my employee is hassling coworkers about their clothes

A reader asks:

I hired a new team member, “Jane,” six months ago. She’s competent and diligent, but now that she’s coming out of her shell, her rigidity around her idea of professional norms are alienating her team members as well as other people on staff:

* She complains about women colleagues’ workwear for being too revealing. It’s not.

* She is offended by cursing in the office — she is firmly against it to the point of lecturing other employees. There’s a sales environment in our office and the occasional profanity or swear is common and fine here.

* She is thin-skinned and takes personal offense at seemingly everything. She has been offended by people asking her to repeat something she said, at being given a solution to a problem that she brought forward, at other colleagues having personal conversations around her, but not including her, and other normal, innocuous interactions in a workplace.

I see people pulling away from Jane because she takes a lot of energy to deal with. Everyone is busy, and it’s a lot for one person to be consistently on the verge of tears after every interaction and asking for private meetings to discuss how her feelings were hurt, and no one wants to be lectured because they dropped an F-bomb or a woman wore a skirt that fell above her knees.

One team member, Margie, has been a constant target of Jane’s lectures. Margie has a lot of stock at this company because she’s results-oriented and her projects are highly successful. She also uses profanity and wears clothing that’s more daring than Jane’s modest dress. Jane has made it clear that she thinks Margie is unprofessional. This flies in the face of 1) our company culture, in which Margie is fine and normal and 2) reality — Margie has been working in this field for longer than Jane, and Jane could learn a lot from Margie, particularly when it comes to building productive and lasting relationships with many different kinds of people.

Jane constantly asks how she can move up the ladder and get a promotion. Her work is fine, but she’s losing credibility among her colleagues and Margie has already been to HR to discuss the gendered harassment she receives from Jane. I know as a manager I’ve messed up by letting it get this far, but I don’t know how to manage her. I’ve had conversations with Jane about focusing more on her work and less around policing the clothing and language of those around her, and she seems to understand but then goes back to her old behavior.

At this point, I’m worried that we’re heading towards a PIP, and I’d like some strategies to avoid that, particularly around her issues with policing women for their bodies, clothing, and language. I’m a 30something male and maybe this isn’t even the right tack for me to take.

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 153 comments… read them below }

  1. Ashley*

    I’d def recommend running the wording by HR as well to make sure everyone is consistently using the same language before talking to her, esp if complaints have already been made. Even small differences in phrasing could turn into “I’m being told different things by my manager vs HR” and that just becomes even weirder for everyone, plus it might make LW feel more comfortable having the convo if they have additional phrasing/context from HR.

    1. Ashley*

      (obvs this is an old letter but for folks in similar situations, def want to make sure you and HR are saying the same things)

      1. OMG, Bees!*

        I’d like an update, but I agree that LW should talk with HR first. First so that he and HR can have united front on this (don’t want to have the manager say the employee needs to cut it off and have HR revert) but also to confirm LW even can fire Jane.

    2. Luanne Platter*

      Agree. Allison’s words are perfect, but want to make sure HR is on the same page as the manager before taking this (necessary) step.

    3. Antilles*

      I agree that’s worth doing, but I’d also emphasize that OP needs to be direct and full when talking to HR either.
      This is an employee who is actively harassing others because of their appearance, lectures other employees, gets offended by normal workplace interactions, and is “alienating others”. HR needs to get all that context too, because there’s a good chance the first discussion with Jane won’t stick and you’ll be proceeding to that PIP very shortly thereafter.

      1. DJ Abbott*

        It’s not Margie’s appearance in the sense of what she looks like, it’s the way she dresses.
        That might be an important distinction.

        1. Observer*

          Not really. Because fundamentally, Jane is harassing her over something that is gender based, has no bearing on Margaerie’s work, and to TOTALLY none of Jane’s business in any way, shape or form.

          So, whether Jane were hassling her because her nose it too big, her hair color is “wrong”, or her clothes are “too tight”, it doesn’t matter. None of it is ok, and it should have been stopped immediately.

          1. Carl*

            Yes, I agree it doesn’t matter at all. Even if Margie’s attire were inappropriate (and it sounds like that is not the case), then that’s something that would be addressed (if at all) by management or HR. Even if she had a point (and, again, it sounds like she does not), Jane needs to stay in her lane.

        2. Festively Dressed Earl*

          OP specified that Margie’s clothing isn’t overly revealing or otherwise work inappropriate, which to me says that the issue isn’t the clothing, it’s the body within the clothing. Oftentimes women who are curvier than average get flak for the clothes we wear because there’s no hiding our bodies without wearing a full-body canopy.

          1. New Senior Mgr*

            Agree. I once worked in a facility where the “very casual” clothing policy was amended to include yoga pants. They were a weekly occurrence for a little over two years. We had a new employee who was tall and curvy and was thrilled to learn yoga pants were acceptable. She wore them 2-3 times a week, more than others, less than some, no biggie. I began seeing raised eye brows, knowing smiles, and averted eyes whenever she wore them. I made a comment to one of the culprits to “knock it off, I see you.”

            Going forward they tried to hide their expressions from the new employee and me. I wish I mentioned it to HR after my comment, because a few weeks later a new memo came out. Due to recent inappropriate clothing choices, yoga pants are no longer acceptable in the office.

            Anyways, I completely agree with Alison. It’s your job to handle this. I’m glad you came here and now you have the language.

            1. Pita Chips*

              There are a few brands out there that cross yoga pants with dress pants. They are a boon to many.

          2. Carl*

            Or, I’ve found certain women (usually older women) have set ideas about the “correct way for a lady to dress” or whatever. And they feel it’s their place to step in and police other (usually younger) women. Pantyhose, skirt length, sleeveless blouses, etc.

          3. amoeba*

            Eh, could be. From the letter, it sounds more like Jane’s idea of what’s revealing is different from that of everybody else (so, like, Jane insists that all skirts have to cover the knees while everybody else is fine with shorter – an example that’s literally in the letter!)
            Doesn’t make her behaviour any better, of course! Like, it’s not her place to police the dress code in the first place, even if she were correct, and it’s definitely not her right to keep on about it after her boss has told her that she is, in fact, wrong. That’s basically just insubordination, isn’t it?

          4. WantonSeedStitch*

            It sounds from the letter like Jane has hassled people other than Margie for wearing “revealing” clothes (though Margie has been the most frequent target), but that all those people have been, or have presented as, women. That indicates to me that Jane has a particular idea of how women should dress in the workplace, and regardless of the woman’s appearance, is irate when they dress in a way that doesn’t conform with her preferences.

            1. Lucy*

              Maybe – or she may have criticised a number of people who all have a similar characteristic (like being curvier) or a similar style.

              I used to work in schools, where this kind of policing is endemic and required (we have uniforms), and I hated enforcing it, and either avoided or reframed any issues with it (“Hey Sally, I know it’s silly, but the uniform policy requires that the logo in your skirt waistband be visible, so can you roll it down for me, please?” Instead of, “Sally, stop rolling your waistband! Your skirt is too short!”.

              Anyway, even within an environment that literally had a uniform mandated, the odd interpretations of different staff members were bizarre! There were two deputy heads and the policy didn’t comment on sick choice. On one day, Stacey, the first deputy head, commented to me that the girls wearing knee high white socks looked really neat and smart, while Tara, the second, made the comment that knee high socks were incredibly “unladylike” (read: trashy) and she was thinking of amending the policy to ban them.

              So, basically it can literally be anything – but only for girls. The infringements we had for boys were always “not wearing a tie” or, “wearing trainers”. For girls it was that, but also, skirt length, tightness, shirt tightness, first shirt button is too low making the shirt revealing (it was the standard shirt – she was just busty), tights too sheer (in the UK – tights means pantyhose OR woollen tights), wearing leggings instead of tights, shoes “inappropriate” (reason not given), belt worn around blazer, belt is a “fashion” belt, hair unnatural colour, wearing earrings, wearing make up, nose pierced, wearing fake eyelashes, wearing fake nails, eyelashes a different colour today than they were yesterday (she’d had them tinted), eyebrows too sculpted (must be make up) and on and on and on…

              It’s definitely, absolutely gendered.

          5. Observer*

            which to me says that the issue isn’t the clothing, it’s the body within the clothing

            Except that Jane is making this complaint about others as well. Also, the OP also provides some examples of what Jane considers too revealing, and it includes . . . skirts that fall above the knee! ~~gasp~~

            That’s not about policing certain bodies (as gross as that would be). It’s about someone who is kind of delusional about how people dress and what is reasonable to demand, and about someone who has a VASTLY inflated sense of her own position.

  2. Kyle S.*

    I’m glad the first sentence of Alison’s response mentions firing Jane, because that’s the first reaction I had. My guess is that LW wanted to avoid a PIP (!!) not because they value Jane but because it would require acknowledging they made a mistake hiring Jane.

    1. TheBunny*

      Not necessarily. I think people avoid PIPs because they see them as a you’re fired first step and not as a corrective document.

      1. Littorally*

        Depending on the situation, they can also be a ton of extra work on the part of the manager as well, so that’s another reason the LW may want to avoid one.

        1. MassMatt*

          Was going to say this. I’ve done several PIPs for people on my teams, for a couple there was dramatic improvement, just as I hoped for, for one we realized their strengths lay in a different area and I helped them move to another role in the company where they flourished, and a couple just could not maintain the improvements needed and had to be let go. (One of them thought they should be given a raise for… surviving the PIP! But that’s another story).

          In every case it was a LOT of work, often more than I was spending on the rest of my team combined, or close to it.

          I understand not wanting to do the work, but really that’s not an excuse, dealing with employees that are underperforming is part of being a manager. If it were easy, everyone would do it.

          I will say that the PIP process where I was a manager was clear as to what steps had to be taken and what the consequences for failing to improve would be, and the company definitely WOULD a follow through with the consequences if the employee failed the PIP.

          Sadly, in many organizations the process is unclear, or HR’s (or an upper manager’s) response is “let’s give them one more chance!” which completely undermines the whole process, which often repeats itself ad infinitum.

        2. WantonSeedStitch*

          They really are a lot of work. You have to ramp up meetings and oversight of the employee, you have to document EVERYTHING, etc.

    2. Observer*

      My guess is that LW wanted to avoid a PIP (!!) not because they value Jane but because it would require acknowledging they made a mistake hiring Jane.

      It sounded to me like neither was the case. But more like the OP was stuck in a mode of “I need to be nice and it’s terrible to have to fire someone.”

      Which is why, I think, Alison explicitly calls out his hesitation to put her on a PIP.

    3. Ex-prof*

      Nah, I think LW just wants to be a nice boss and everyone’s friend. It’s not fun to confront people and try to fix their behavior. Plus I think he also didn’t quite recognize how serious it is.

      1. New Jack Karyn*

        I think this is a lot closer. I also think he didn’t want to have this kind of conversation, in which he’s talking about other peoples’ clothing.

        I suspect he’s also nervous about possibly stepping into a religious thing, where Jane might claim she’s being discriminated against. The claim would not have merit, but I think LW might be scared of it.

    4. Curious*

      This doesn’t sound like something for which a *Performance* Improvement Plan would be appropriate. The problem here is behavior, not performance.

      How would you work a PIP? Insult your coworkers 40% less frequently?

      1. MountainAir*

        Agree, and I appreciated Alison’s note that for conduct issues PIPs might not be the right tool. I’ve personally struggled with the default to PIP in some workplaces around issues like this, because I feel like where there are behavioral issues concerned that reflect sexism, racism, poor judgment, etc. it’s just not a good tool. For one thing, as you say, it can really hard to quantify the improvement you need to see – it’s hard to write a plan when the outcome you want is “I need you to gain maturity and perspective within 30 days” or at least “stop being antagonistic.” As Alison’s answer mentioned, this is the kind of situation where a clear warning and a reference to relevant parts of the employee handbook might be sufficient before letting someone go.

        Maybe I just have little patience left for personalities like this, but honestly Jane seems like the kind of person who is going to need to be let go. The collateral damage from tolerating that behavior to this point might already be pretty substantial – if I were Margie and wasn’t getting any traction on getting this problem addressed, I would already have my eye on the door. When you let this fly without any consequences you’re sending a pretty clear message to the rest of your staff.

    5. Menace to Sobriety*

      I think the OP wants to avoid a PIP because it usually reads as Firing an Employee, Step 1: Put employee on a PIP. Step 2: Watch employee fail. Step 3: Fire employee. I’ve been in very few organizations in my 25 years managing people where PIPs were NOT considered punitive and basically “pre-firing documentation.” Used correctly, sure a PIP could be a tool, but unfortunately, that just isn’t how they’re implemented realisticially.

      1. Momma Bear*

        Thank you. I think Jane was way out of line, especially 6 months in. I also think that people assume that managers know x and y when sometimes they don’t and annual training would be a good idea. At my former company we did an annual refresher on expectations, including what constitutes harassment and how to report it. It caught people that were new and gave the rest of us a reminder.

        1. Magenta Sky*

          California requires certified training on harassment, mostly sexual, but across the board, for all management employees every two years. (Might be all employees now, I’m not sure.)

          All done online now, but I do miss the days when it was done by a trial lawyer, though. He had . . . war stories.

            1. Carl*

              Actually, that’s at law firms. I believe it’s applicable to all employers, but I guess it could be a CA bar rule.

      2. lost academic*

        I went to the link and went through most of the threads in that area and can’t find an update… what name did the OP use?

        1. Seeking Second Childhood*

          For me, that link opens directly to a comment from someone with the user name “I Wrote This.”

        2. Vio*

          If you have “Set collapse all as default site-wide” turned on then you’ll need to disable it (you can enable it again afterwards if you like) for a link to a comment to work.

      3. Emily*

        GermanCoffeeGirl: Thank you! I always really appreciate when someone takes the time to provide a link when there is an update in the comments because they can be hard to find.

        1. Carl*

          Yes, and I realize it’s an old post, but I think LW should be commended for being willing to reflect and learn.

    1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      Same. I hope OP reread her letter and realized
      she was asking how to work around managing Jane.

      I really think she hoped Alison would say to give it time, Jane would at best, realized or at worst give in to peer pressure and learn how to get along with everyone. That “of course Jane wants to fit in, wants absorb the office culture, wants to build relationships.”

      Nope. OP, you need to fix this. Would love to know what happened.

  3. Dan F*

    “…[Jane] asks how she can move up the ladder and get a promotion”

    Swear more, and wear more revealing clothing (or at least STFU about everyone else’s clothing), it what I would say.

    1. Distracted Procrastinator*

      This isn’t a fair assessment of the situation. Jane needs to stop being openly critical of other people and work harder to build relationships with the people she needs to work with.

      The issues she’s having aren’t that she’s not swearing and her dress comes below her knees, it’s that she feels that everyone has to have the same standards she has and is very upset that other people don’t share her standards. It’s very black and white thinking and it can be hard to build collaborative relationships with this attitude.

      I work in a office where the occasional swear is normal and women regularly wear skirts above the knees. I do neither and this has not held me back in any way, because I see my choices as mine alone and not some standard by which the entire office should be judged.

      1. e271828*

        In the comment-response linked above, OP says that their company had a training course already on bias, which they were taking. Kudos to OP for becoming a more self-aware and thoughtful manager as a result of this!

        And bye, Jane.

          1. ThatOtherClare*

            This whole comment thread is a wild train wreck of accidental miscommunication. I need more popcorn!

  4. Wintermute*

    This letter is a great lesson that avoiding discipline is actually the worst thing you can do.

    A manager should never take the attitude “I hope I don’t have…” you should take the attitude “I hope I never have an employee do something like that but if this happens I am EAGER to fire that person”. You really need to be eager, ready and enthusiastic about firing people who engage in gendered harassment or any other legally impermissible harassment or behavior.

    you should want them out of there so fast their head spins, the only hesitation you should have is making sure you do it according to HR process and comply with state law about things like last paycheck, PTO and that sort of thing.

    Also, when you become a manager it is worth preparing for these moments so you react better in them. No one reacts well to something totally out of left field, but this is such a foreseeable thing that managers want to think about how they will react to ensure they do it well.

    1. An Australian In London*

      Without exception it seems to me that all methods for trying to avoid conflict not only fail to avoid it but actively create it.

  5. Evil Queen of Dysfunction*

    Jane would hate me, and most of the places I have worked.

    But one lesson is, if you don’t like the culture of the workplace you are at, you are better off looking for a job that has one you are comfortable in instead of attempting to get the culture to change to you.

    1. Angstrom.*

      Yup. One person in a low-level position isn’t going to change the company culture.

      It sound as if Jane has a very narrow, specific view of “being professional”. She hasn’t learned to look past appearances at how the workplace actually functions.

      1. MsM*

        Jane sounds like one of those people who doesn’t have much life experience outside her own religious community and either doesn’t fully realize how out of step with secular norms she is or thinks it’s her duty to “civilize” everyone else.

        1. Gumby*

          The thing that is silly about this is that, IME, people around you eventually start self-censoring if you don’t swear. I don’t swear but I have NEVER said anything about co-workers, friends, or other people around me who do to indicate that they shouldn’t. I don’t make a big deal about it, I don’t talk about it, I just… don’t swear. And in at least 2 workplaces I have noticed that people changed their language around me and continued to do so even when I explicitly told them I didn’t mind.

          I got nothing on the clothing front. But I’ve also had jobs where the dress code ran more towards jeans and t-shirts than skirts / slacks.

          1. Azure Jane Lunatic*

            I got trained out of swearing at work from my time in an outbound call center. At a particularly sweary job, my grandmanager kept swearing and then apologizing to me, even after I explained that I didn’t mind, I used the word, I was just conditioned out of using it at work. I had to strategically drop my “f-ity f-ing f on an f-ing f-stick” cluster (which I can rattle off with the speed of long use) before he stopped apologizing.

            1. Reluctant Mezzo*

              This is why learning Klingon can be helpful. Even their version of ‘hi, have a nice day’ sounds…sweary.

            2. Audrey Puffins*

              I do think it’s interesting when people suggest that retail employees are more likely to be informal than office employees; when I shifted from retail work to office work, it took me five years to fully realise that swearing really wasn’t a problem in my “new” role and that I didn’t have to be “on” all the time like when I was working in a shop.

            3. Genadriel*

              I have completely overthought my attitude to swearing, and as a result I don’t do it as often as I think I should. Which in practical terms, means I never ended up swearing at my most recent job.

              I ended up having to tell my colleagues that I learned how to swear in a previous career – and by comparison, the situations and conversations I faced in the new job simply didn’t faze me.

    2. Good Enough For Government Work*

      She’d hate me too. My bosses have always loved my ability to cut through bullshit and give them the truth straight up, including the odd expletive. (I do also know when NOT to swear, for the record… but it’s amazing how a brisk “Basically, it’s all gone tits-up” will break the atmosphere in the right way sometimes.)

      And I have big boobs, so all my outfits are presumably slutty by default (even though I live in nerdy t-shirts and skinny jeans).

      1. Cicely*

        I once mentioned my grandmother’s boyfriend exactly with that phrasing, and a Jane I worked with formerly shot me a look so steely I saw it out of the corner of my eye. Long story short, I wasn’t surprised; she zoomed around almost daily trying to teach the rest of us to be ladies and such, whatever that meant.

        Therefore, I was sure to mention my grandmother’s “boyfriend” as often as I remembered to. :D Probably rude on my part, but jeez it made work fun!

        1. I am Emily's failing memory*

          At first I hilariously read this as you having mentioned your grandmother’s boyfriend using the exact phrasing, “it’s all gone tits-up!” Really felt like we needed to hear considerably more detail on that side plot, until I grokked that it was the perfectly innocuous phrase “grandmother’s boyfriend” she took issue with!

        2. Merrie*

          Sounds like my mom, who thinks if you’re not married or engaged you should be referred to as “just good friends”, and persists in referring to my sister’s boyfriend as her “friend”. She’s approaching 40 and he’s older than that, they’ve been together 7 years and cohabiting for 5. But sure, “friends”.

      2. Evil Queen of Dysfunction*

        Yes, no matter what the girls always seem to appear unprofessional.

        It reminds of the tweet where someone was complaining about a teacher dressing unprofessionally as she had a very curvy derriere. There was nothing she could wear short of a Mrs Roper Mumu to cover it. Someone responded “what is she supposed to do? leave it at home?” `

        1. Good Enough For Government Work*

          If I *could* leave Dolly and Parton at home sometimes, it would certainly make me enjoy summers more than I do…

      3. goddessoftransitory*

        Ahhh yes, the “default slut” bra size. I feel you, my fellow great tracts of land sister.

          1. Betty Beep Boop*

            Another member of the 36-Good-God squad checking in here … I take pains to dress professionally when I’m doing professional things, but I refuse to prioritize downplaying my chest.

            Reasonably high necklines, sure. Anything a smaller-chested person would take into consideration, absolutely.

            Minimizer bras (is that still a thing?) and tops and sweaters one size too big for no reason … you’ll find that over in the Nope Department on the 33rd floor.

            I’ve been carting them around for 40 years at this point, at considerable trouble and expense. I’ll stick ’em out if I want to.

        1. Le Sigh*

          Excuse me, but I believe proper ladies refer to it as a “default hussy” size. It’s okay to judge someone and think them a slut, but you cannot say that word out loud.


  6. Falling Diphthong*

    OP, I think the problem lies in framing like “Have a conversation about focusing more on her work” rather than “The instant she policed someone’s body and clothes, I came down on her like a ton of bricks. I made clear this was a firing offense if she didn’t shape up immediately.”

    I think Jane hears you saying that maybe she shouldn’t make things awkward, but then she thinks about it and she’s right! It’s everyone else that is making it awkward! And so she goes right back to what she was doing.

    You sound like you’re trying to approach this kindly and compassionately, and everyone else in the office needs to see that you will grant them just as much kindness and compassion. Or more, as they are doing their jobs within the norms of the office and Jane is not, so she shouldn’t be the one getting the lion’s share of the patience and kindness.

    1. Pastor Petty Labelle*

      Yes. Op probably just talked about getting along with others and focusing on work, instead of being very clear. Jane needed to hear stop this now it is not acceptable. If you cannot stop, we will have to have a discussion about transitioning you out.

      This is also a case of failing to manage left everyone else unhappy. OP was so adverse to dealing with Jane, it left everyone else to have to deal with her.

    2. Observer*

      You sound like you’re trying to approach this kindly and compassionately, and everyone else in the office needs to see that you will grant them just as much kindness and compassion.


      I’ve mentioned this a gazillion times, but it really, really resonates in an office context. There is a Talmudic saying that “One who is kind to the cruel is cruel to the kind.”

      You cannot allow compassion for someone who is harming others to overtake your compassion for the victims.

      1. Gozer*

        I copied that phrase from the comments way back when you first mentioned it. It is a very wise saying and very true.

    3. Properlike*

      Honestly, it’s along the lines of seeing it as “a personality clash because women, so not my space.” Far more gendered a response than thinking, “This is unprofessional and must be stopped.”

      I wonder if he’d feel as ill at ease if a man were acting this way toward men? But glad he was already clear on how problematic it was.

  7. hmmmmm*

    I agree with Alison’s take here. The letter writer doesn’t say Jane is sheltered, or young, or very religious, or any number of other excuses for Jane’s behavior–but I would bet there is one, thus why OP hasn’t been as stern as she perhaps ought to have been.

    I’ve made my own missteps supervising an employee who was ignorant of norms and felt it was her place to police others on their work. The best solution almost always seems to be to be very, very clear that this is unacceptable, as soon as possible. I really like Alison’s advice to OP to be ready to fire Jane–Alison is right that being psychologically prepared to hand down serious consequences can help you a lot in making it clear how serious this could be. When employees are sending themselves down the road to be fired, they need to be told as much. Either they genuinely don’t know, and they’ll finally be able to understand what they’re doing, or they’ll make it clear that they DO know, and you can let them go with a clearer conscience.

    1. Sara without an H*

      +1. The sooner managers move on this kind of behavior, the easier it is to correct. The longer you wait, the more entrenched the behavior becomes.

    2. Random Dice*

      He wrote in later to say that he realized he was acting out of internalized gender bias and has been taking a class on it.

  8. LCH*

    “Jane constantly asks how she can move up the ladder and get a promotion.” “Jane could learn a lot from Margie, particularly when it comes to building productive and lasting relationships with many different kinds of people.”

    so i can’t tell exactly what OP has told Jane in regard to her behavior, but would it be wrong to be straightforward with her using the second statement. like blow her mind and say that her behavior is so wrong because she really should be *more* like Margie for this particular field and company? (i really don’t enjoy managing people so i could be way off here.)

    1. Jennifer Strange*

      It wouldn’t be wrong at all so long as it was focusing on emulating Margie’s work style and demeanor, rather than her choice of clothing and language. In other words, Jane doesn’t need to curse or dress in a manner that makes her uncomfortable to get a promotion, but she should look to Margie on best practices in their work, professional standards within their company (for example, how to take feedback without becoming defensive), as well as how she creates relationship both inside (and potentially outside) of their company.

      And she DEFINITELY needs to stop harassing co-workers for behaviors she’s been told are acceptable by the company’s standards (and even if they weren’t acceptable, there are better ways to go about handling them).

      1. LCH*

        yes, i was specifically pointing to “building productive and lasting relationships with many different kinds of people” and generally pointing out that Margie was doing nothing the company considered an issue.

        1. Observer*

          yes, i was specifically pointing to “building productive and lasting relationships with many different kinds of people” and generally pointing out that Margie was doing nothing the company considered an issue.

          I think that in many cases it could be a really good idea. Because it says that 1. you need to stop focusing on externals which also happen to be none of your business and 2. ACTUAL “professionalism” is about how you behave and work with people (which includes not making the world crazy because you got your feelings hurt!)

    2. Sales SVP*

      I wouldn’t, because talking about what she needs to do to get promoted and being ready to fire her over her inappropriate behavior in the same conversation is head spinning.

    3. Ellis Bell*

      The problem with simply referring to Margie as a great role model is Jane doesn’t have enough basic awareness of professional norms or skills to look at Margie and to see what she should be copying. Jane’s already been pre-coded to judge women only on “ladylike” behaviours, so if she was too look at Margie for tips all she’d see would be the casual profanity and the wrong skirt. So, she’d be baffled. Further, I hypothesise that Jane wasn’t really asking “what should I be doing?” Someone who is this confident in their scoldings was probably trying to make OP explain herself as to why she, Jane, wasn’t being promoted; after all she is a bastion of ladylike behaviour! What possible reason could there be?! Even when OP said the equivalent of “Focus more on relationships and skills than ladylike stuff” that was brushed off by Jane. She needed to hear “If you repeat these harassing behaviours again, you will be fired” and even then, people sometimes opt for being fired because they are so certain they know what is right.

    4. Artemesia*

      Asking about promotion was a great moment for the OP to make clear that the question was not promotion but continued employment. Too bad they didn’t deal effectively in the first 60 days as it becomes increasingly difficult as time passes to deal with this sort of issue. They were lucky to have a proactive HR — many places would make it hard to deal with after this much time had passed.

  9. bamcheeks*

    I would go a little clearer on making a distinction between using a swear word in general, (“ugh, fudge this!”) and using one AT someone (“fudge you!”) If Jane comes from a background or space where there is no tolerance for swearing, than I think a little more detailed orientation about what is and isn’t acceptable is helpful, and it more clearly delineates when she SHOULD go to HR or her manager to report a problem. But otherwise, I completely agree with Alison’s wording and that the “want to avoid a PIP” framing is probably contributing to the problem.

    1. DramaQ*

      I disagree. In a professional setting most adults are capable of policing their own language and moderating it accordingly. Trying to make specific examples and rules around it strikes me as grade school behavior. We’re not kids, I am pretty sure I am aware that telling my co-worker to F off is going to get me in trouble and not do it vs me swearing at my software under my breath at my desk. I am guessing if Jane had said “Hey swearing really bothers me would you mind not using it in conversation with me?” people would have adjusted accordingly. Instead she feels that she has the right to follow people around and dictate how they talk to EVERYONE. That is not acceptable. She doesn’t have the right to dictate how her coworkers speak. If you can’t handle a bit of swearing it is up to you to find the environment that fits, not try to force everyone to conform to you, especially as a junior employee.

      1. Elle by the sea*

        Neither is particularly pleasant. I didn’t grow up in an environment where swearing was used gratuitously and casually. I feel weirded out when people drop f-bombs at work – it literally conjures up the image of a sexual act in my head in the form of comics. And still, I wouldn’t make comments or harass people about it. At the same time, I worked in an environment once where I was harassed for NOT swearing. I left that environment, obviously.

      2. MassMatt*

        Right, if someone’s language is too salty the person they are talking to can say so, or the manager can deal with it, not another coworker who isn’t even in the conversation.

    2. amylynn*

      I think that difference is important – one is abuse but the other is not. It would be bad management to treat them both the same.

      I was once in a situation in a call center where I decided not to call out a customer who was dropping F-bombs. My employer allowed that – you could drop a call for swearing provided you warned the caller first and gave them a chance to stop. I realized that the customer wasn’t swearing at me. They weren’t even unhappy, they were just immature. I decided that threatening to disconnect the caller would have just created drama. I finished the call, resolved the customer’s issue and we both ended the call happy.

      1. Cicely*

        I love this! Because yeah, in some contexts, they’re just words and no more, unintended to harm, and thus the bigger picture often has to and should remain the priority. Thanks, amylynn!

  10. Sarah*

    LW demonstrated incredibly passive behavior, including in their update. The problem wasn’t just Jane, the problem was that management would not take appropriate actions to deal with her behavior. The fact that Jane is asking how to get a promotion shows how big of a disparity there was.

    1. Cobol*

      So many of these letters to me, the answer seems to be be direct. Don’t hint at what you want, or say she took the new hire classes (which I’m sure didn’t say swearing is fine). In this case, say the same thing you said in the letter. Swearing is fine. The clothing is fine, but more importantly Jane should stop policing either, and realize that Margaery is an example of how people should be.

  11. Forty Years in the Hole*

    I know this is all done and dusted (good on OP for stepping up and course-correcting himself), but if I’d been Margie, I’d have done – or seriously considered – some malicious compliance: muumuu, caftan, toga, dashiki: anything that Jane couldn’t pin down as “inappropriate.” And learned to swear in low Latin. Petty, yes. Helpful, no. But damn I’d feel good at the moment. :)

    1. Jennifer Strange*

      I have a friend who is from India and she’s taught our friend group some swears in Hindi. I do whip some of them out from time to time when I want to curse but don’t want to be caught (same with some choice words in French and German).

      1. The OG Sleepless*

        My kids went to a very ethnically diverse high school, and I’m still disappointed that they never learned any swear words in Korean.

    2. Anonymoose*

      My tactic is very much the opposite. When anyone comments about behaving like a lady, my reflex response is “I’m no fuking lady”. The only people who don’t find that response amusing are the ones who think I should behave like a lady!

      1. Coffee Protein Drink*

        I see you’ve met my mother. I’m so sorry. She was very much of the cross your ankles, be sweet and dainty, and act like a lady and it got old by the time I was five.

  12. Frodo*

    This is similar to the candy bowl letter. Bottom line… if you don’t feel comfortable around the norms of a workplace (swearing, trendy clothes, candy) then this workplace is not for you.

  13. A*

    I feel bad for the employees being forced into a hostile work environment because of Jane since the LW won’t step up and actually stop it.

  14. Circe*

    I’ve found myself in a similar situation with a younger colleague whom I am expected to mentor commenting negatively about my appearance, even after I explained they should stop or keep it to themselves. I wish my boss would’ve taken the comments more seriously because it snowballed quickly into my colleague accusing me of being a bitch and unwilling to help them despite my efforts.

    It’s pretty exhausting when someone resorts to ad hominem attacks. Kudos to Margie for calling it what it is.

  15. Lilo*

    I personally don’t think a PIP is appropriate for repeated harassment, especially after this has already been addressed. They just needed to fire her.

  16. VP of Monitoring Employees' LinkedIn and Indeed Profiles*

    My reply to Jane would be simple… “How do other people’s fashion and language choices physically stop YOU from completing YOUR projects or assisting YOUR clients? Please cite specific examples.”

    I’d be very interested in hearing her reply.

  17. RJ*

    Very glad to read in the comments about the update and the fact that Jane was exited because I’ve dealt with a person much like this in my former workplace who was placed on a PIP, managed closely and learned absolutely nothing. Her behavior continued until most of our department had left and upper management had to deal with the consequences. We need more Margies calling out this gendered harassment these days.

  18. Mango Freak*

    I’m glad (per the update comment) that HR finally stepped in. letters like this support my suspicion that you can’t trust anyone to actually manage. Or just generally stand up for people being attacked even in the simplest, most normal-person, “hey don’t do that” way.

  19. KG*

    This is a very cringey manager. He is allowing a top performer to be harassed at work, and essentially said Jane called her a slut, and he still seems mystified at what to do because it is “just ladies being ladies,” amirite? I am glad this HR team seems to be on it. Yikes.

  20. Elle by the sea*

    Why was the wording of this post was changed? Even the name! Is there any specific reason for that?

      1. Elle by the sea*

        This is an older post reposted. The old post was worded very differently and Margie’s name wasn’t Margie.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I occasionally update posts for Inc, per the note in the post itself. I changed Margaery to Margie because I don’t use Game of Thrones names at Inc.

      1. Elle by the sea*

        Ah…I didn’t know that was a Game of Thrones reference. I read it as a regular female name. :)
        Some of the wording was changed, too. I was just wondering why.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Can’t say specifically off the top of my head since I put this one together a while back, but sometimes stuff gets updated for Inc., particularly to keep word count down.

      1. Elle by the sea*

        Not concerned – curious! I’m interested in anything related to writing and publishing, and how things work behind the scenes. Even small details like this.

        Thanks, Alison, for your answers.

  21. Raida*

    “At this point, I’m worried that we’re heading towards a PIP, and I’d like some strategies to avoid that…”

    Mate, why? She sounds like a bloody nightmare to work with.

    if this was “here are two subjects you need to learn new ways of dealing with because your current approach is, and let me be clear here, not acceptable” then yes, look for ways to get through to her.

    But you’ve described someone that’s *constantly* a problem, in numerous ways.

    If she’s “headed to a PIP” then that is a good thing, that is appropriate. Not to forget, if you fight to keep her then you could put offside all the other staff that need to deal with her every day. Including this rockstar Margie who genuinely and consistently and visibly provides great value to the business.

    You can’t fix this woman. But you can make the workplace a better place, free from bullying and harassment, for *everyone else*

    1. MassMatt*

      Tolerating a bad employee drives away good employees. Hopefully action was taken early enough here that Rockstar Margie didn’t have to leave for someplace where she doesn’t need to put up with someone constantly criticizing her skirt length.

    2. Pita Chips*

      I’m guessing that the manager feels that having to place an employee on a PIP is a personal failure, or that the people he reports to will ding him for needing to do so or for making a bad hire.

      Or he’s severely conflict-avoidant, doing on the bare minimum there.

  22. CraigT*

    You’re her boss. Act like it. Try these two words, “Stop that”. Then make her stop.
    If you are as verbose face to face as you are in this post, people like her will continue tuning you out.
    You should have documented her long ago. Do it now. And, if you haven’t figured this out already, she’s going to pull the violates my religious rights/creates a hostile workplace card. That’ll be between you and HR to deal with.
    But for god’s sake, start acting like a manager.

    1. Observer*

      And, if you haven’t figured this out already, she’s going to pull the violates my religious rights/creates a hostile workplace card.

      Well, apparently the LW’s HR had their ducks in a row. I don’t know (the LW didn’t mention it) whether she claimed religious discrimination or not, but it certainly didn’t stick, if she did.

  23. Marzipan Shepherdess*

    Removed. These are serious slurs even with the asterisks and I prefer not to have them here. – Alison

    1. Ginger Cat Lady*

      There’s no evidence of anything racial in today’s letter. You’re making stuff up, and that’s against commenting rules here.
      Just something to think about…

    2. Good Enough For Government Work*

      Enough with the fanfic, please.

      I have worked in a number of VERY sweary offices (I am extremely potty-mouthed myself) and never heard a single racist slur in any of them. I don’t believe I’ve ever even heard someone drop the c-bomb unless it was the bowdlerised form (“See You Next Tuesday”) to quote someone else.

  24. Nearwildheaven*

    How has the OP tolerated this nonsense for six months? Jane should have been gone after the first 30 days. Ridiculous.

  25. Laura*

    I’m angry that OP doesn’t want to put her on a PIP for this and shocked that she hasn’t already been fired.

    1. Pathfinder Ryder*

      Good news, this is an old letter and she’s been fired – see further up in the comments for a link to the update comment on the old post.

  26. anitat*

    I’ll be the grumpy dissenter here. with the way our sexual harassment laws are written, this woman has probably concluded she’s being sexually harassed. the reality is, your culture or not is irrelevant. the government doesn’t say someone has to fit into your culture, it says that people she works with have to stop offending her. She’s reported being offended over…and over. start building a defense. What was the formal dress code, listed in the employee handbook, at the time of her hire? the company may well be in trouble if it says anything like ‘decent’ or modest’. Look to pinning down a dress code for the next iteration, using specific guidance and avoiding interpretation. Same question regarding language. make changes and look to the future and realize you’re probably going to pay out on this one.

    1. Gozer*

      She’s the one doing the sexual harassment, she doesn’t get to claim to be a victim. Going up to another member of staff and calling her names for dressing differently is harassment.

    2. Jennifer Strange*

      You are 100% wrong here. The LW says the clothing being worn fits the dress code guidelines, so there’s nothing to pin down. Also, per the update on the original letter Jane was managed out, not paid out.

    3. Alpacas Are Not Dairy Animals*

      I don’t think I’ve ever seen a dress code that said “decent” or “modest”. “Appropriate”, yes. But that’s quite different.

    4. Sam I Am*

      There’s no law against getting offended at work. The company needs to fire this person, not “start building a defense” for an imaginary lawsuit.

  27. Gozer*

    Evil thought: get her to apply for a job with me. Let her witness the successful big woman who will wear tight clothes and learnt how to swear by working in sewage plants. I’ll smarten her attitude up.

    1. I Have RBF*

      IMO, messy fieldwork is very sweary. I worked in environmental engineering for years. Aslo, my dad designed sewage treatment plants for a living. I was one of the few kids in grade school that knew what happened to your shit after the toilet was flushed.

  28. Betty Beep Boop*

    Normally I’m Team Tact And Understanding, but there’s a time and a place for saying clearly and possibly making it crystal-clear to Margery and other targets that they’re allowed to say these as well:

    “Jane, you have to stop that.”
    “Jane, knock it off.”
    “Cut it out, Jane.”
    “Seriously, Jane?”
    “I’m sorry, WHAT?”

    1. Pizza Rat*

      I’m especially fond of the last two with colleagues or friends. For direct reports, the first few are just fine.

  29. Have you had enough water today?*

    Yeesh. I have literally heard the big C bomb three times already this morning & it is only 10am. Yay tradies. Jane would die!

  30. jojo*

    Need to tell her only a manager can police dress code and that she is not a manager. Same with language or swearing.

Comments are closed.