Company President: We’ve Had Complaints about Your Nipples

I have a question about an HR experience I had at a previous place of employment.  I suppose I am seeking closure but I also need to understand how this can became a relevant issue in any woman’s employment.

“Acme Company,” a company of under 50 employees, hired me two months before I defended my dissertation. I was happily and successfully employed as a scientist for them for over 10 years. My duties included traveling across the country to present educational seminars at professional association meetings of up to 1000 people. I was well liked and frequently asked to teach additional seminars. I was drama-free and very successful within the company. My corporate responsibilities grew dramatically and I flourished. I had glowing reviews and excellent end of the year bonuses, one year I was the only employee to even receive a bonus. Enter stage right- the new office/HR manager… first this person gossiped that I thought I was too good for everyone. My supervisor told me to not worry about it. Then this person started documenting my comings and goings when I was in town and “warned” me that I was abusing my lunch break privileges. I showed my supervisor the receipts for the materials I purchased on behalf of the company on my “lunch break” and once again my supervisor told me to not worry about it because I was doing my job and met or exceeded all expectations. And so on… I consistently checked in with my supervisor and I continued to receive very good reviews.

During year 12, I was called into the company conference room by the president of the company, the office/HR manager (the only woman in the room) and our corporate legal representative. My supervisor (a VP in the company) was not in the room. During this meeting, I was informed that my nipples were too visible through my clothing, that the company received multiple complaints about this issue, I needed to wear nipple covers from now on, and that this was being filed as a formal complaint in my employee record.

I was blindsided, and dare I say, scarred by this event from 5+ years ago.  I never received complaints, warnings or comments regarding my apparel prior to this formal warning.  To this day, I don’t understand how this only became an issue at year 12, after hundreds of trips, professional meetings, and invited speaker seminars.

My questions are, was this handled appropriately? Would a warning of some sort have been appropriate or even possible? Wasn’t there a better way? I want to make sure I don’t make the same mistake with the employees in my company.

To almost quote Alison Green at Ask a Manager, “what in the heck?”

No. The only person in this story that handled things correct was you–and you did that by leaving the company.

I’m a fan of dress codes (and every time I write about dress codes I get an onslaught of people declaring that dress codes are the worst, so I’m prepared). I’m even a fan of pulling an employee aside who may be displaying more of themselves than they intend and letting them know. I also think proper foundation garments are appropriate for males and females. No ones nipples should be seen through their clothes.

This is what should have happened–assuming a client made a comment about your. (I’m not convinced a client made a complaint, let alone multiple clients.)

If it was the same day AND you were still wearing the same outfit AND your supervisor/HR also observed too much nipple showing then your direct boss or HR person should pull you aside quietly and say, “FYI, [client] complained that your nipples are showing. I thought you would want to know and please let me know if the client behaves inappropriately with you. This is not something clients should be focusing on. Do you feel comfortable continuing to work with this client?”

If it were a different day and you were not wearing the same out but your supervisor/HR had noticed this was a REGULAR problem, then your boss/HR should pull you aside and say, “proper foundation garments are a part of our dress code. Can you make sure your nipples don’t show through your clothes? [Client] commented on this and I’ve noticed it too. This was an extremely inappropriate thing for the client to say, and I want to ensure that his relationship with you has been professional. Do you feel comfortable continuing to work with this client?

If I couldn’t see a problem with your outfit then your manager/HR person should say, “[Client] made an inappropriate comment about you. Do you feel comfortable continuing to work with this client? Has he done or said anything else?”

At no point woud the company president or attorney be involved here. Yes, dress codes can be enforced (and yes, I’d say the same to a male employee), but the bigger concern here is a CLIENT THAT IS FOCUSING ON AN EMPLOYEE’S BREASTS.

This client gets watched like a hawk from now on and fired if they don’t behave themselves.

So, that’s how I would recommend handling the situation.

But, I suspect that no client complained. I suspect that someone disliked you and decided to humiliate you in this fashion–therefore the company president and the attorney.

Sometimes, we have a “wardrobe malfunction.” It happens to the best of us. Pulling someone aside and saying, “Hey, you may not realize how thin that blouse is…” is one thing. Calling that person into a formal meeting to talk about her nipples? No.

Of course, if an employee regularly dresses inappropriately and you’ve talked to her before, you can escalate it. But a first time thing? This is so full of nope.

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10 thoughts on “Company President: We’ve Had Complaints about Your Nipples

  1. Wow; just wow. Yes, of course, she did the right thing in leaving the company. But, they’re extremely lucky that she didn’t file a sexual discrimination suit against them, too.

  2. I understand the desire for closure; it’s not always realistic.

    The LW might want to do a little Google research on the Queen Bee Syndrome. Sexism isn’t the exclusive purview of men.

  3. The closest parallel situation that I have seen was when a very attractive new employee started in my department and was still dressing like a college student in the professional environment. Though fresh from college, she was starting at a level above most members of the department due to her education credentials. A friend of mine shared an office with her and he made a few off-hand remarks to me that the combination of her attractiveness and how much skin was showing was a distraction for him. I didn’t think too much of it until I realized that she had become a subject of gossip among the female employees in my lab, and it was undermining her credibility in the organization. I shared this observation with her manager, happy to hand off the hot potato.

    1. the combination of her attractiveness and how much skin was showing was a distraction for him.

      I am hoping that any training or HR conversation was directed at that man – that he needed to not let himself get distracted. This is not the woman’s problem.

  4. What, we’re not supposed to have nipples? I had always wondered why so many bras for sale were so very deeply padded as if all women were expected to pretend they were a size or two bigger than they are. But it’s to pretend that our breasts are smooth and nipple-free like Barbie’s? I’m all for foundation garments, but making sure they’re thick enough to assure that nipples are never ever glimpsed through clothing? That seems like it’s asking too much.

  5. Wow,that was some reason to make that write-up concerning a visible “display” not covered by undergarments,especially after working without comments for that amount of time employed. Was there some unknown dress code violation not posted for all employees. A whole bunch of steps were left out prior to that confrontation in the office. I would think that kind of meeting would be only for immediate termination. Yes the employee was right to be insulted enough to want to leave,and hopefully was able to find re-employment rapidly.

  6. What. Did I just read.

    Also want to say that OP’s supervisor really whiffed on this one. New HR person is gossiping about one of your direct reports (HR?!?!? This is why we can’t have nice things), and you don’t put a stop to it? New HR person is micromanaging (read: stalking) your direct report’s comings and goings and you don’t step in?

    So. Many. Red. Flags.

  7. So do men have to wear nipple covers too? ‘Cause when the AC is cranked there are plenty of males chests metaphorically shouting “NIPS Ahoy!”

  8. I’m a heterosexual male in a predominantly female field. I’ve never noticed if someone’s nipples were showing because I do my best not to look at my female colleagues boobs. And if I do find myself looking at someone’s boobs, I catch myself and make a conscious effort to not do so anymore.

    Per the advice, I’d be more concerned about the client focused on my report’s boobs than on whether her nipples were showing. You did nothing wrong, this HR person was awful, this was heinous sexual harassment, good on you for leaving.

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