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Fighting unfair dress code

Layout, design and text by Franke James, MFA.; Source Jeans ©istockphoto.com/Andrey Armyagov

Dear Office-Politics,

How do you handle a situation when it comes to dress code?

I have been at this company for about 18 months and I have worn jeans and a blouse with heels everyday to work. Up until today. Management now has a problem with this. I am an Administrative Assistant for this office, I also do customer service and data entry work. For the most part I am a casual professional. I’ve never had any customers complain about my dress, as a matter of fact they come to me more and are more comfortable talking with me regarding the items we sell. It’s a small office with a showroom so we do have walk-in customers as well as appointment customers.

I was told that because I sit right in the front I make the first impression. That is correct I do. But most people only see me from the waist up when I talk with them. I was told that I need to wear dress pants now, and that I need to fix my hair because it’s all “wild” looking, and that I need to get more sleep to get rid of the “bags” under my eyes.

The bags under my eyes are probably a result of being a single parent and they know this. I don’t bring my home issues with me to work and have not ever brought them to work.

As for my hair, I sweep it back off of my face (I have long hair) and I pull it back into a claw clip or into a ponytail ninety per cent of the time. For the most part I do not wear it down because it detracts from my face and my expressions when talking with customers. I’m not sure what they are looking for a super-model who sits at a front desk?

I am actually very upset and angry at these comments that were made to me. How do I handle this? I told them before they hired me, my situation with buying a wardrobe and my responsibilities, and yet they still hired me. I had to explain to them that my paycheck just covers my bills and that’s it. There are no extras. I work to pay bills (a roof over my head & my daughter, and food on my table) and they don’t get this since they have been with the company for roughly between 15-20 years apiece. Neither of them have children to take care of. For them life is great I’m sure. Times are different and definitely more expensive. I struggle each day with maintaining my job and my home and keeping them balanced. Buying dress clothes just does not fit in my budget at this moment. I am making an effort to not dress poorly by any means, or having my hair “wild”, or having bags under my eyes. So they said to me to go and shop at the GoodWill. How do you think that made me feel?

It’s not just about the dress clothes or my hair, but it’s been a lot more and I really don’t know who to turn to to ask for advice on the matter. It just doesn’t seem right to me or fair for that matter. I feel like I have been singled out, while others in the office wear jeans, or come in whenever they feel like it and leave whenever they feel like it, or do basically just whatever they feel like.

They have threatened to let me go because of my appearance, but this is not effecting my job quality or the quality of customer service I am giving. I feel like they are nit-picking at me. Please help me.

Not Dressed to Kill

P.S. I understand that in certain workforces there is a dress code. I have reviewed the company policy as I see no indication as to wearing jeans being an issue. (Company X expects employees to present themselves in a neat, clean, and professional manner according to job responsibilities. When in front of the customer, dress appropriately.) I have no problems with wearing the dress pants, but after this long? I don’t look like I have just crawled out of bed, unlike some others that do show up with jeans and a dress shirt, or dress pants and dress shirt that look like they have been crumpled up in a corner for a week and not a word is said to them.

franke james

Dear Not Dressed to Kill,

The problem in your situation is that you can be absolutely ‘right’, but it won’t get you what you want. In fact your determination to press your point may get you fired.

As you’ve explained it, it doesn’t sound fair to be singled out about your choice of clothing. Unfortunately management holds the power in this situation. Are you being picked on unfairly by management? Quite possibly, but they’ve found a weak spot that will be difficult to argue against.

Taking this further up the chain of command
Taking this further up the chain of command to defend your right to wear jeans is going to be tough. Let’s imagine that I was able to march into your company and wanted to defend your right to wear jeans. I could plead your difficult financial circumstances. I could argue, as you did, that you’re only visible from the waist up. But you know what… I don’t think I’d win.

They’d argue that you represent the company brand and that your company dress code states that “employees present themselves in a neat, clean, and professional manner according to job responsibilities”. They’d no doubt say that jeans are not ‘professional’ attire. And they’d be right, sort of… If you worked at an advertising agency, or a radio station, they might be perfectly fine. But at other companies, jeans wouldn’t be considered ‘professional’. Depending on your corporate culture some clothing is allowed and some isn’t. The clothes we wear in our personal lives can express our personalities. The ones we wear at work, express the company’s brand ‘personality’.

Image Makeover: Frumpy to Fabulous
The 2006 movie, The Devil Wears Prada, which starred Anne Hathaway (Andy) and Meryl Streep (Miranda), reminds me of your situation. If you can watch it on video I’d recommend it. You can also read my article on it: Office-Politics lessons from “The Devil Wears Prada”

Now I know you don’t work for a fashion magazine, but there are valuable lessons that you can learn from the movie. The main character Andy landed the job of Assistant to the Editor. Everyone was shocked because she didn’t dress fashionably (in fact she looked very frumpy). Andy did not reflect the fashion magazine’s brand and she was woefully ignorant of fashion designers. She was mocked by her boss Miranda and her coworkers. You can imagine how miserable she was. Her brains didn’t count for much in that environment. Her job prospects only turned around when she followed the advice of a savvy coworker, who took her under his wing and gave her a fashion makeover. Once Andy started dressing the part of ‘assistant to the editor of a glossy fashion magazine’ her career soared. If all of this sounds too Hollywood, and too shallow, please stay with me, because there is an important underlying principle here.

Reflect the company’s vision of its brand
To be an asset to the company you need to reflect the company’s vision of what its brand is. Having worked on branding projects for many companies I can tell you that the image a company wants to project is often very different from what it actually projects.

My advice to you is to take a deep breath, and decide if you want to keep your job. If you do, then you must comply with the company brand. It’s in your best interests, and the company’s too. Continuing to fight is only going to give fuel to the managers who want to see you demoted or fired. But if you decide to accept this criticism and work to improve your image, those managers won’t be able to attack you on the dress/appearance issue any more.

Set your political radar on high alert
Whichever manager it is that has singled you out has decided that you don’t reflect the ‘desired’ company image — and as you’ve indicated it’s probably not just about the jeans. That individual is going to keep picking on you until you adjust your outward brand to align with the company brand. But it may not stop there. You should set your political radar on high alert so that you can anticipate what the next tactic will be — and how to avoid, or diffuse it. Who are your allies? Who can you trust to give you the real insight on what is happening? Try speaking to a coworker you trust and getting their perspective.

Next step: Vintage Clothing
I realize that shopping at Goodwill is not where you’d like to shop — but many people in low and medium economic brackets shop at second hand stores. It can be great fun. Dressing well isn’t so much about where you shop, but how you put your look together. Thinking positively, you can find wonderful clothes at second-hand stores. Reframe it as ‘vintage’ clothing and you may just be proud of your latest ‘find.’

I wish you the best. Try to use this to your advantage and you may find that it helps your career enormously. Thanks for writing to Office-Politics.


Franke James, MFA
Editor & Founder, Office-Politics.com
Inventor, The Office-Politics® Game


Franke James, MFA is the Editor & Founder of Office-Politics.com. She is also the Inventor of The Office-Politics® Game a dilemma-based social game that teaches you how to play, and laugh, at office politics. It’s used by HR departments, and corporate trainers worldwide. The Office-Politics Dilemmas have been inspired by the hundreds of letters submitted to Office-Politics.com.

  1. 2 Answers to “Fighting unfair dress code”

  2. Feedback from Not Dressed to Kill:


    Thank you for taking the time to respond. I am actually going to go out and rent that movie tonight as I want to see the outcome of how things turned for Andy.

    I will take all into consideration as you are right it is the brand of the company. I’m just having a hard time with their approach regarding the problem.

    I have made some adjustments to my appearance as of today. I did happen to find a pair of dress pants, but it’s only the beginning. I just hope that the nit-picking ends there and I am not forced to resign my position because of it.

    You are right on setting my radar as high as possible since it seems I am afraid to talk with anyone about a situation regarding anything. I try not to reveal too much of my personal life to them for fear it will be used against me.

    I’d like to go higher up in the chain of command but they seem a close knit group and talking to them would be just as messy as this has turned out. I guess it would be just better to conform to their expectations rather than try and understand their vague form of company policy.

    Again I do appreciate the time that you have given me, and I will in turn take into consideration everything that you have mentioned as it is better to have an outsider view rather than a personal view on things.

    If any other problems arise I hope that I will be able to gain your advice again at some point as I did find this very helpful to me.

    Thank you!!

    By Letter writer on Apr 5, 2008

  3. If you don’t mind, I’m going off the subject just a little bit by pointing out that for a working mom (and especially a single one) there is a cost to working. By the time you factor in a wardrobe, hair cuts, manicures, lunches out, day care, etc. your take home pay is seriously dimished. Something to consider when applying for a front office position.
    Meanwhile, back at the issue, these people are picking on you and I’ll bet it’s for some reason other than your pants.

    By Carolyn S. on Jun 22, 2008

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