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posted: 6/18/2017 7:19 AM

What to do when office dress code is enforced inconsistently

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  • If your office dress code prohibits denim, save the jean jacket for happy hour.

    If your office dress code prohibits denim, save the jean jacket for happy hour.
    Thinkstock photo


Q: The dress code at my office is applied randomly. I was told I couldn't wear my jean jacket, and the next day another person at my level was wearing hers. Our dress code specifies that women can't wear open-toed shoes; a few of us have been called on it, but many others continue to wear them without penalty. These things are becoming real distractions, bringing down morale. Part of me is ticked, and another part thinks I should just be quiet about it. Is it worth fighting about?

A: If a policy explicitly prohibits open-toed shoes -- for safety or to avoid time-wasting debates over whether "dressy sandals" are just glorified beachwear -- then you ought to toe that line, no matter how footloose your fellow subordinates play it. Likewise, if your code prohibits denim, save the jean jacket for happy hour.

But what if your code just lays out vague criteria such as "business casual" or "work-appropriate"? Employers need to define those subjective terms -- not only for clarity, but also to minimize the chance that managers will act on personal biases about what's "appropriate" for people of different ages, sexes or races.

In either case, management and HR should want to know when ambiguous policy or uneven enforcement is bleeding morale from the workforce. The message is most effective when multiple employees and managers point out the confusion and conflict. But be warned: Management might revisit its sartorial strictures -- or just ensure that everyone is made equally miserable with stricter enforcement. (Thanks to Edward Yost, Society for Human Resource Management.)

Q: In a recent column, a woman who was promoted was having trouble staying late at work, reportedly because her husband had been complaining that he sometimes had to start making dinner. This made me wonder whether this woman could be in an abusive marriage. If this were a sign of possible domestic violence, what would you advise someone who works with this woman to do?

A: You raise a good question. From the subordinate's third-hand account in that letter, it's hard to tell whether the new supervisor was/is enduring domestic abuse or indulging garden-variety learned helplessness.

The best thing a concerned colleague can do is privately check in with their co-worker -- "I've noticed [X behavior]. Is everything OK?" -- then listen to the response and offer nonjudgmental support. An employee assistance program can advise management and victims on signs of abuse, resources and possible employer accommodations; the National Domestic Violence Hotline ( provides helpful guidelines as well.

If there is abuse, it's not up to a co-worker to "fix" it. But a supportive network and job security can be huge factors in helping abuse victims escape their situation.


Ask Karla Miller about your work dramas and traumas by emailing

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