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.