boss is obsessed with the dress code, managing a know-it-all, and more — Ask a Manager

It’s four answers to four questions. Here we go…

1. Our boss is obsessed with the dress code — but all of us follow it

I work for a nonprofit and our office rarely receives outside visitors. Staff dress business casual and when we do work with the public (especially with elected officials or for media interviews) we all act like the intelligent adults we are and dress appropriately. In fact, our staff is usually more formally dressed than anyone else in the room, as we work in a region with a more relaxed clothing culture.

In the last year, our executive director has sent five dress code related emails, had one meeting just about the dress code, brought it up in three other meetings, and required us to have a “practice business formal” day.

I need to reiterate here, NO ONE in the office is dressing inappropriately. The worst offense I’ve seen is someone who was once reprimanded for wearing sneakers instead of work appropriate shoes. The way our ED writes and talks about the dress code, you would think staff was showing up every day with visible bra straps and booty shorts. No reason for these repeated lectures has been given to staff at all.

This feels deeply infantilizing and, in my opinion, is entirely an issue about our ED’s need for control. The excessive reminders and lack of actual dress code violations, combined with the fact that our dress code is out of date and out of sync with our regional culture, is maddening.

I know well enough not to bring my concerns up with leadership, but I would at least like to know I’m not totally unjustified in thinking this is excessive and frustrating?

This is indeed excessive and frustrating. It’s a bad use of staff time, not to mention a bit insulting.

If someone’s not following the dress code, that person’s manager should address it with them directly. Addressing it with the full staff would only make sense if lots of people were getting it wrong and it seemed like something needed to be clarified to the whole group.

How’s the ED’s focus on the organization’s actual work? Whenever something like this is happening, I get curious about how driven that person is toward concrete and meaningful results — how good they are at managing their team/the organization toward real impact. Much of the time, stuff like this happens when they’re floundering on that front.

Any reason that at the next lecture, someone can’t simply ask, “We’ve been talking about this a lot, but it seems like everyone follows the dress code. If someone is out of compliance, I don’t think any of us are aware of it. If that’s the case, it would be helpful to hear specifics one-on-one.”

2. How to tell an employee her ego is holding her back

I have a newish member of staff (one year) who is good at her job and very knowledgeable. Our company Slack is full of her jumping in to answer questions about all manner of topics. In general conversation/online chat, she’s also extremely reluctant to be told anything without first saying she already knew it. It at times leads to awkward moments (nothing particularly egregious, but other staff have commented that she’s a bit of a know-it-all, and she can push a bit far when a simple “oh, that’s interesting” would have been the more polite response). This perhaps wouldn’t be enough to warrant a conversation on its own, but it does mean she can be difficult in domains such as receiving feedback — there is clearly a lot of ego there and she spends a lot of time justifying why she made the decision she did when you ask her to change something in her work, or explaining why it’s impossible to do what you ask. At times I’ve had to do her work for her to show her it can, in fact, be done the way I need it to be done.

I have spoken to her about receiving feedback and explained we can’t spend an hour each time going back and forth on the changes as it’s not practical (especially in our deadline-driven industry). Since that conversation, she is getting better at receiving feedback.

However, now she is saying she would like to be given responsibility to approve others’ work, and give out the feedback, a relatively senior role in the organization, but one it would make sense for her to be doing given her position. When she asked, I told her she hadn’t been with us long enough but it was great she was ambitious, and to keep working on receiving and giving feedback. (Her response, which is pretty typical of her, was that she is great at giving feedback and has lots of experience in it). My worry is that if she is giving others feedback, everything will become an egotistical competition where she can’t let small things go and gets into arguments with other staff. Given this happens over little things, it seems likely it would happen when trying to get changes out of other staff. Do I let her become an approver and just address any issues if staff come to me with complaints, or is there a professional way to first address my concerns about her ego?

Don’t inflict that on your staff! Be honest with her that you need to see changes in the way she’s giving and receiving feedback now before she’ll be effective taking on that role. Consider framing it in terms of humility — that when she’s giving feedback to someone, they need to see that she’s not assuming she’s infallible, that she’s open to other points of view, and that there’s room for them to share alternate perspectives. Be honest that those are areas she’s weaker in now, and that you need to see her improve there first.

If she does eventually take on that responsibility, do it together for a while so you can observe and flag any areas she still needs coaching in … and so you’ll spot it early if she’s still not operating the way you need her to. That’s a lot better than relying on others to complain if there are problems, since a lot of people won’t speak up until things get really bad — and there’s a lot of demoralization that could happen in the meantime (as well as permanent damage to her relationships with people).

3. Coworker keeps making an offensive joke

One of my colleagues in the office is a dude who walks around using the phrase “just the tip” to refer to anything he can fit that phrase to. It’s a phrase that alludes to a rape joke, but it’s innocent sounding enough that my coworkers don’t know. I’m angry because I’m not actually getting paid to tell people to not make rape jokes at work. But I don’t want to be the person who complains about this because I’m afraid that I will honestly sound crazy. This is a dude who has a wife and a very small daughter and who walks around making a joke that normalizes nonconsent at work. I’m considering looking for another company because this is not my problem. What am I supposed to do?

You won’t sound crazy if you tell him to stop, because that’s wildly inappropriate to be saying at work. Whether or not he understands it as a rape joke, he certainly knows it’s sexual, and he knows it’s not okay to sexualize other people’s work environment. You could say any of the following:

* “Please stop saying that, it’s offensive.”
* “Don’t make me go to HR, which I will do if you keep saying that.”
* “Dude, that’s a disgusting thing to say at work. Don’t say it in the office again.”

And then if it continues, please do report it to HR.

4. Should I warn colleagues about an issue with their guest speaker?

I work in a higher education office that arranges events and advertises the campus to potential new students and their families. Along with our other responsibilities, each of us in the office arrange one major event per year.

We are about two weeks from one event arranged by a colleague of mine alongside our director. For a guest speaker, they’ve invited an alumni who now works as a business executive at a well-known brand, who has come and spoken for us multiple times before. Here is the issue: in recent months, the company the executive works for has been increasingly publicly criticized in relation to some of their business practices, to the point of boycotts. I know my colleague and the director well enough to know that they’re likely not too plugged into this — they’re just reaching out to people who have worked with us before as they scramble to get the event set up, which they’ve evidentially had a lot of trouble with this year. They didn’t have speakers finalized until today.

Is this worth bringing up to them as a potential issue, especially with how soon the event is? I think it’s most likely few people will care, but I can also easily see it ending up on the wrong social media site and causing a nightmare for us.

Yes. You’re not telling them what to do; you’re letting them know about something they probably want to be aware of. Even if they don’t uninvite the person, it’s better for them to be aware of potential for blowback so they’re not blindsided if it happens.

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