conversation with you didn’t actually solve anything, and actually created more issues. Second, they might need to look at the current dress code. It could be that it was written awhile ago and it needs to be adjusted. Perhaps there are enough new people in the office that some additional specifics need to be added. I had to overhaul ours recently and had to specifically point out things that were not allowed… ever. Third, it will put them on notice that there’s someone who is raising concerns about your attire and that person may be targeting you for another reason once the dress code thing is settled.

  27. Lobstermans*

    LW: if HR doesn’t tug the forelock hard enough, get a lawyer to write a nastygram.

    This is good info about the wimpy POS boss. The good news is that getting promoted or transferred will help a lot.

  28. Capt. Liam Shaw*

    Not crazy about both of these scripts, especially the first one. Way too wordy and makes it about the LW’s feelings too.

    I think the next time this comes up. Just ask your manager why she keeps bringing these complaints to you if she doesn’t agree with them. Then be quiet and see what she says. I bet a Subway footlong sandwich she is going to say “you have a right to know.”

    Once she responds with a reason you can decide how to proceed.

    Personally I would make it clear to her that the continued conversations feels like harassment and bullying.

    I say that is what I would do, because I have little faith in wimpy managers growing a spine. Sadly moving to another job is really the only solution.

  29. BellaStella*

    2015-17 I worked for a non profit legal services org. Dress code was suits and dresses, no open toed shoes/flip flops, no shoulders showing, only white grey black or blue coloured clothes. It was indeed a shitshow as you can imagine.

    1. BellaStella*

      Sorry meant to also add that I am sorry you are dealing with this OP. I would deal with this as such: I would note a colleague’s violation and go to their boss and ask about it. Do this once a month to various colleagues and their bosses for the next 6 months or so making sure to cover 6 different departments. Note to each manager that you are trying to understand the dress code better.

      Well maybe not. I am just so sorry.

  30. Ess Ess*

    You absolutely need to go to HR about being held to a different standard than the written policy and that you are being targeted individually when you are dressing the same as others. This targeting and un-even enforcement push this into legal liabilities for the company.

    1. BellaStella*

      How would different standards be a legal liability? I am curious because I do think there could be a discrimination aspect here for sure. But other than that I cannot think of another angle.

      1. Ess Ess*

        If someone ends up losing their job or other negative results (such as writeups or PIP), they can have an employment attorney get involved because they are being held to rules that the company doesn’t enforce on others. It does push into the retaliation possibility (depending on previous interactions), discrimination areas, or wrongful dismissal that can cost the company fines and restitution.

      2. I'm just here for the cats!*

        I think its a gray area. Like there’s reasonable expectations and unreasonable unequal expectations. For example, If all women are expected to wear makeup, skirts, pantyhose high heals, and designer clothing, while men can wear off the wrack walmart shirts that are wrinkled then that’s not reasonable.

        1. Ess Ess*

          Yes, companies can have different policies for different groups (although making it gendered without an actual job reason could open up another can of worms). But they can’t give a group a policy and only enforce it on some of the members of that group.

  31. Wasabi*

    I work in Community Services and I was told years ago that Management were required to dress formally.
    And then the COVID lockdowns happened and the next thing you know, the CEO is coming in back to work with loud Hawaiian shirts, denim shorts and a hipster beard.

    Everyone else in the office slowly came to work looking less formal too.

  32. blupuck*

    Like so many comments above, I years ago I experienced a wildly uneven dress code incident.
    I worked in a local video store. One day, I wore a then trendy ensemble of skirt, vest, and shirt made of t-shirt material with a single color art print on it.
    That same day, my male coworker wore a death metal tshirt featuring a half chewed naked woman in very graphic detail. (Cannibal Corpse)
    Guess who got sent home to change?
    (“Jeff lives too far and would miss half his shift if he went home, but he won’t do it again. Right, Jeff?”)

    This same store was directly across from the police station and had never experienced any issues at all, yet I was not allowed to close on my own. Men could. Not me.
    I left shortly after to work at a good ol’ boys gas station, where I was treated as an equal at all times.

  33. LucyGoosy*

    Ughh, yes my first thought was that OP is dressed perfectly appropriately and someone is very upset because they are relatively young, attractive, a woman, and/or a person of color, and they have decided that this person is a “distraction.” (Particularly if they are jealous of OP’s title and the fact that they are consistently performing very well.) Sometimes, a well-meaning but entirely misguided senior team member will say something like this because they’re trying to “look out” for the younger staff member, and that shouldn’t happen, either. Definitely go to HR.

  34. Toe Beans*

    Ive worked in similar sectors and strangely strangely enough I’ve witnessed staff in working class areas dress professionally, and staff in upper middle income areas getting away with loud colours and wacky prints.

  35. Pdweasel*

    Another option would be to up the ante and roll into work wearing a crop top made of dental floss and contact lenses, Daisy Dukes cut off so short the pockets hang out the front and the butt cheeks hang out the back, and 6” clear plastic platform flip-flops. Bonus points if you’re accompanied by a semi-feral raccoon.

    (Don’t listen to me. I’m a bad influence.)

    1. Maleficent2026*

      Yes! I’ve found a fellow chaos goblin! We don’t really think anyone should take our advice but we’d LOVE to see what happens if someone actually did.

      1. Pdweasel*

        I had a classmate do this in high school. We were the only high school in the district that had marching band camp on a practice field adjacent to the school district admin offices, so while the other schools’ bands could get away with guys being shirtless and girls wearing sports bras or crop tops, it was a no-go for us.

        Two guys wheedled the director until he gave them the specific definition of a “shirt” (your nipples had to be covered). They turned up the next day wearing the tiniest, shortest tank tops they could squeeze into. They looked ridiculous, but their nipples were covered so technically, nobody could say a thing.

  36. Marz*

    The wimpy manager is SO common. I absolutely hate “I have to pass this on” “We can’t do this”…what…who is in charge here?

    I feel very anakin meme “Hold on. This whole operation was your idea” about this phenomenon.

  37. Gwen Soul*

    I have commented on someone’s clothes exactly 2 times in my work career, and both times to the person involved. One was an intern whose skirt was so short you could see her underwear when she sat down, I figured she didn’t realize and would want to know. the second was an interviewee who was from a different culture and a new collage grad who wore jeans to an interview in a notoriously stuffy field so I advised her to get a suit for future interviews (we didn’t hold it against her though)

    1. I'm just here for the cats!*

      Those are perfect examples of the only time you should comment on employees clothing. Only other time is to compliment, especially if you know the person well and they would appreciate it.

      1. rollyex*

        I think if you’re doing cross-cultural work with constituents in other places, it’s worth bringing up different expectations.

        My org would ever ask women or anyone to wear hijab, for example. But we (me as part of my role) have asked all staff to consider not having bare shoulders when working on screen with constituents from much of the Arab world. This is gendered in impact – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a man in our office with bare shoulders, while it is more common among women, particularly younger women. Never suggested they not do this in the office in general – just in meeting with people from a certain part of the world.

        1. Pdweasel*

          Exactly. Plus it’s the sort of thing that can be quickly addressed by simply putting on a cardigan or a shawl.

  38. All Het Up About It*

    Ugggggghhhh! And THIS is one of the problems with Dress Codes.

    As a person who left a job partially because of BS like this in the past, if you really value this job and organization, you have to address this. Use Alison’s scripts and be honest that you love the work and feel valued and appreciated in so many ways, but that this issue is a serious issue. Particularly if you can point out something “other” about you. I was the heaviest person on staff at the job I left and that absolutely weighed in (excuse the pun) on why I was targeted the way I was. It wasn’t a big enough organization for HR or anything and the CEO was toxic in many other ways, so it was 100% time for me to leave, but that doesn’t sound like your position at all, so I hate to see this stupid issue tainting your working experience.

  39. Goldenrod*

    This is absolutely infuriating.

    At my last job, I had a manager had a habit of communicating “feedback” that was really more like gossip. It was never actionable, rarely made sense, and all it did was demoralize. She’d just blurt out whatever someone else had said (it was a toxic office, so certain people were always complaining), and then let it hang in the air like a fart.

    If you’d question it, she’d just be like, “I don’t know, I’m just telling you what I heard.” Not helpful!

    Your leadership stinks.

    1. Sharon*

      When feedback isn’t actionable, ask “what specifically should I do differently?” If they don’t have any suggestions, maybe it’s just random noise and not feedback.

  40. Aggretsuko*

    For all the abuse I get at work, the one thing I don’t get is commentary on my clothes.

    I feel like OP is being targeted, in perhaps that “tall poppy” English sort of way.

  41. Spicy Tuna*

    *waves hand* this happened to me!

    In my 20’s, I worked in a small satellite office of a large multinational corporation. I was very different from the rest of the people working there (the only one not married / no kids, and one of only 3 or 4 people from a different ethnic group than the rest of the office).

    I didn’t gel with anyone in the office except my grandboss (and marginally, my direct boss). We had casual Fridays where jeans were allowed. People really abused the privilege by wearing super tight jeans, crop tops, and even one woman who wore a t-shirt with a Playboy bunny logo on it (!!!).

    One Friday, I wore a denim skort – skirt in the front, shorts in the back. It was knee length. My grandboss called me into his office to let me know that *someone* complained. I offered to go home and change but said if I did that, I would not be coming back until Monday.

    He said he didn’t agree at all and told the complainer that he didn’t agree, but he wanted to let me know that *someone* complained so I understood the dynamic in the office and that I had enemies.

    He didn’t come out and say who complained, but I intuited it because this person also complained about the way I left paperwork on her desk (she thought it was *aggressive*).

    I was working there as a placeholder until I finished my MBA, so I was mentally checked out anyway and I left not too long after.

    Separately, on the duck boot issue… consider bringing a change of shoes to the office. At a different job than the one above, I walked or took the bus to work. I wore comfy shoes for the commute and swapped them out for office appropriate footwear when I got to the office.

    1. WillowSunstar*

      I live in the Upper Midwest where we got real winters, and no one that I know of ever complained about anyone wearing snow boots, but then we also didn’t have to deal with the public, either. We just sat at computers typing all day. No one cared as long as the rest of us wore black or colored jeans/casual slacks/nice top. This was in the days before COVID.

      1. Spicy Tuna*

        I brought up the boots b/c the OP was called out for wearing them during slushy weather.

        I suppose it would also depend on the nature of the work. Post-MBA, I’ve always worked in finance which tends to be more conservative, so no matter the weather, dressing more formally, including footwear, is expected.

  42. higheredadmin*

    As a manager, I’ve sent people home for the following dress code violations: wearing yoga pants and a tshirt – in a bank branch back in the early 2000s where the policy specifically forbid yoga pants; a man who got “hot” in the office and stripped down to the vest top he was wearing under his formal shirt – also in same bank branch in the early 2000s with a novel of a dress code policy; and my personal favorite, the young guy who came to work with a huge burn mark on his shirt (from a lightbulb I was told). I feel that the OP doesn’t really need this level of help in understanding what comprises dressing professionally (e.g. clothes that are neat and clean, as a start point). As noted above – staff complain about other staff all the time, and you have to listen and then filter. In this instance, I would have suggested to the complainer that they review the dress code policy and provide recommendations to update it – after all, same rules for everyone. (And I’ve worked in finance, where dress code policies are pages long and ban things like corduroy.) If the office does not have a dress code policy, then that is also the answer to the complainer as there is no policy for LW to be violating.

  43. BBB*

    pettiness about dress code has always and will always baffle me
    I worked as a float teller in my younger years (so I worked in a different branch pretty much every day) and there was one office in particular I hated working at because the employees there were super petty about things like this! I remember the branch manager trying to send me home over my shoes because apparently my dressy sneakers weren’t allowed (absolutely not a safety thing). I reminded her I lived AN HOUR AWAY so sending me home meant I just wasn’t coming back that day.
    I literally worked behind the counter and no one could see my shoes!
    the next day I was at a different branch working next to someone wearing crocs which were apparently fine and within the dress code lmao
    and yet businesses seem confused why so many employees prefer working from home? getting to bypass all the pettiness of being in the office is worth it’s weight in gold! currently wearing fuzzy slippers and my coworker (foster cat) hasn’t complained once lol

  44. HailRobonia*

    In my old job we would occasionally get “all staff” emails reminding us about the dress code. My boss assured me the emails had nothing to do with me or anyone else on my team… it turns out in another team there were two employees who hated each other and would think of any excuse to complain to HR.

    So rather than talk to them directly, their manager and HR wimped out and just sent out blanket emails to everyone. Other topics include accounting for lunch time, phone etiquette, etc. I am surprised we never got an all-staff email about the proper way to eat crackers.

  45. WillowSunstar*

    This is one of the things I like about working from home, no more dress-coding issues for anyone.

    Is it possible that because OP has a “Senior” in the title that the rules are being applied differently? In some organizations, “Seniors” are considered leadership roles, and are expected to dress up more from the standard office workers. But if there are separate dress codes for leadership vs. non-leader employees, that should be specified in the handbook, and not just made an unwritten rule. Unwritten rules generally are problematic in that you cannot expect everyone to know they exist.

  46. Notwithstanding the Foregoing*

    This happened to me when I was 23 in my first post college job. The dress code was professional and I was excited to wear suits and feel like a grown up. The first time I was called out for dress code violation I was baffled and upset and it was a vague “inappropriate clothes” comment while wearing a suit and pantyhose when others had on flip flops and bare legs. The second time I got angry. I was wearing a wool suit and silk shell in the appropriate size and was told someone complained about me “wearing spandex” which was a violation. The rule was meant to cover tight athletic apparel which I was not wearing. I immediately went to HR in that outfit and demanded to know what was wrong with it. They eventually conceded there was nothing wrong with my outfit. I never did find out who complained but I suspect it was because I was young and dressing up (as the job expected per dress code) and someone was bothered by that.

    It shook me a lot. It’s been 25 years and I still am embarrassed by this and feel like I did something wrong when I clearly did not. Just this morning I got changed at the last minute because I worried my black suit skirt might be too clingy.

    LW – I hope you get this resolved and don’t internalize it as much as I did. From your letter, it doesn’t sound you are doing anything that would warrant such comments.

    1. Ellis Bell*

      Ugh that is truly disgusting that they just lazily took someones word about what you were wearing. Talk about encouraging a gossip culture, why didn’t they just hand out custard pies for throwing too?

    2. Kat*

      Reading these comments has brought back to me how much of a minefield dressing professionally but not provoking unwanted attention was in my 20s, when I was skinny but with curvy hips and boobs. And how much internalised shame I still carry around about it – my first draft of this comment went into great detail about how I dressed, to try to justify to everyone on the internet that my clothes were indeed scrupulously professional and not revealing, and it really was that my underlying body type was considered too provocative. So much thinking and energy expended on trying to mitigate that, when I could have been focusing on work or doing something I enjoyed instead.

      1. Veryanon*

        Yup. I was pregnant with my first child in 2000, when dress codes were still A Thing, and I remember desperately trying to find maternity pantyhose and professional skirts/jackets/dresses that would fit without looking like I was wearing a tent or my kindergarten teacher’s dresses. When my second child came along in 2003, my office had switched to jeans casual every day and I spent most of that pregnancy in the most comfortable maternity overalls ever designed.

  47. Heather*

    Body shape may also be a factor in the complaints. Whether the LW is tall or short, slim, or heavy, people perceive other people’s clothing differently based on body shape. It is possible that the clothing looks just fine on the LW but the person complaining sees the clothing differently based on body shape. I agree with Allison, letting the manager know that you are within company policy and norms and that you don’t want to be made aware of a complaint unless there is an action that needs to be taken by you is the correct path.

  48. MCMonkeyBean*

    I’m not clear on if this was two anonymous complaints, or if the first one genuinely came from the boss. It sounds like the boss disagreed that the dress was against dress code, but agreed that boots were.

    I also am wondering whether OP saws boots being worn around the office, or just places like the lobby and elevator. I think it’s common in a lot of places that people might wear snow boots outside and then change into different shoes once they are actually at the office.

    I think maxi dresses have also come up a few times as a point of hot debate here in the past as to whether they are office appropriate or not–now if your boss thinks that it is fine, then that is all that should matter and they should have said so to the person complaining! But I actually don’t think it’s unusual that someone might think they are not appropriate in many offices (though having enough issue with it to actually complain to the boss is extremely obnoxious, I can’t imagine caring that much about what someone else is wearing!)

    I understand why OP feels singled out, but I do think that two instances (one of which might actually have come from their boss) 9 or 10 months apart really isn’t enough of a pattern to indicate someone has it out for you or anything like that. It’s worth talking to the boss if you feel nervous about it but I don’t think there is anything to worry about.

    1. Ellis Bell*

      I think that’s easier said than done! I would share OP’s concerns. I agree that there’s nothing wrong with getting two instances of advice, but when the boss is throwing up their hands and saying they don’t know why or how the dress could be a problem either, but hey go home and take this paranoia with you, that is worrying! A boss who can’t give good directions, or stand up for their staff, or make themselves informed on standards instead of being a carrier pigeon, is a worrying issue. Also, I don’t buy that there was anything wrong with the dress; wearing a good coverage maxi dress on a casual day is really not an issue. That’s simply business casual in an office were there’s a lot of actual casual wear like the OP describes. That suggests they’re being singled out.

  49. Carole from Accounts*

    I’m here to share the story of my own dress code tattletale. It is a WILD. RIDE.

    I once worked in the office of a manufacturing facility with a very strict dress code that had some safety features (like shoes must cover your toes and heels, protective eyewear must always be worn on the shop floor), and the rules that covered the office spaces were pretty conservative (men always had to have a collar on their shirts, women had to wear pantyhose if they weren’t wearing slacks, shoulders always had to be covered, etc). I had stellar reviews on my work and got along with everyone quite well, but after about 2 years of employment, I started getting periodically pulled into “chats” with HR. There was a complaint that my skirt was too short (it was not, we measured it, and nothing was written up). There was a complaint that my shoes exposed my heels and toes (they did not, they were black and nude colour-block so it did kinda look like a sandal but it wasn’t, so again, no write up). There were complaints about a jumper that I wore to a team party (think Princess Diana’s black sheep jumper with a blazer over top) – HR encouraged me to dress more professionally, and like the letter writer, I just dressed up more. There were months that would pass between each HR conversation, and no complaint was documented as I wasn’t in violation, so I would get lulled into a sense of complacency. Plus, I worked with a team of men who didn’t notice when I went from having red hair to blonde hair, so I was sure the complaint wasn’t originating from our team or anyone I worked with directly, and I was baffled where the complaints were coming from. I had also assumed that my title or getting called into meetings/projects with good exposure was ruffling some feathers somehow, or maybe someone somehow was jealous of my appearance?

    I was four dress code “violation” chats into this when some items went missing from my desk one morning and I got called in to HR for having a distracting, unprofessional work space. The crazy thing was most of the items were FOR work – a flyer for a team event I was organizing, and some items I was storyboarding. I was allowed to keep those, but the two mementos I had pinned up came down. Then I was pulled in for “random” drug testing when an empty Altoid tin had been found at my desk, and there were accusations I’d been keeping drugs inside the tin!!!!! I don’t do drugs at all, so I passed the test, but I started looking for other work because I was afraid of the way this whole thing was escalating, even though there were no formal writeups.

    The whole thing came to a head with the Altoid tin incident. A coworker was coming into work late one day, she had a doctor’s appointment that morning, and she asked me if I’d had car trouble because our maintenance man had been out at my car, taking photos of my car earlier that day. She assumed he was helping me for insurance, and was horrified when I clarified that he was not. She was futher horrified when I told her what had happened with the drug screening and that one of the items of evidence I was presented with in the “are the Altoid tins drug use?” was a photo of a tin in the drink holder of my car!

    With horror, I also realized that the dress code violations kicked off around the time I added a photo of myself and my boyfriend to my desk. Other than to say hello to our maintenance man when I passed him in the hall or when I saw him around town, I had never even spoken to this person! But futher questioning of my coworkers revealed that he had been asking them questions about me, and we had essentially been bumping into each other around town because my coworkers told him places I liked to go and things I liked to do!

    I wish I had a better resolution to the whole fiasco, but I do not. I went to HR with my own complaint about the attention, but unsurprisingly they were “unable” (more like unwilling) to do anything. I asked my coworkers not to share any more information with our maintenance guy, and they were almost all supportive but one of them thought it was funny and actually started trying to provoke me whenever maintenance was in our area!!!! I left that job ASAP with strict instructions to my coworkers NOT to say the name of my new company, I locked all my social media and kept a low digital footprint for a few years, I left town in an unrelated move, but it was absolutely horrifying.

    1. Emily*

      That is absolutely disgusting. I am so sorry that happened to you. Maintenance guy sounds like he was stalking you, and your HR was basically complicit by refusing to act.

    2. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      What. The. F***?!
      Also, please give me the name and location of the maintenance guy and the ex-coworker who thought it was funny to provoke you. I just want to talk.

    3. ragazza*

      OK that is…indeed horrifying. I’m so sorry you had to go through that and that people thought it was FUNNY. Who knows what this guy might have done? Glad you got out.

    4. Ellis Bell*

      Oh my stars, that is one creepy dude and I think the most creeptastic part is the slow drip of realisation when you put some funny coincidences into their real context, and worked out the effect of the photo on your desk. Having worked with a highly creepy and surreptitious dude, I’ve had that “eh I’m sure it’s nothing” feeling turn into an “uh oh” moment myself.

    5. Veryanon*

      Oh My God! I’m so glad you’re okay and the stalking stopped after you left there, but that is absolutely horrifying.

  50. Sara M*

    Is there any chance there’s a consistent thing within the days you’re casual like this–something like you wear a sports bra on casual days only, and you’re large-busted?

    Give that some thought, in case this is really about “I don’t like the way that woman’s breasts look” but they aren’t ok saying it. (Ugh.)

    Note: if that’s what it is, this isn’t your fault, Alison’s right about it all, and you shouldn’t have to make your breasts pleasing to other people. But here we are.

    It could be something else entirely, or it could be a wussy manager, or any of this. But if you consider what your undergarments are, that might give you an idea about this. (Or not, who knows, but it was the first thing I wondered about.)

  51. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

    I absolutely agree with Alison and the commenters that this is something worth addressing, particularly since it hints at something bigger that is sinister. Most likely, someone is trying to cause the LW problems out of some combination of sexism, racism, ageism, jealousy, entitlement, being generally miserable, etc. That’s coming out as nonsense dress code complaints. The current staff should not be enabled to undermine the LW.

    That being said, LW, can you stop worrying quite so much about the dress code part of this? There is a written dress code and you are complying with it. In fact, you’re dressing more formally than is required and than many other people in the organization. So I’d suggest that until and unless someone with authority tells you that you need to change how you dress, you keep doing what you’re doing and *mentally* tell the complainer to kick rocks. You don’t have to care what one jerk will complain about next, particularly when you can point to the dress code and show that there’s no violation. Or, if you want to make things awkward for the manager, ask them what specific part of the dress code your outfit doesn’t meet, if there’s another complaint.

    1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      Addendum: this kinda reminds me of a classic Captain Awkward post about dealing with unreasonable people. They want you to be walking on eggshells and agonizing about how to keep them from being unhappy (or complaining, in this case). The problem is that they will never be happy and they will constantly move the goalposts of what you have to do to keep them from getting upset. All the energy and effort to avoid upsetting them doesn’t actually benefit you, because they’re going to find a reason to be upset / complain anyway. They want you to feel responsible for their unhappiness, but you don’t have to take the responsibility. Instead, go with an “it’s super weird that you are so concerned about my wardrobe, [colleague]” approach.

      1. higheredadmin*

        +1000%. This is totally unfair, but if you are putting extra worry into how you are dressing then they are winning.

        1. Aggretsuko*

          Unfortunately, it’s a problem because LW’s boss is continually bringing this up to her like it’s A Problem instead of telling the complainer to eat sand. I don’t think LW can blow it off if the boss is very clearly Not Blowing It Off :(

    2. merida*

      Yes, totally agree to all of this, but especially your very last point! If I were OP I’d really love to hear what *specifically* I’m doing wrong, I’d love for them to spell out what how I should be dressing differently. Maybe bring in a selection from your wardrobe, do a fashion show for your manager, and ask which of your clothing options aren’t ok… ok, maybe too much? ;) But in all seriousness a good response might be feigning polite ignorance just like you might to any other kind of microaggression, like asking someone to explain exactly why a racist “joke” is funny, etc.

  52. Emily*

    “But your manager’s wimpiness is the core of the problem.” Ding, ding, ding! I feel like that is the core problem for at least 50% (if not more) of the letters Alison gets. The problems would be solved if managers/HR actually did their jobs. LW, I hope you can use Alison’s script with your manager, because I agree that it is ridiculous that your manager brought the complaint to you if they did not agree with it.

  53. Coco*

    I’m certain that I’m in the minority here, but if I was LW I would be glad that boss told me of this anonymous complaint. I’d want to know because clearly someone is complaining about me for a reason. If the clothing is perfectly acceptable, then whomever it is has some other grudge against me. It would be a signal to me to keep my eyes open, and confirmation from my boss that they are in my corner.

    1. Emily*

      But the boss isn’t really in LW’s corner, though. The boss is passing on anonymous complaints and it is not clear that the boss told the complainer to cut it out. Instead the boss felt like they had to pass on the complaint, which is a sign of the boss’s wimpiness.

  54. Dorothy Zpornak*

    I’ve had the same issue with anonymous complaints, and unfortunately a similar response. My manager said, “Well, I don’t know, because I wasn’t there to witness what they’re talking about, but it’s something to think about.” If you don’t know, then how can you say it’s something to think about? The truly enraging thing about it all is that I’ve never actually gotten a complaint about anything specific I’ve said or done that I could even act on if it were inappropriate — it’s always some vague complaint about how I “am,” and when I ask if the person mentioned why they said that, my manager always says no. And I’m like…..????????????????? Then why didn’t you ask??????????? When someone brings a complaint about one of my staff to me, the first thing I do is try to get to the root of what the person actually said or did to upset the complainant, so I can make a judgment call about whether it was appropriate or not and whether I need to speak to the employee or shut down the complaint.
    Based on my experience, in cases like these someone has it out for you, and if they weren’t complaining about the dress code they’d find something else. So holding yourself to a different standard of dress is likely not going to fix the issue. This person has realized that the dress code is an easy way to burn you and they’ve been getting traction with it, so that’s why they’re sticking with that tactic, but if you were magically able to be the embodiment of the dress code from now on, they’d find another strategy. And as long as your boss is unwilling to lay down the law about what kind of things are and aren’t appropriate to go to someone’s manager about, that person will still be able to add stress to your life.
    It sounds like you’ve gotten yourself in a good position to go job hunting; if I were in your shoes, that’s what I’d do. In fact, I am in your shoes and that’s what I’m doing.

  55. Delta Delta*

    Question about Boot Day – did you bring indoor shoes to change into? Lots of people wear outdoor boots, you know, outdoors, and then change into indoor shoes so they’re not a) wearing snow boots with business clothes and b) so the snow/mud/salt/road ick doesn’t get all over the inside. If there was a complaint that you wore boots outside, then these people are completely outlandish. If you wore them inside, maybe consider bringing indoor shoes if for no other reason than it seems like a good idea.

    Also – your manager is ridiculous.

  56. Dahlia*

    “First, are you by chance a different race/age/gender from most other people in your office or most other people in your position or at your level?”

    This, but I was wondering if you were plus size. Larger bodies are also policed much more heavily than smaller ones, unfairly so, obviously.

  57. merida*

    From LW’s letter it sounds like she’s thinks her colleagues recent her for the way she’s been moving up quickly in the company. So are the bogus dress code complaints stemming from petty coworkers looking for anyway to “get back” at LW for some perceived slight? Or is the office drama irrelevant and it’s some kind of prejudice in some way like Alison suggested? Or just one nutty, obsessive person who’s making complaints because who knows why? Regardless of the reasoning it’s icky – and I’ll add my echo that it’s a wimpy boss problem. Ugh. Hope things improve for you, LW!

  58. Alexis Rose*

    I more have this comment up my sleeve in case anyone ever comments on my tattoos, but I think the same could be said for ridiculous comments on clothing:

    “The only problems I have ever experienced as a result of having tattoos/putting clothes on my body are caused by people who feel the need to comment on them. The problem is not that I and my body exist, its that others choose to waste time commenting on it.”

    1. WestsideStory*

      Agreed, but that assumes people are sensible. The US Senate quite recently spent a week revising snd re-revising its dress code instead of dealing with a actual government problems.

  59. kalli*

    Someone is pissy that LW came in as Senior Job, stole their duties/desk/place in the org chart, sure, but is this an environment where the higher up you get, the more business formal you’re meant to hew? If LW is taking their cues from people below them in that environment, even if they don’t have reports, that might be a culture faux pas.

  60. victoria*

    you only mentioned age, race and gender but reading this as a fat person this is definitely something that happens to fat people, that we’re perceived as less “professional” and more
    “sloppy” because of our size. i am sorry LW, this sucks!!!!

    1. Emily*

      I think Alison mentioned age, race, and gender because those are protected classes (age if you are 40+), but weight is not (at least as far as I know, and this is all assuming LW lives in the US). Several commenters have brought up this as a possibility, and while it’s definitely possible, I’m not sure that continuing to speculate about LW’s weight is helpful.

  61. Tiger Snake*

    The first one, I was thinking maybe other people were wearing the boots as they travelled and then changing when they get to their desks for more work appropriate shoes. That’s very common where I’m at.

    The second doesn’t make sense. The only thing that would make sense to me is, your manager thinks it’s okay, but the complaint came from someone higher up the chain and they’re worried about your professional reputation. But that’s a really long bow I’m drawing, because that’s not what your manager said.

  62. TinLizi*

    In addition to age/race/gender, I’d like to add body type. I have a fuller, plus-sized figure and have been told fitted crewnecks are inappropriate when more slender coworkers can wear them without comment. Because of my body shape, it was deemed too sexy.

  63. Amber L.*

    Also worth noting that aside from age/race/gender, if LW is much thinner than the average in her office or is plus sized, that could also be a potential source of the issue. As a woman of size, myself, I’ve had managers pull me aside over “dress code violations” when really, they just didn’t like the body INSIDE the clothes I’m talking slacks-not too loose OR too tight, sweaters, blouses, etc, and I was raised in a household with, and still maintain a fairly conservative style/fashion when it comes to professional attire. Tops at or just below collarbone, nothing short enough to reveal midriff with my arms raised above my head. High waisted slacks that would not fall below my belly, etc.
    As a thin student in high school, I saw the same thing; girls with larger bodies were policed more, even wearing the exact same thing as other, slimmer students. Didn’t appreciate how demoralizing it was until it started happening to me after I gained weight as an adult.

  64. Lovemeagoodflowydress*

    please send the link for the flowy dress!!
    Also we would love an update as soon as you have one!

    (and agree with Alison and everyone’s comments here)

  65. CLC*

    In addition to age, race, and gender possibly being at play, I would also add size/body type. There is a massive unspoken double standard between what is considered appropriate for thin people and what is considered appropriate for fat people. I know fat isn’t a protected class, so it probably isn’t worth mentioning, but in reality it is definitely a thing. A thin person looks “together” in nice jeans and duck boots while a fat person looks like a “slob” in the same. Otherwise, the petty coworker is probably jealous of the LW, either because of her “senior” position or because of how she looks in her clothes (I have witnessed an actual human complain about another person’s clothes because she was jealous of the attention they got from the male employees, though it was years ago). This is absolutely a manager problem regardless. Terrible managing.

  66. Meghan*

    While it’s not protected, I’d also say that besides race, age, and gender, it’s possible LW is a different size. I’ve worn things that people called “Not appropriate” But couldn’t name why when I was very Plus sized. And then when I was thin wore the same outfits with no comments. (Things like wrap dresses are a good example.)

    I also had a coworker who the owner Ms wife always complained about being inappropriate even though her everyday attire was heels, knee length pencil skirt, blouse buttoned to the collar, and a blazer. But she was INCREDIBLY beautiful and hourglass and always had her makeup and hair done, plus she was black, and this combination of “gorgeous black woman who looks like a model” upset her.

  67. Office Gumby*

    This is absolutely NOT about dress code. Fixing, adjusting, hyper-adhering to the dress code will not solve this issue because the complainer is NOT complaining about the actual breaching of the dress code. They are using the dress code as a weapon against OP for another reason, most likely a prejudicial one, and they know it.

    OP, you have done nothing wrong in your adherence to the dress code. Please do not keep focusing on trying to fix this by correcting your dress code actions. Nothing you do regarding the dress code will stop this.

    The next time your manager brings up the dress code, tell them that you know it’s not about the dress code. I’d ask what is really going on with the complainant, because we both know it’s not about the dress code.

  68. Hcm*

    Based on my experience as an Asian American woman, I’m not too sure it will go over so well for the letter writer if they name the race/gender/age dynamic to a supervisor. Unless the supervisor is actually already aware of these things, I could very well see this blowing up in the LW’s face, to the point of them getting depicted as aggressive or confrontational or “so-on assumes innocent feedback is about race…” etc. It could go over fine, sure–I just wouldn’t assume this will go over well–it could just add difficulties with your supervisor into the mix. It’s a bit of a wild card unless you have an idea the supervisor will respond well. I would maybe go in more with an attitude of “I’ve been starting to feel really insecure about my clothing choices with all these anonymous comments on them and I’m wondering if you have any ideas or suggestions for how to handle this.” Or “my outfits seem to keep triggering these comments and even though I’ve been trying really hard to follow the company policies, they seem to keep coming. It’s making me worry there is something else going on here that I’m not picking up on. Do you have any ideas if there’s anything else going on or what I should do differently?” This makes them come up with the ideas instead of making the letter writer spell it out for them. As messed up as it is, I find some people are way more likely to actually believe it’s racism/gender/age if they get there on their own. Unless you know your boss will actually hear you out, this feels like the safer first step to me. Then if she says, “there’s nothing you can do, this person is just a stickler for dress codes,” you can reply, “Honestly, I’d rather just not hear about it then. It’s been making me feel really self-conscious.”

  69. Gentle Reindeer*

    just want to say I’m sorry you’ve been put through this. ditto for all the commenters who have experienced something similar.

  70. In the room where it happens*

    When I worked at an elementary school, I would wear professional clothing, which apparently made some teachers angry. They thought that I (and another woman who came from the corporate world) were trying to “show them up” and would say as much to me.

    Once I had a teacher tell me that I had “apparently forgotten where I worked” based on the way I was dressed (high necked long sleeved dress and heels).

    Sometimes you can’t win.

  71. Mothman*

    I’ve been “dress coded” twice in my life, once as a kid, once as an adult. I wasn’t out of code in either case. I wasn’t even in a gray area by having things that are a little too tight or whatever.

    I’m just fat.

    It was humiliating. And I lost all respect for my boss with the second.

    Maybe it’s time we kick 99% of the expectations out the door.

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