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Boss comments crossing line to sexual harassment?
June 8, 2006 1:38 PM   Subscribe

My friend has a problem with a comment her new boss made to her the other day, involving her supposedly "inappropriate" clothing. What would other females do in this sort of situation? [more inside] has her side of the story.

"my boss said something really uncomfortable to me at work yesterday. i'm the new girl, so i really had no choice but to smile and nod and agree with him.

my department (tech support) has four employees (including myself), one supervisor, and one boss. that's six people total; i, along with a woman named diane, are the only females on the staff. this incident occured yesterday after diane had gone home for the day.

i was doing something that was unusual, and technically not in my job description. a newspaper in ann arbor needed six of our computers, so i was helping to bubble-pack them up, put them into boxes, and get them ready to be shipped out. i was wearing a tank top and a cardigan sweater with khakis; perfectly acceptable for the business-casual dress code.

about an hour later, far after the packing was completed, my boss called me into his enclosed office. "i want to talk to you for a second," he said. i knew that i had accidentally uttered the word "shit" earlier in the day, so i figured it had something to do with that. or, perhaps, he was going to discuss my progress so far, and what my next step in training would be. (this was only my third day on the job, after all.)

i sat down in a chair while he stood.

"summer," he said, "earlier when you were packing boxes, your shirt was...too revealing. when you were bending down, you were, uh, exposing yourself," he said akwardly, "and i'm not sure if anyone else noticed it, but i did."

i froze in my chair. this is not a slap on the wrist for saying "shit"; this is far worse. i was as frozen as a statue, developing a cold and uncomfortable sweat, and nonetheless: my "new hire" self could only smile, nod, and agree.

he continued. "i just wanted you to know that, so it doesn't happen again."

i mustered out a reply. "sorry; i didn't think i'd be bending down to pack up boxes today."

"it's okay, but just remember."

"okay."

but here's my point: i don't think i did anything wrong. i was wearing a perfectly acceptable shirt for work -- almost ANY shirt suitable for business would be "revealing" if the female wearing it bent down at the proper angle. it was nothing i could control -- hell, i can't afford any new shirts anyway, right now -- but that's not even the point. the point is this: PLEASE DON'T FUCKING LOOK AT ME. and if, mr. boss, you DO happen to see down my shirt as i'm bending over, i'd appreciate it if you would keep it to yourself.

and because he DIDN'T keep it to himself, i feel insulted and somewhat ridiculed. my new job, my NEW office -- it's not going to be a comfortable environment for me any more.

what should i do?"

Any idea of what would be the next proper action to occur in this situation?

Thanks everyone.
posted by sperose to Grab Bag (117 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
This is a male's point of view, but I think it's still valid. The boss's use of the phrase "exposing yourself" leads me to believe that your friend may have inadvertently revealed more than just some cleavage. In all honesty, the best thing for her to do may be to hit Goodwill and pick up a few turtlenecks.
posted by Faint of Butt at 1:43 PM on June 8, 2006


This is just my opinion, but the boss actually sounds like a half-decent guy that might even be looking out for the new gal on the job. He might know the other [male] workers to be none too respectful and thought he'd kindly suggest to Summer (is that it?) that she wear less revealing attire.

I don't really see a problem with it.
posted by PuGZ at 1:45 PM on June 8, 2006


It's hard to tell, but it sounds like the guy was trying to help her out, really, and wasn't trying to make her feel uncomfortable -- I mean, it sounds like he was trying to do the right thing in keeping her from getting ogled in the future.

I have tank tops in which I just automatically put my hand to my sternum any time I lean over, to keep them against my chest, because I know they fall open a bit too much when I lean. I kinda consider a girl skill that women need to have if they're going to be wearing tops like that.

I totally understand why she's icked out, and I would be too, but I don't think the boss is being a bad guy. If she had been with the company for years and this was the first time it happened, maybe, but since she's new, for all he knows she wears the same type of shirt all the time and he needs to let her know it's a problem for what she's doing.
posted by occhiblu at 1:47 PM on June 8, 2006


I think you should take it as a friendly warning and let it go. It seems that he thought your shirt was inappropriate for work, and he said something about it. He did have the decency to take you into a private setting where you would not be embarrassed by other coworkers. IF he had said it in public OR made any other remarks OR starts talking about it to others, you may want to consider legal actions, but I don't think you should as it is. Just be careful how you bend down. I know that it made you uncomfortable that he told you about this, but I feel it would have been worse if he hadn't told you. Now you know, and I bet you're not going to be bending down like that again any time soon, so it shouldn't be a problem. Be thankful that he didn't tell 'the guys' and have them start looking.
posted by tdreyer1 at 1:47 PM on June 8, 2006


I'd start buttoning up my cardigan, and being more aware of my what I'm wearing. Other than that, I'd stop taking it personally and let it go. He didn't say she was doing it on purpose, and from the sound of it, he was just as uncomfortable as she was.

As for the "I didn't think I'd be doing this today" thing... When I worked in tech support, it wasn't uncommon for me to be moving equipment and crawling into all sorts of uncomfortable places on a pretty regular basis. I kept a spare sweatshirt on hand for those occasions.

I also disagree about about the lack of shirts acceptable at any angle. I've got plenty of sleeveless shells that hit at around the collarbone, and they work fine.
posted by snickerdoodle at 1:51 PM on June 8, 2006


Personally, I look at the situation as similar to having spinach between your teeth during a job interview or gum stuck in the back of your hair during a business meeting.

Although potentially mortifying, I would rather be told than not be told.

Yes, having someone mention it to you, especially a male boss, would be embarrassing. And that acute embarrassment could possibly create panic and anger. However, in many work environments that I've been in, a situation like that could have gone a completely different way. The boss might have told everyone BUT you, and they all could have had a good laugh about it at your expense. They could hope that you wear the same outfit again and send you to go pick up boxes, again. And then snicker.

No, it wasn't a fun conversation. Probably not for him either. If it continues to embarrass you when you see him, mention that to him. Just say, "Hey, I was taken so off guard when we talked about that incident, that I went away silent and mortified and, honestly? Really uncomfortable about coming to work this morning. I appreciate you telling me so it doesn't happen again. But I had no idea it was happening."

Embarrassing things happen to everyone and your ability to either handle it gracefully or with humor will speak volumes about you.
posted by jeanmari at 1:51 PM on June 8, 2006


The boss was doing the right thing, I think.

* He noticed something that ran afoul of company regs.
* Informed the person, in private, in a professional setting.

Seems kosher to me.
posted by unixrat at 1:51 PM on June 8, 2006


I've been in the exact situation as your boss. I did the same thing: I told the employee her breasts were hanging out in a way she might not realize. I could see the look on her face as she debated whether to be offended or grateful. She chose grateful. It was the right thing to do because she interacted with families and couples in a retail store so she needed to be decent at all times. It helped that I'm not a letch or perv, I'm sure.
posted by Mo Nickels at 1:52 PM on June 8, 2006


Your friend did nothing wrong. Her boss just made an awkward situation more awkward. He could have just ignored it as the exporsure wasn't intentional. I wouldn't address it unless further incidents arise.
posted by rglass at 1:53 PM on June 8, 2006


Er, suck it up and don't wear tank tops to work?

I am a 36-year-old woman. I have myself been the target of harassment at work, as well as by one prof in college, and -- I just don't see a problem with what he said. Tank tops aren't business casual in my book anyway.

Though it was embarassing for your friend, he came off as professional and kind, and as her boss it was appropriate for him to bring it to her attention.

If she doesn't want to work there, she can quit, but as far a as sexual harassment claim -- she has no case.
posted by Methylviolet at 1:53 PM on June 8, 2006


Inappropriate. Totally.

Maybe a kind comment from a co-worker, but not from a boss. And not delivered that way, like "don't let it happen again."

I'm totally grossed out.
posted by agregoli at 1:55 PM on June 8, 2006


Tone of voice was important though and I wasn't there. But I still don't think this is a situation that warranted a comment at all.

Regardless, I don't think there's anything to be done about this except keeping an eye on him.
posted by agregoli at 1:56 PM on June 8, 2006


If anyone was 'sexually harassing' anyone it was "Summer". I mean, if seeing boobs at work made the poor guy uncomfortable what is he supposed to do?
posted by delmoi at 2:03 PM on June 8, 2006


I don't think I would call it sexual harassment, although it could fit within some broad description of it, for instance "unwelcome comments on an employee's appearance".

It sound bizarrely paternalistic, like something a father would say to a daughter. And that's inappropriate in a different kind of way. It's more TMI than anything else at this point. "I saw your cleavage and it made me uncomfortable" -- what are you supposed to say? "Thanks for sharing"?

Two things: is this a particularly traditional or christian workplace? Being worried that someone heard you say "shit" makes me think it's a bit old-fashioned. And, where are the clients when this stuff is happening? Because a boss is certainly allowed to ask his staff to dress and speak a certain way in front of customers, within reason. But it sounds like this was happening in some kind of back room or loading dock and therefore customer-facing standards don't apply.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 2:03 PM on June 8, 2006


Yeah, tone of voice is really important here. Something like "and i'm not sure if anyone else noticed it, but i did" could be totally sleazy, or it could just be his awkwardly covering up that someone else complained so he's trying to make it seem like he was the one who noticed, rather than another employee. Or maybe everyone else did notice and was snickering behind her back, and the guy was mostly uncomfortable with their actions and so that came across when he was talking to her.

We had an intern whose thong used to show every time she bent down to put stuff in filing cabinets. She was cute, and I'm sure there were guys looking, but for me it was just totally embarassing to see it happen, and I really wish someone would have told her, but apparently no one ever did. I'm sure she would have been mortified that people were looking, said that you can't really help that your underwear shows when you bend down, etc. etc. etc., but it was REALLY obvious and distracting even to me, and I'm a straight girl.

It doesn't sound like the boss was hitting on her. It sounds like he was just trying to keep his department under control.
posted by occhiblu at 2:04 PM on June 8, 2006


Your friend herself says that the boss appeared to feel awkward even mentioning this. Saying something reluctantly and awkwardly is pretty much the exact opposite of harassment. He also appears to have chosen his words carefully, in a way that was intended to be as unoffensive as possible. His intentions clearly come across as helpful. I'd leave it alone.
posted by pardonyou? at 2:05 PM on June 8, 2006


I don't see how a request to wear LESS revealing clothing can be considerred sexual harassment if the request was done in an appropriate manner. The request sounds appropriate based on your description. That said, your friend's boss could have been more tactful and simply requested that your friend stop wearing tank tops. However, tactlessness and sexual harassment are completely different beasts.
posted by malp at 2:07 PM on June 8, 2006


It doesn't sound like he was doing anything wrong. He sounds like he was just voicing concern for her modesty.
Of course, like agregoli said, without the tone, it is hard to tell.

Maybe he would like her to take steps to make sure that she doesn't reveal so much of herself, should she need to bend over again. It probably wouldn't kill her to button a couple buttons near the top of the cardigan next time.

This kind of reminds me of this past season of 24 with the nutty girl who complained about sexual harassment when there really was none.
posted by necessitas at 2:07 PM on June 8, 2006


Oddly enough, when I read the 'story', I assumed she was showing butt-cleavage, something she should be embarrassed about =p

I've never worked somewhere that tank-tops were considered acceptable business-casual. I've worked many places that specifically forbid tank-tops as part of any casual-wear days.

Agregoli, I'm not clear on your position. Are you saying it's not part of the manager's job to ensure his reports aren't creating a hostile work environment for the other workers? Maybe you want to be flashed at work, but there are some people who would consider THAT sexual harrassment, and courts who have agreed with them, at financial cost to the employer.
posted by nomisxid at 2:10 PM on June 8, 2006


"If you don't put your genitals back in your pants, you can't teach kindergarten here"

That's what this situation is analogous to.
posted by malp at 2:10 PM on June 8, 2006


Actually one more question, were there other employees around? If you were "helping" to pack stuff up, that implies there were other people there. It may well be that male employees could be heard commenting about your appearance afterward and it was that which made him uncomfortable, but he didn't want to put it that way.

He probably thought it was better to say "I was made uncomfortable by your revealing clothes" than to say "Bob and Dave spent ten minutes discussing your boobs in the men's room".
posted by AmbroseChapel at 2:10 PM on June 8, 2006


What pardonyou? said. The boss was trying to be helpful and respectful about a subject that was bound to be somewhat embarassing for everyone involved.

And the line about having no options that don't show cleavage when you bend over are so much crap, really. There are tons of options for female dress that are non-revealing in a wide variety of positions. If your friend doesn't happen to own any, that's hardly the fault of her boss.
posted by jacquilynne at 2:11 PM on June 8, 2006


I realize she was wearing a cardigan over it, but she might want to consider whether a tank top really is considered business casual or not. I work in a business casual environment, and a tank top wouldn't be considered appropriate even if under a cardigan. A sleeveless shell, sure, but not a tank top.

Other than that, it sounds like the boss was as uncomfortable as her, I don't get the impression that he was leering at her or anything. It also sounds like it was for her benefit -- I mean personally I would want to know if I was exposing my breasts to people at the office accidentally so that it wouldn't happen again. Maybe he was just being helpful.
posted by echo0720 at 2:15 PM on June 8, 2006


Agregoli, I'm not clear on your position. Are you saying it's not part of the manager's job to ensure his reports aren't creating a hostile work environment for the other workers?

Accidentily exposing part of your breasts to people who shouldn't be looking anyway is creating a hostile working environment? Excuse me? That's totally ridiculous.

Maybe you want to be flashed at work, but there are some people who would consider THAT sexual harrassment, and courts who have agreed with them, at financial cost to the employer.

It's not sexual harassment to be doing work and accidentily expose yourself. He in no way indicated he thought she did it on purpose so I'm afraid I don't understand YOUR position.
posted by agregoli at 2:15 PM on June 8, 2006


Uh, the boss did exactly what a boss should do. He would've said the same thing to a guy who wasn't wearing a belt.As a boss it's his responsibility to keep the atmosphere respectable and he certainly can't do that if employees are "exposing" themselves. Your friend should've simply apologized and promised not to let it happen again.
posted by nixerman at 2:16 PM on June 8, 2006


Sorry, I think it's pretty creepy on his part, although maybe not intentionally so. A "tank top" could be just about any kind of sleeveless shirt, so we don't really know what she was wearing, but if it wasn't wildly inappropriate for that office, there was no need to say anything in a "just remember" tone.
posted by transona5 at 2:16 PM on June 8, 2006


I think the boss is a creep who was way out of line in saying this. It is a fact of life that women, because of the way most of them are built, and because of the way women's professional clothing is designed, will "reveal" part of their breasts occasionally when bending over around co-workers. In any professional environment, it is not unusual for women to have to bend over occasionally in a way that would reveal their cleavage and the top of their breasts.

The only appropriate way for people to deal with these occasional exposures --- especially males in the workplace --- is to ignore it and avert their eyes. The only way the recipient of this rude, inappropriate, arguably harassing comment can "heed" the boss's warning is to wear turtlenecks or avoid any movement that might give coworkers an eyeful. Which would be uncomfortable, unfair, and reflective of almost Victorian prudishness.

What the boss is asking is that she exercise a discretion in movement and wardrobe choice that men are not required to exhibit. That expectation is sexist, in my view.

There are certain things people should remain discreetly silent about, and this is one of them.
posted by jayder at 2:17 PM on June 8, 2006


What jeanmari said. And ambrosechapel.

If he noticed your breasts, then chances are, all your colleagues did too. If they're there, people will look at them. Intentionally or not. That's reality.

Sounds like your boss was doing what he thought was the right thing - letting you know, in private. It's not an easy conversation to have with someone, especially a new employee, and it's not usually something managers are given training on, so forgive him the awkwardness and take the message on board.

Don't feel embarrassed - he's not going to want to raise the subject again, and would prefer to forget the conversation as much as you.
posted by bella.bellona at 2:18 PM on June 8, 2006


Accidentily exposing part of your breasts to people who shouldn't be looking anyway is creating a hostile working environment?

Yes. Try managing an office some times and you'll learn this quick. When women walk around with revealing clothing, intentionally or not, it creates a hostile environment that is conducive to sexual harassment. Telling women to dress "more business, less casual" goes a long way to prevent sexual harassment and keep everybody safe.
posted by nixerman at 2:18 PM on June 8, 2006


She's not wearing revealing clothing.

I think your position is ridiculous.

jayder, right on.

Regardless, like I said, despite the opinions, I don't think she should do anything about it unless it is mentioned again. At that point, I would suggest she voice her discomfort about the situation and try and get a dialogue going in a non-aggressive manner.
posted by agregoli at 2:22 PM on June 8, 2006


I agree that 1) tanks are not business casual and she shoud try a sleeveless shell and cardigan, and 2) the boss was trying to handle a delicate situation as best he could. Just as there is a STOP LOOKING AT ME, there is a DON'T FALL OUT OF YOUR CLOTHES.

Tell your friend to save up some cash and get an Eddie Bauer tank top if she must wear a tank. One could hang upside down in it and not spill out.
posted by oflinkey at 2:23 PM on June 8, 2006


And it would have been helpful if your friend had given an even better description of her outfit - because it's hard for any of us to know exactly how this occurred without that info.

I mean, now I'm assuming no bra - was the entire breastal region exposed? Or are we talking cleavage here?

If it's no bra and gaping tank top, I have a lot less sympathy - because my company's dress code is a lot stricter than that.
posted by agregoli at 2:24 PM on June 8, 2006


And the line about having no options that don't show cleavage when you bend over are so much crap, really. There are tons of options for female dress that are non-revealing in a wide variety of positions.

Seconding. Get in the habit of doing the "bend over" test in the changing room. Also useful for skirts. But I would really have to have seen this to make up my mind whether it was excessive or not. Just light cleavage, or seeing a modest bra that covered most of the area, would seem to not really require such a discussion. Unless it lasted for more than occasional flashes, maybe an hour of seeing someone's bra (even a big white granny one) would need to be dealt with. If there was no bra, that's pretty serious.
posted by overanxious ducksqueezer at 2:25 PM on June 8, 2006


If it's no bra and gaping tank top, I have a lot less sympathy

Agreed. Was it some sort of shelf tank? Those are the worst for bend-over exposure, and I thought all women knew that one. Shelf-tanks require no bra, plus there is a gaping neckline. This issue, in fact, was what lead me to the aforementioned Eddie Bauer tank.
posted by oflinkey at 2:30 PM on June 8, 2006


When I was a young'un I ended up having to unpack boxes in a dress definitely not made for that kind of activity, and my boss told me discreetly that my rear-end was showing a little. I had about 5 layers of different underthings between the air and my bottom, but I was pretty embarrased and *extremely* thankful that I'd been told.

Course, my boss was a female. If she'd been a male, I'd have been far more embarrased and just as grateful. Then again, I was more focused on the fact that it was my mistake to show my rear-end at work, something that is under no circumstances acceptable, and hoping *I* didn't offend anyone, rather than being offended by someone telling me.
posted by FortyT-wo at 2:30 PM on June 8, 2006


Jayder, that is redicilous. Not all women's clothes are designed in a way that will make them revealing if she bends over. Most woman manage to keep their boobs in their shirt, even when bending over.

Also, not all tank tops are created equal. Some will keep you from revealing too much if you bend over, others will almost guarantee an eyeful. The latter probably aren't appropriate for work, even while standing upright wearing a cardigan.
posted by necessitas at 2:35 PM on June 8, 2006


*rediculous
posted by necessitas at 2:39 PM on June 8, 2006


I don't think he was being inappropriate. The same discussion should be held if an employee is showing but cleavage, their pants are too tight or any other type of dress that is too revealing in a work environment.
There are plenty of shirts, short sleeve or otherwise, that this would not be a problem with. In this time, in this culture it is not appropriate to expose much breast. It is the bosses responsibility to make sure appropriate dress is maintained.
It was an error on her part. If he did not say anything the dress would continue and she would acquire a r(unfair) reputation and would be asked to help move boxes more often. THAT would be sexual harassment, not this for god's sake.
One does not have to wear a burka, but one does not have to wear tank tops either.
posted by edgeways at 2:40 PM on June 8, 2006


"I think you should take it as a friendly warning and let it go."

Yes. Sounds to me that the boss is just doing his job of making sure employees are dressed appropriately either as he sees it or as he's been instructed to under company policy.

agregoli writes "Occidentally exposing part of your breasts to people who shouldn't be looking anyway is creating a hostile working environment? Excuse me? That's totally ridiculous."

Would you feel the same if the employee was a male who habitually forgot to button his fly?

transona5 writes "A 'tank top' could be just about any kind of sleeveless shirt, so we don't really know what she was wearing,"

Obviously it was enough to give the Boss a show that he thought was inappropriate for the work place.

Honestly what is a boss supposed to do if he notices a female employee repeatedly exposing herself to coworkers? It seems like he handled it in a private and tactful way. Agree though that tone of voice and body language could change how it came across.
posted by Mitheral at 2:41 PM on June 8, 2006


Hey, I don't wear umbros to Yoga class, but if I did, and my balls were hanging out half the class, I'd expect the instructor to say something about it, perhaps not the first time, but definitely the second time it happened.

Do I have any right whatsoever to be offended or DEMAND that people not look at my balls? Of course not. If you wear something revealing, expect to be looked at. You can just as easily accidentally catch a glimpse as you can accidentally expose yourself.

What's the big deal anyways, it's just body parts....
posted by Mr. Gunn at 2:42 PM on June 8, 2006


agregoli writes "Accidentally exposing part of your breasts to people who shouldn't be looking anyway is creating a hostile working environment? Excuse me? That's totally ridiculous."

Would you feel the same if the employee was a male who habitually forgot to button his fly?


If you take out the word "habitually" yes, the situations are the same to me depending on how much of her was actually exposed.
posted by agregoli at 2:48 PM on June 8, 2006


I'm pretty sure there's not a responsibility for people to avert their eyes when you expose yourself. The responsibility is yours to not expose yourself in public. If there's any questions about this policy, use the "overweight plumber showing the crack of his ass" test.

"Um, Bill, you need to not expose your behind to our customers when you crouch."

"You looked? You pervert! Harassment!"
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 2:48 PM on June 8, 2006


Good rule of thumb in a professional setting: if any article of clothing (including tank tops, micro-miniskirts, sheer blouses without adequate undergarments, short-shorts, etc.) may cause your breasts, rear, or crotch to be visible if you bend over or stand in sunlight, it is not business casual. That's why they call it "going to work" and not "going to the beach."

And as others have said, there are countless options for light, comfy, casual tops that won't cause breast spillage -- namely crewneck and v-neck t-shirts, shells, and tanks.
posted by scody at 2:48 PM on June 8, 2006


Maybe I'm old fashioned, but tank tops are not business casual, even with a sweater over them.

But, if you are doing unexpected physical labour, he's got no right to complain.

Second hitting thift stores for work clothes. That is where I get all of mine.
posted by QIbHom at 2:53 PM on June 8, 2006


1) I know of no business, especially one in which saying "shit" would be a cause for concern, in which a tank top, as generally understood, is considered "business casual".

2) Your friend needs to chill out, really.

3) This actually kind of pisses me off. Anyone who knows me will tell you I'm the first to speak up if I think you're mistreating anyone, and I have an anachronistically chivalrous attitude towards women alot of the time... but it seems 99% positive to me from the text and the correspondant's own description of the boss's demanor that he was trying to be helpful, and for this, dirty dirty murmurs of sexual harassment come up.

4) Your friend really fucking needs to chill out.

5) Fuck.
posted by jammer at 2:54 PM on June 8, 2006 [1 favorite]


This is not sexual harassment. Sexual harrassment would be if the boss said something like "Hey, make sure you wear that tank top every day."

Yes - I can completely understand how your friend feels embarassed. But the boss was not out of line. Period.
posted by peppermint22 at 2:55 PM on June 8, 2006


My read of the situation, based on the information given, is that the boss is being very cautious about avoiding any kind of sexual-harassment situation at work, and doesn't want "the new girl" to give the guys in the office anything to leer at. Could he have phrased his comments better? Probably. But given the way American workplaces can be (is this in the USA?) I don't think his comments or the sentiment behind them was unreasonable.

And, you know, hey, I'm a guy. If a chick in a low-cut top bends over in front of me, my eyes are going to reflexively dip for a moment. I try not to look, really. But it happens. It can be embarrassing for me, and if the woman notices my eyes dipping, it can be embarrassing for her. I don't want women to go around in burqas, but given that this kind of thing does happen (hopefully not just to me), and given the aforementioned nature of American workplaces, I can understand the tendency to be hyper-cautious.
posted by adamrice at 3:00 PM on June 8, 2006


Unfortunately for younger women, there are about three options in clothing, especially if you have any boobs at all:

1) Looking like your grand/mother.
2) Looking like a prostitute.
3) Managing to somehow look your age.

Obtaining 3 is hard. 1 and 2 are, in their own ways, equally humiliating. Having just spent two weeks trying to find work wear that fits, doesn't show my nipples, and doesn't make me want to kill myself every time I see myself in the mirror, I sympathize with your friend. If she was wearing the type of sweater set that I think she was wearing based on the description (typically a cut straight across, pretty high, but not tight so possibly prone to this type of gaping, with a matching cardigan), I don't know what else she can do. If she's like me, she will have a hard time finding things that she feels justified in spending her money on that are also work appropriate. It's a fucking bitch.

In any case, 1) the boss was probably mortified, and unless he was overtly creepy, I would just try to forget it ever happened, and 2) possibly invest in some double-stick tape that beauty queens and lingerie models use. You can tape your clothes to yourself, or alternatively, pin your shirt to your bra. I've done it before. It works. There are also tanks that have a nearly whole bra attached rather than just the shelf bra. And Spanks makes shirts, too. Good luck to your friend. This is the beginning of a long, depressing battle with workwear and self-esteem.
posted by Medieval Maven at 3:01 PM on June 8, 2006 [1 favorite]


Sperose, could your friend please clarify what kind of top this is? We're not all on the same page here. What I call a tank top is a casual piece of clothing that I would not wear to work. But I hear some women in my office generically refer to any sleeveless top as a tank top.

My point is, if this garment has spaghetti straps or is very snug, she should get herself to Ross or Target or the like and get some more businesslike shells. (You can usually score these for about $10 each.)

I'm usually pretty quick on the draw about boss-to-young-female-employee comments, having fielded my share of inappropriate comments, but it sounded like the guy was trying to be decent. Maybe he's a bit old-fashioned. Maybe he's heard his wife complain about the inappropriate things worn by women in HER office and he fears that a bit of cleavage today will be a bustier tomorrow. Maybe, as some have stated above, he heard the other guys discussing your tits in the bathroom and wants to prevent a sexualized workplace.

Oh, and "exposing yourself" to my mind is a euphemism for nipple. "Your top is a bit revealing" would be the typical euphemism for cleavage.
posted by desuetude at 3:09 PM on June 8, 2006


I'm a girl and I think the boss was being perfectly appropriate with his comments. I haven't ever had an office job where a tank top would be considered workwear. And, as many people have said, there are sleeveless tops that flash cleavage and those that don't and it's not that hard to find those that don't. Sure, your friend didn't know she'd be bending over when she came to work that morning, but cardigans have buttons for a reason. And yes, maybe the boss could have waited to see if this was going to be a habitual problem, but frankly, I'd rather know sooner rather than later if I was exposing boob and/or butt cleavage to my coworkers. So I'd say it was awkward and embarrasing for all, but by no means inappropriate.
posted by MsMolly at 3:13 PM on June 8, 2006


Since she's new, she might want to take her cue from what her co-workers are wearing. If the other woman in the office isn't wearing tank tops, then she shouldn't either. Sounds like there's not a meeting of the minds when it comes to business casualwear between Summer and her boss. Instead of tank tops, maybe she should buy a few nice crew necked shirts or button downs. Now if her female co-worker wears tank tops and has never received this advice from the boss, *then* it does seem as if Summer's boss crossed the line.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 3:13 PM on June 8, 2006


I have the hardest time with this part: "PLEASE DON'T FUCKING LOOK AT ME. and if, mr. boss, you DO happen to see down my shirt as i'm bending over, i'd appreciate it if you would keep it to yourself.

and because he DIDN'T keep it to himself, i feel insulted and somewhat ridiculed. my new job, my NEW office -- it's not going to be a comfortable environment for me any more.
"

Time to buck up the personal responsibility, I think, because being embarrassed because you did something embarrassing is not someone else's fault or harrassment. You're not going to get far in the working world when you think management is supposed to keep their reprimands to themselves.

And, bottom line, that's what's going on here: she's really embarrassed that she had to have that horrible, awkward conversation and that she got in trouble on her third day of work for dressing inappropriately. She fucked up, though it's fairly minor in the grand scheme of things if she moves on. What she probably doesn't know yet is that shit (and "shit", in most workplaces) happens and you learn your lesson and you roll with it and everyone forgets it. (If you don't learn your lesson and keep doing it, people call you The Flasher behind your back and laugh at you and your manager gets an ulcer.) The best course of action is to take a deep breath and move past it. It's over in everyone else's eyes if she'll let it be.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:17 PM on June 8, 2006


Oh, and my office isn't terribly conservative (and is business casual) but I wouldn't say "shit" in front of the boss on my third day. And would've given my assistant a pretty damn sharp look if he had. It's disrespectful.
posted by desuetude at 3:21 PM on June 8, 2006


Here's my thought. If the boss worked up the nerve to speak to a new young female employee about her breasts, I'd bet he had to be really worried about something first.

My guess is that he observed one of the other employee's making the most of the oppertunity to check her out.

That said, I agree with Scody's comment above.
posted by tiamat at 3:39 PM on June 8, 2006


Yeah, I have slightly loose, high-necked shirts like the kind Medieval Maven describes that I might call "tank tops" (but they aren't really what people thought of as a tank top 20 years ago.) If that's what she was wearing, he was way out of line. If it was a gaping tank top with no bra, that's a different story.
posted by transona5 at 3:39 PM on June 8, 2006


I had a very similar situation a few years back in which I wore a tank top under a cardigan. It was a strappy top that I normally wouldn't have worn solo, but the AC went out and I ended up taking off my sweater late in the day.

My (male) boss asked a (female) supervisor to discuss the situation with me, precisely to avoid the sort of awkwardness your friend faced here.

Whether the shirt was appropriate or not is really not the point here: The point is that broaching the topic will be uncomfortable for both parties, especially if one individual is male and the other is female.

If there is a female in the workplace who is in a supervisory position, she might be a better person to handle these types of discussions in the future. Even if she's generally not the go-to person for employees in the department.

When I (briefly) worked in HR, we specifically had female HR reps discuss this sort of thing with women.
posted by brina at 3:44 PM on June 8, 2006


I think from the boss's words, it was more than anything else a food-in-the-teeth warning, with a dash of this-could-turn-into-trouble thrown in because of the particular embarassment. He was trying to privately and politely let her know that she exposed herself. He said, "I don't think anyone else noticed" to try to contain her embarassment. She doesn't have to feel uncomfortable around anyone else, because they didn't see it. And he didn't reprimand her or even tell her to dress differently. He just said, in so many words, "Just so you know, when you wear that shirt and move boxes, you're flashing people. I wouldn't want you to embarass yourself in front of anyone else, so keep it in mind in the future". It's not creepy. It's uncomfortable for him, but the right thing to do. She says she feels insulted and ridiculed by his bringing it to her attention, but that's exactly what he's trying to spare her from her co-workers.
posted by team lowkey at 3:49 PM on June 8, 2006


A tank top is business casual? Is a tank top something different in the US? Here in Australia it's another word for a singlet or (groan) "wife beater" - I can't see how that'd be business anything, cardigan or no, unless your name is Lara Croft.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 4:01 PM on June 8, 2006


There's a possibility we're missing. It could be a really, really, trad workplace. She could have been creeped out because she actually wasn't really showing anything unless you really deliberately looked hard. Instead of looking hard, however, maybe her boss is a stick-up-the-ass Calvinist type who is blowing a nothing into something simply because he's such a prude. The idea of being called into the bosses' office and reprimanded for saying a bad word reinforces this theory.

Regardless of which scenario actually happened, this must is certain. At least one of them was being a prude. Remember, they're just body parts. Everyone has them.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 4:07 PM on June 8, 2006


Another vote for quit wearing tank tops to work. That's what's inappropriate.
posted by CunningLinguist at 4:08 PM on June 8, 2006


"earlier when you were packing boxes, your shirt was...too revealing. when you were bending down, you were, uh, exposing yourself,"

In a workplace in which you have to be careful about saying the word "shit," I think it's quite possible that this just means he saw cleavage. In that case, the whole situation is ridiculous...but if 'Summer' already knows that she can't say "shit" at work, I'm not sure she should really be surprised that this is happening. Then again, I can't fathom working at such a place, so it's hard for me to judge. But whatever the standard level of prudery at this office is, that's the key to the whole thing. It's possible that this guy is an uptight fatherly type who thinks it's his duty to keep young ladies modest. On the other hand, it's possible that the whole place is infused with that atmosphere, and that's why he was hired, in which case it's more important to address the larger problem of whether that's really a good place to work.

If he saw nipples, and he thinks others may have, and might in the future, then he's doing her a favor by telling her.

If he saw nipples, and he's the only one who saw them, and he doesn't actually think anyone else saw them or will see them again, but is just using this incident as an excuse to look Summer in the eye and tell her that he's seen her exposed in a way that she would normally only be exposed to her boyfriend, then okay, it's a little creepy, but if that's as far as he took it, then you can't be sure that that's what was really going on.

Also...Summer should consider that maybe she has walked into an already-volatile situation. Maybe someone who worked there in the past had a habit of constantly bending over in loose tops, and the boss is on alert for the next time it's going to happen. Who knows?

On preview, Mr. Gunn made one of these points already.
posted by bingo at 4:14 PM on June 8, 2006


"...PLEASE DON'T FUCKING LOOK AT ME. and if, mr. boss, you DO happen to see down my shirt as i'm bending over, i'd appreciate it if you would keep it to yourself..."

I'm a guy and I have to say that reactions like this scare me.

I can see how the boss could have used slightly different wording for a softer effect but what he did was not wrong at all. For someone to have such a strong reaction to it makes anything on the topic completely unapproachable. The boss was breaching into a subject that he knew exposed him to a myriad of liabilities in the interests of the office and did it in a professional manner.

If this is the way that person reacts to a comment like that then she really should not wear anything that could possible be revealing at all.
posted by 517 at 4:24 PM on June 8, 2006


Have you ever been mortified to belatedly discover that you spoke to a room full of people while there was a big gob of spinach stuck in your teeth and nobody told you? Don't you wish just one person had taken pity and whispered something in your ear so you could dealt with it discreetely and looked foolish in just a few less eyes?

It sounds like this guy was trying to be a little decent, taking an incredibly awkward moment in private to protect you from a much more public of embarrasment in the future. If the conversation was exactly as described, I think it can be interpreted as a benign alert to the unfortunate combo of tank + deep bending.

He didn't say you did anything wrong. He didn't say it was a work problem, or a dresscode problem. So he probably didn't mean for you to take it as a criticism.

Are you likely to need to bend that low often in this job? If you think it could come up again abd you're comfortable sticking with the tanks, all you really need to do is get in the habit of lifting better (bend at the knees, not the waist). Your back will thank you.

Or *shrug* next time just button up the cardigan before you lift. No one will be the wiser.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 4:32 PM on June 8, 2006


nakedcodemonkey - you're totally awesome for pointing out that if she had been lifting properly, none of this would have happened.

Let's get one thing straight, though. There's nothing unfortunate about the combo of tanktop + bending over. Just maybe work isn't the right place.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 4:47 PM on June 8, 2006


I'm totally picturing Ricky Gervais as the boss. I swear I can hear his voice behind "so it doesn't happen again...", yuck.

(I want to let you know I saw your boobs! I want to see your embarassed reaction as I call you into my office for this Very Important Announcement!)

Seriously, if she's so squicked out and uncomfortable... ok, she could be overreacting, she could be oversensitive, she could even be affected by multiple schizoid personality or be an alien from mars for all we know, but there's a good chance the boss was being a little david brentish about it, too. Me, I'm voting on the latter. Just because.

Three days and the first thing he mentions to her about her job is her boobs making their scary unexpected appearance while packing stuff, as if she'd done it on purpose?

No, it's not sexual harassment, but it is being a dick. I think her reaction was justified and I fully second what agregoli and jayder said. It's not the kind of stuff you even bring up unless it happens regularly and is actually a problem. IMVHO.

(People comparing a glimpse of a breast from under a shirt to balls sticking out from unzipped pants, and calling breasts 'genitals', need to go back to anatomy lesson. Urgently.)

What to do about it? Absolutely nothing. Ignore and forget. Make sure to wear a bra (and if she was wearing it already, as most women do, and the exposure was of the top of the breast rather than, gosh, a nipple? how much is 'exposing yourself'?). Act as if nothing had happened and pretend you don't know he's a dick. Don't let this affect your job. It could be much worse.

new workers shouldn't be punished for accidentally exposing boobs. if anything, they should be rewarded...
posted by funambulist at 4:54 PM on June 8, 2006


Three days and the first thing he mentions to her about her job

Where on earth does it say this?
posted by occhiblu at 5:15 PM on June 8, 2006


I just want to emphasize that, fumnambulist, agregoli and jayder could be right...though personally I don't think so...but it all depends on a lot of little social cues...if we could all see the expression on the boss's face, hear the tone of his voice, his body language, etc. then a lot of us here, including me, might change our minds about what was really going on. It's just hard to say without a lot more detail.

It's also interesting to me that we get this particular piece of information: i sat down in a chair while he stood.

Other than the question of why Summer wants us to know this, it's an interesting detail. If you work at a company so old-fashioned that you can't say "shit," and your boss calls you into his office on your third day of work, and he stays standing while addressing you, then you do not sit. This is not rocket science. If this didn't occur to Summer, then it wouldn't surprise me to find out that she's generally not in tune with the sort of place she's working, and I can't really trust her early judgements on what's appropriate there, either in terms of how to dress, or in terms of what sort of things are far gone enough for a scolding from the boss.
posted by bingo at 5:16 PM on June 8, 2006


Update on her outfit, from her: "the tank top was a spaghetti-strap tank top, but one would never know that because my cardigan was covering the straps. under a cardigan, i consider it dressy enough for work. the neckline was about one inch above the very very top of my breasts -- about four to five inches above the nipple. for clarity's sake, there's no possible way that any nipple was shown -- my bra was tight & secure. the top of my cleavage was the most that may have been showing."

Thanks for all the responses y'all. (I suck at this sort of job thing--mine requires a strict uniform)
posted by sperose at 5:46 PM on June 8, 2006


occhiblu, I don't know, I may have misread that part, but what I meant is, I read it as this was the first time he called her into his office, to talk to her one to one about something she anticipated as important - she wrote: or, perhaps, he was going to discuss my progress so far, and what my next step in training would be. (this was only my third day on the job, after all.)
posted by funambulist at 5:48 PM on June 8, 2006


It would save so much speculative discussion if the woman in question could simply post some photos of herself here, bending over in the notorious tank top. Then we might be better positioned to comment.

(On preview: d'oh! A better description)
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:52 PM on June 8, 2006


"for clarity's sake, there's no possible way that any nipple was shown -- my bra was tight & secure. the top of my cleavage was the most that may have been showing."

Ha. Mr Gunn and bingo, you were spot on - it seems to be a case of stick-up-the-ass prude flipping out over a bit of cleavage.
posted by funambulist at 5:54 PM on June 8, 2006


Okay...I revise my advice...Summer should ask Diane (the other woman who works there, mentioned in the question) whether this type of shit goes down a lot, and get a gauge for whether this is just this one guy, or whether she's gone through a hole in space-time and is living in Jonestown or some shit.
posted by bingo at 6:02 PM on June 8, 2006


It comes down to this: Would it be offensive or creepy if a woman had said the exact same thing to her? I'd think most people would say no. Equality of the sexes...
posted by dripdripdrop at 6:14 PM on June 8, 2006


Spaghetti straps are a bit bare for the office. When your cardigan was off, the bra straps were showing, yes? At the very least, this makes you look very young, as an older professional woman would consider this be exposing her underwear. Maybe this sounds prudish to some of you, but if you want professional respect at work, especially from those older than you, it's helpful to act a touch more formally.

And I second the Talk to Diane suggestion.

Perhaps I'm the one making the wrong assumption, but my impression was not that there was some sort of "no profanity" rule, just that office decorum made it clear that cursing wasn't cool.
posted by desuetude at 6:24 PM on June 8, 2006


You work in IT, get used to bending over, crawling under desks, lugging around PCs, and so on.

From your overly dramatic ("i was as frozen as a statue, developing a cold and uncomfortable sweat") description:

Your boss was not out of line.

He didn't sexually harrass you, he offered you some polite advice on a subject he clearly didn't want to have to talk about.

A tank top (in my country) is a singlet, this is never a professional item of clothing. This is casual clothing. Move up to smart from casual, and tighten up your necklines at the same time.
posted by The Monkey at 6:40 PM on June 8, 2006


I can't see why she sees this as different to 'a slap on the wrist for saying shit'. To me it comes across as virtually identical - a slap on the wrist (if that) for behaviour she finds perfectly acceptable but is evidently not so at her new workplace. Take a mental note and move on.
posted by jacalata at 6:52 PM on June 8, 2006


Well I am of a few schools of thought here. The boss probably meant well although he is a bit of a dick.

Where I live, its not terribly uncommon to see women working in tank tops or other revealing clothing. I found this thread a little puritan.

But, I've worked in a place where there were actually few men, and the skirts kept getting higher and the cleavage more exposed. Sometimes this seems to turn into a competition. Maybe this is what the boss was trying to avoid. Alternatively some older folks feel a slight resentment to younger, cuter folks too and revealing clothes is not a good way to keep them at bay. I once dated a beauty queen, and another woman who would have made Cindy Crawford feel ugly, I saw them get a lot of resentful stares - pissing these people off is maybe something best avoided (yes that is you compensating for their shortcomings but this is not a just world).

Finally although it is not stated in the thread. I should also warn, that as a former co-op student/intern/summer hire person and current coporate staffer I must say the young staff members who help their careers the most are the ones who work hard and try to get along. The interns etc who are out to create controversy, stir things up, and show up the veterans find the corporate world a very cold place. Tow the line for eight hours a day, and other 16 hours a day and weekends you can walks around in a bikini if you like.

So I guess in closing, I don't think its wrong to accidently expose or otherwise show your breasts. I don't think its wrong for the boss to ask you stop. I think it would be good for your career to take the bosses' advice.
posted by Deep Dish at 7:08 PM on June 8, 2006


Ah, I worked in a place like that.. where all the girls would wear skimpy "club clothes" and then claim sexual harrassment whenever any guy they didn't think was hot even glanced their direction. (No, I'm not kidding. I'm dead serious about this.)

The "DON"T FUCKING LOOK AT ME" line was asinine. "Summer" could have had it a lot worse - she could have heard "We don't think you're going to work out. Goodbye." instead.

If she doesn't like the job, she can always quit and find a new job. if she likes this one and wants to keep it, perhaps she should let this issue go and buy a couple new shirts. They don't have to be Gucci or Bloomingdales.
posted by drstein at 7:32 PM on June 8, 2006


Did everyone read the update? the tank top was a spaghetti-strap tank top, but one would never know that because my cardigan was covering the straps

Can you tell if below this cardigan or even this one there's a tank top, or short-sleeved shirt, or a long-sleeved shirt? I can't.

You can wear anything beneath a cardigan, only the top of the shirt will show through the V neck opening. That's where the cleavage is. I cannot picture anything inappropriate about a regular V neck cardigan with a shirt underneath. I can well picture some bits of cleavage showing if you bend down. Honestly, unless you're wearing a turtleneck, something IS going to show if you bend down. Law of gravity.

Poor man, visually molested by the law of gravity...


Would it be offensive or creepy if a woman had said the exact same thing to her?

I'd have said it was just as prudish, patronising and out of order, but it wouldn't have had the exact same potentially extra annoying 'how long did he stare at my boobs before he told me, exactly?' nuance. Why? oh, I have no idea...
posted by funambulist at 7:45 PM on June 8, 2006


I worked in a place like that.. where all the girls would wear skimpy "club clothes"

Here we have cardigan with tank top underneath and khakis. Read post and update. Question is not about the place you worked.


she could have heard "We don't think you're going to work out. Goodbye." instead.

Heh, firing women for wearing cardigans that display the top two inches of cleavage when bending over to pack stuff - are you out of your mind?
posted by funambulist at 7:52 PM on June 8, 2006


Having had an experience at work where the reaction was "Don't fucking come near me," I think you guys are giving her too hard a timei for that particular reaction. Unless you've had the exciting experience of being subjected to treatment that totally weirds you out, it's hard to understand, but just imagine that someone informed y ou that your shirt really accentuated your pecs and you know, she'd just noticed , and could you wear baggier shirts? It might make you a little uncomfortable. Women have boobs. People sometimes see part of them. It's really not such a big deal.

The best advice so far is to talk to Diane, and other than that, consult HR for guidance on what you should and should not wear to work, and use that to evaluate what other women are wearing in order to determine what is acceptable. If your boss made you uncomfortable, even unintentionally, you might want to mention it to HR in the sense of, "Hey, I know he felt like he needed to tell me but it would have been way better coming from female management person X or an appropriate person in HR. I think there may be a lot of room for misunderstanding here and I don't want anyone to get into a situation s/he could otherwise avoid."
posted by Medieval Maven at 7:56 PM on June 8, 2006


"Summer" seems very young and inexperienced with working. The company can set the dress code however they want, regardless of whether she considers what she's wearing appropriate business casual.

I'm definitely in the "spinach in your teeth" camp: seriously, if this guy was just lecherously checking her out, why would he have said anything to her?

I'm a woman who's always worked primarily w/men and I think he did her a favor. What better way to get painted the office slut than inadvertantly showing cleavage on your 3rd day before your coworkers have a good sense of you as a person? Sad but true, dressing for work for women is a potential minefield (as is work in general). Once you're there for a while, you can push the envelope but she doesn't even have a full week completed.

Finally, her response to constructive criticism kind of bothered me: defensive ("i didn't think i'd be bending down to pack up boxes today."): basically telling her boss that she wasn't wrong, he was for having her pack boxes; not taking responsibility for her actions/mistakes ("accidentally uttered the word "shit" earlier"); making it all about her in general ("and because he DIDN'T keep it to himself, i feel insulted and somewhat ridiculed. my new job, my NEW office -- it's not going to be a comfortable environment for me any more.")

She really needs to make this less personal, otherwise she'll end up the type that whines that people are being "mean" if she gets any criticism. (I actually had a woman do this after she fell asleep in a meeting and I called her on it. "But I was really tired!" was the response. Grrr.)
posted by sfkiddo at 8:45 PM on June 8, 2006


sexual harassment -
Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitutes sexual harassment when submission to or rejection of this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual's employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.

According to her own description of the incident - there was no sexual harassment whatsoever, according to the definition of the term. Her boss was simply stating that her dress was innapropriate, and perhaps saving her from the possibility of a real occurence of harassment. Telling someone that they have an excessive amount of cleavage showing is NOT harassment - it's pointing out what is obvious to all those who have to work around you.

Regarding her comments about the top in question - it doesn't matter if a nipple showed or not. In most professional jobs, a tank top would not be considered proper attire - period.
It doesn't matter how many cardigans you layer the straps with - it's the cleavage that is the issue here. Just because something isn't "technically in your job description" means nothing - it's her third day at work, so she should probably get used to such events happening on a regular basis.


Any idea of what would be the next proper action to occur in this situation?

Stop wearing that shirt.
posted by bradth27 at 10:24 PM on June 8, 2006


I'm surprised at how so many posters here have come to the boss's defense. What is it about the female breast that makes such inadvertent exposure so problematic? What harm is being done? If a man wearing a polo shirt bent over and exposed his own hairy chest and nipples, would he receive the same talk from this boss? (If the man wouldn't receive such a talk, then the boss is not only a harasser, he is a sexist.)

What bothers me so much about the boss's advice is that it is drawing attention to the most private aspects of his employee's body, in an unwelcome and undeniably sexual way. I tend to believe that, in the workplace, people should behave as if coworkers' secondary sexual features do not exist. On her third day of work this loser drew attention to her breasts in a very sanctimonious way that was deeply humiliating to her. That's sexual harassment, plain and simple, cleverly disguised as "helpful advice." It's sickening.
posted by jayder at 10:25 PM on June 8, 2006


And if a guy employee was wearing slightly tight pants, so that the shape of his penis shaft was slightly visible hanging in his pants leg, would it be appropriate for a female boss to say, "Uh, I see the outline of your private part, could you please wear baggier pants?" No, I don't think so. And neither is this boss's advice about the revealing tank top.

Why can't people just ignore this stuff?
posted by jayder at 10:30 PM on June 8, 2006


Jayder, you can't have it both ways. Either there is no difference between a man's chest and a woman's chest, or the boss is drawing attention to the most private aspect's of his employee's body. It can't be both. If exposing her breasts is no big deal, then making reference to it is also no big deal. You seem to want to be able to have your cake and eat it too.
posted by Justinian at 10:35 PM on June 8, 2006


If a man wearing a polo shirt bent over and exposed his own hairy chest and nipples, would he receive the same talk from this boss?

If she had been wearing a polo shirt, there probably would not have been a problem. If he had been wearing a tank top and a cardigan - as a supervisor, I would have stated that his attire was innapropriate.

What bothers me so much about the boss's advice is that it is drawing attention to the most private aspects of his employee's body, in an unwelcome and undeniably sexual way.

There was nothing sexual about his comment.

On her third day of work this loser drew attention to her breasts in a very sanctimonious way that was deeply humiliating to her.

No, he did not.

And if a guy employee was wearing slightly tight pants, so that the shape of his penis shaft was slightly visible hanging in his pants leg, would it be appropriate for a female boss to say, "Uh, I see the outline of your private part, could you please wear baggier pants?"

The boss never commented on the form fitting nature of her outfit - it was what was showing that was the issue. If, say, the top 2 inches of penis were showing, this might be a valid argument.
posted by bradth27 at 10:43 PM on June 8, 2006


"What bothers me so much about the boss's advice is that it is drawing attention to the most private aspects of his employee's body, in an unwelcome and undeniably sexual way."

Think I'm missing something here: boss said her shirt was too revealing and that she was exposing herself. How exactly is that "undeniably sexual"?

I'd buy it if he said something like, "Your tits were on display for all to see" or even used the word but otherwise, nope, no sexual harassment here.
posted by sfkiddo at 10:45 PM on June 8, 2006


Being asked to dress appropriately for the work environment is not sexual harrassment.
posted by scody at 11:15 PM on June 8, 2006 [1 favorite]


Seriously, if you're going to be bending over (fair enough, she wasn't EXPECTING to, but if you work in IT one can reasonably to expect to be bending over on a regular basis). Lesson learned, too much boobie exposure in a tank top. Start wearing some button-up shirts (buttoned up sufficiently, of course). Seriously, excessive cleavage is not appropriate for ANY office, really, business casual or not. Her clothes are inappropriate for the job she has to do, so she should get some new clothes. She can't afford it? Put it on the credit card. Chalk it up to hazards of the job. The thing is, SHE can be exposed to sexual harrassment trouble by flashing too much cleavage around (especially now, having been officially warned that her clothes were too revealing).
posted by antifuse at 2:41 AM on June 9, 2006


It was completely unnecessary for him to mention actually seeing anything, all he had to say was that it could have happened and that would have been sufficient to make his point.

That said, I'm inclined to put this down to simple clumsiness and embarrassment on his part rather than any sleaziness. It sounds like the guy is a "looking at a woman other than my wife with lust is the same as adultery" type in which case even the briefest accidental glance would be enough to make him uncomfortable.

My advice to your friend: give him the benefit of the doubt this time, and don't let this one incident spoil the job.
posted by teleskiving at 3:46 AM on June 9, 2006


I don't understand why some women think they can wear whatever they want AND they have a right not to get stared at... it makes no sense.

I'm pretty confident that jayder is smoking it... if a woman dresses provocatively (and remember, "provocative" for men doesn't take much) and gets stared at, then begins to feel uncomfortable at work, then sues her boss for not maintaining a safe work environment, the jury is going to be women who think they should be allowed to dress anyway they like without receiving unwanted male attention (You, but not you. You, but not you.)

There is a double standard in business attire... and this is because men don't have boobs.
posted by ewkpates at 4:49 AM on June 9, 2006


I think people are inserting too much of what they think is or should be universally socially normative into this. There are three normative contexts: at that particular workplace, the sexual harassment laws and the like, and the greater culture. They interrelate, of course.

But I'm pretty sure that however you look at it, this wasn't sexual harassment. Yes, the new information changes my thinking substantially, but it doesn't change the harassment part. And it makes me even less sympathetic to the "don't look at me". As someone points out above, the friend can't have it both ways—where she didn't expose herself and she thinks it was inappropriate for the boss to look at what in her own opinion is perfectly normal.

But I had the impression that she had showed whole, dangling breasts and possibly nipple. I was very unsympathetic to the friend under that misimpression. With the new information, I'm still unsympathetic, but I think it's clear the boss and the workplace is prudish.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 5:57 AM on June 9, 2006


This isn't sexual harassment. Like others have said, it's the boss helping a new employee better understand the dress code. Now the friend knows the meaning of business-casual. Could the boss have phrased it better? Maybe, but I believe what the boss said was perfectly correct.
I suggest your friend sucks it up and learns to dress correctly. Tank tops, in most environments, are not considered business-casual, even if covered by a cardigan. Like Ethereal Bligh, I'm completely unsympathetic.
posted by Meagan at 6:45 AM on June 9, 2006


too much boobie exposure in a tank top... Seriously, excessive cleavage is not appropriate for ANY office

I hate to be so boringly repetitive, but she did clarify the tank top was below a cardigan, and "the neckline was about one inch above the very very top of my breasts -- about four to five inches above the nipple", and that she was wearing a "tight and secure" bra.

It might as well have a been any other kind of top, the neckline is the only thing that shows through a cardigan. There are tank tops with lower necklines, and tank tops with higher necklines. This is the latter.

So, unless she's flat out lying about what she was wearing, from her description I don't see how this was inappropriate clothing, as opposed a ridiculously prudish and patronising boss making way too much of a fuss about her bra and non-bra-covered top part of the chest accidentally showing when she bent down. Unless you're wearing tight high-neck tops, when you bend down, clothes move away slightly from the body and a bit of bra+cleavage may show. And if you're wearing tight tops, someone that fussy may still find something to say about the top being too tight. It's his problem, not hers.

I'm seconding teleskiving too, she should forget about it this time, and take it up only if he develops a habit of obsessing over the top inches of her neckline.
posted by funambulist at 6:59 AM on June 9, 2006


jayder writes "And if a guy employee was wearing slightly tight pants, so that the shape of his penis shaft was slightly visible hanging in his pants leg, would it be appropriate for a female boss to say, 'Uh, I see the outline of your private part, could you please wear baggier pants?' No, I don't think so. And neither is this boss's advice about the revealing tank top."

I think that would be totally appropriate. If an employee is wearing something that belongs in a club and not in an office it is their supervisor's responsibility to make them aware of that. IE if the supervisor doesn't believe a piece of clothing meets the office dress code they have to bring it up with the employee.

Now a debate about whether a particular piece of clothing violates the dress code is something else that is best taken up with HR.

antifuse writes "if you're going to be bending over (fair enough, she wasn't EXPECTING to, but if you work in IT one can reasonably to expect to be bending over on a regular basis). Lesson learned, too much boobie exposure in a tank top."

And as low man on the IT totem pole she is going to get all the Joe jobs no one else wants to do. Be prepared to get sweaty, dirty, dusty and to have to lift, push, pull, stretch and bend over. Heck I've been at this 15 years and I still have to do that kind of stuff, it's part of front line IT work unless you are a call centre type. She should not wear white skirts, pants or tops unless she likes removing stains.
posted by Mitheral at 7:20 AM on June 9, 2006


This is all over CLEAVAGE?!!?

I'm totally flabbergasted. What a horrible and uptight boss.

I was thinking totally exposed breasts here. Now I don't know what to think. That is truly bizarre.

If it was happening every day, that's one thing. But after one incident? I'd be thinking seriously about looking for another job.

No, I'm not kidding.
posted by agregoli at 7:25 AM on June 9, 2006


I don't understand why some women think they can wear whatever they want AND they have a right not to get stared at... it makes no sense.

Because most women think keeping your lecherous thoughts to yourself is a social skill most men have mastered by the age of, say, 22. And if they haven't, then its their problem, because we aren't getting dressed every morning to the standards of the most lizard-brained. Geez.

But yeah, it sounds like your boss was kinda prudish & trying to help at the same time.
posted by dame at 7:43 AM on June 9, 2006


Riiiiight. Which men would these be that "keep lecherous thoughts to themselves?"

The boss is trying to help, and his "lecher" radar went off and he was trying to be polite about it.

It's important to be sensitive to the environment you are working in. Sometimes this will mean that men or women have to dress differently then they would normally, sometimes this means that men have to be less assertive, or more formal (medical/social services). Sometimes this means that women have to be more assertive (sales).

You should know if you are wearing something that is attracting attention. You should know before everyone else does... self awareness... male or female... guys know not to wear the tight pants if you don't want the homos checking you out...
posted by ewkpates at 7:51 AM on June 9, 2006


It's important to be sensitive to the environment you are working in

Yes, it is. Now, did you bother to read her description of her clothing? Because it sure as hell doesn't sound like she went into the office dressed like she was going to the Love Parade, but that's what some of you are making it sound like.
posted by funambulist at 8:06 AM on June 9, 2006


You should know if you are wearing something that is attracting attention.

In other words, "she was asking for it."
posted by agregoli at 8:20 AM on June 9, 2006


We don't know how she dressed on her first two days. Maybe she wore too tight, revealing or just plain slobbish (a category that a tank top and cardigan can easily fall into if it isn't a matched "twin set") clothing and finally, on her third day, her boss just had enough. The bending over was just the icing on the cake. Maybe he thought blaming his request for her to dress more appropriate would be less embarassing if he pinned it on a specific incident, rather than just saying "look, you need to dress more decently; your clothes aren't business casual, they are college class casual"

If a tank top. cardigan and khakis is business casual, what is casual casual?
posted by necessitas at 8:26 AM on June 9, 2006


Look, what I just said was pretty inflammatory, I'll admit.

However, that's what some of these responses read like to me. She had a bra on. This happened one time. I think the boss was way out of line, although how he told her certainly isn't sexual harrassment for me. It is, though, beyond the bounds of an employer-employee relationship to me.

If this happened even twice, I'd be leaning more towards his side. Or if she was not wearing a bra - fine. But she was covered. When you tip over, shirts gap open. It happens. It doesn't warrant a comment.

That combined with the "shit" utterance and subsequent fear, does tip me over in the prudish boss category. This workplace sounds so uptight that I wouldn't want to work there. What else are they going to harp on?

This was one incident, but if it happened to me on my third day, it would give me great pause. I would probably sit tight and see what happened, but I can't say I would ever be comfortable there. I'm sure many women would feel the same way. That doesn't make him a monster or anything, but I do feel his comments were inappropriate.
posted by agregoli at 8:26 AM on June 9, 2006


That combined with the "shit" utterance and subsequent fear, does tip me over in the prudish boss category.

They didn't have a problem, obviously, with the "'shit' utterance" Sounds like she just has a chip on her shoulder in general.
posted by necessitas at 8:33 AM on June 9, 2006


His comments may indicate that this is an uncomfortable place for her to work.

It would be uncomfortable because it was "underly sexual," however, not overly sexual.

Which therefore does not make his comments sexual harassment.

Someone saying something that embarrasses you, or makes you not want to work somewhere, is not sexual harassment. I understand there's probably a case that could be made that the guys are obsessing about her sexually, and requiring her to cover up keeps the conversation about her physically, but.... it's a weak case. And it would have to happen a hell of a lot more often than once. "Dress less provocatively" may be an annoying request, but it's not creating a hostile work environment.
posted by occhiblu at 8:35 AM on June 9, 2006


This is an amazing example of the problem with sexual harassment.

1. You cannot wear a shirt to work that will allow people to see your cleavage if you bend over. End of Story.

2. Your boss can ask you not to wear that kind of clothing, especially if its likely you'll have to bend over in the course of your duties.

3. If a man is uncomfortable because of the way a woman is dressing, he can say, "I'm not comfortable with your choice of clothing" and its not sexual harassment. Its not out of line. Its not prudish. THE WOMAN doesn't get to decide what's too revealing. THE BOSS gets to decide.

It simply is not professional to wear clothing in the workplace that shows off your assets. Don't do it. You might not think it's showing off, you might think its "flattering" or "trendy" or "just a scoop neck". It isn't, and don't.
posted by ewkpates at 10:50 AM on June 9, 2006


I'm not adding anything new to the conversation, but I too think that your friend's boss was entirely appropriate. He had two choices: he could ignore the display and risk having them displayed again, or he could alert her to the display and ask her to take steps to prevent it from occurring again. It really also depends on the sexual temperment of the individual involved — how "straight-laced" they are. If I see something in similar situations (and I have, once or twice, encountered same), I merely try to casually look away so as to not embarrass the individual. But if that offends someone enough that they really don't want to see it again, the polite request is perfectly acceptable.
posted by WCityMike at 11:43 AM on June 9, 2006


I used to work in a couple of places where my female co-workers would go bra-less, and I would inevitably catch an eyeful of their breasts every once in a while. It never occurred to me that this was a problem that required reproof by a supervisor. I don't see what the problem is. Could those who are taking the side of the boss help me understand why this occasional exposure is "unprofessional"?

I don't think this would be going on with a man who exposed his chest in the workplace. And there are creepy issues of male dominance at work here, with a male boss passing judgment upon his female employee's body and the occasional flash of cleavage.

It bugs the hell out of me that everyone thinks a woman's body has to dressed so as not to ever show a flash of cleavage, even though she was dressed, by her own account, appropriately for work. This strikes me as an attitude that is worthy of the Taliban, and the only difference is one of degree.
posted by jayder at 11:47 AM on June 9, 2006


When a woman feels uncomfortable in the workplace because of too much male staring, she can sue them. SUE THEM for creating a hostile work environment.

Employers therefore have an obligation to both employees and the company to "desexualize" the work place.

So no cleavage! None! Because you start flashing it, then we start staring, and then you get uncomfortable and where are we? In court.

This happens. The law provides women the right to a safe workplace, and therefore provides men the right to a "cleavage free zone".

Not that we want one. Which is, basically, my whole point.
posted by ewkpates at 12:00 PM on June 9, 2006


Where where these work places, btw?
posted by ewkpates at 12:00 PM on June 9, 2006


jayder writes "Could those who are taking the side of the boss help me understand why this occasional exposure is 'unprofessional'?"

Her top doesn't meet the company dress code (whether the code is written or left to the discretion of managers). I think what you are really wanting to ask is why this particular top you've described doesn't meet the dress code. To which I'd reply dress codes are arbitrary and change with the times and place. Some places are more liberal than others. If your friend feels her top should be permitted she should take it up with who is ever in charge of the dress code. They may agree the code needs changing.

jayder writes "This strikes me as an attitude that is worthy of the Taliban, and the only difference is one of degree."

Do you agree that there should be a line?
Do agree that the line may be different for different workplaces (say surf shop vs. Victoria's Secret vs ToysRUs vs McDonalds vs Law office vs. kindergarden teacher vs. nightclub waitress)?
If yes then can you see that the line has to be drawn somewhere for this particular place of business and apparently the top was on the wrong side of that line? I seriously doubt the manager is trying to oppress women via the dress code.

PS: Every professional place I've worked women had a more liberal dress code then men. For example most offices I've seen allow women to wear less than full length skirts when men are still required to wear full length pants.
posted by Mitheral at 12:23 PM on June 9, 2006


I find myself wondering how many of the responses here are colored by the fact that we know this woman's name isn't Gertrude or Mildred, and she apparently doesn't like capitalization.

The neckline of my 36 year old fat chick shirt today is lower than what Summer describes, and I'd easily wager that no one thinks I'm showing off the twins.

I agree with those who have said it's not harassment and not worth being uncomfortable over, but I also agree with those who have said the boss could have chosen his words and actions much more carefully.
posted by gnomeloaf at 1:12 PM on June 9, 2006


THE WOMAN doesn't get to decide what's too revealing. THE BOSS gets to decide.

Heil!

The law provides women the right to a safe workplace, and therefore provides men the right to a "cleavage free zone".

Because an inch of top cleavage right under the neckline accidentally making its one-off appearance during an untypical office movement is as threatening to the male psyche as overt sexual harassment on the workplace, yeah? Well glad that's cleared up! No it's not prudish at all! It's so very mature, responsible and manly.

I would just like to know what is so awfully hard about considering the actual question at hand, and actual description of clothing in this one situation, rather than your particular hungups about female-male relations at work, or actual sexual harassment lawsuits, or your other experiences in some supposed slutfest of an office where every woman goes around dressed in hot pants and see through tops, cos this doesn't really quite sound like that. And she did not 'flash her cleavage' a la Superbowl nipple wardrobe incident.
posted by funambulist at 1:36 PM on June 9, 2006


It is entirely possible, and actually quite probable, that one of the other employees complained.

It's the boss's job to make sure that none of his employees feels exploited, sexualized, or forced to view sexual images. That includes the male employees.

It has nothing to do with Hitler, it has nothing to do with the Taliban, it has to do with creating a sex-free workzone. Of course the definitions of what that means will vary from workplace to workplace, but I don't think anyone can argue that someone on her third day of work was a better sense of what this workplace's rules and standards are than her manager does.
posted by occhiblu at 2:08 PM on June 9, 2006


I don't see what the problem is. Could those who are taking the side of the boss help me understand why this occasional exposure is "unprofessional"?

I don't think this would be going on with a man who exposed his chest in the workplace.


A man showing his bare chest in an office would also be screamingly unprofessional, yes. I'm a bit perplexed by your confusion over the concept of variable levels of appropriate modesty per cultural norms. I would ask if you think it's rude/odd to wear a bathing suit to a funeral, but I'm afraid of the answer.
posted by desuetude at 3:10 PM on June 9, 2006


funambulist, as I see it the question at hand is 'should I feel psychotically freaked out because my boss thought that my clothes were inappropriate, and told me so - even referring to the reason why!!!?!?!?'. The overwhelming response has been 'no'. If she does, however, maybe it isn't the job for her. The clothes aren't the big issue - it's the screaming capitalized PLEASE DON'T FUCKING LOOK AT ME, and her last paragraph, which seem to say 'it doesn't matter what I was wearing, it's his perverted attitude that's freaky!'


The specifics of the clothing involved are pretty hard to discuss anyway - for instance to me she comes across as kind of overdramatic and defensive, so that her description may not in fact be accurate. A lot of people are assuming that she had the cardigan buttoned all the way up, but I wouldn't have. Therefore I don't think we can usefully discuss whether the clothes were appropriate, except in a general way which becomes a discussion on our view of society.
posted by jacalata at 5:54 PM on June 9, 2006


I wouldn't consider a tank top that would expose your breasts when you bent over to be business anything. I really do prefer for all my work tops to have a sleeve of some sort, so that no one could even imagine that they might have seen something. No more tank tops for Summer.

Beyond that, I don't think what the boss said was lewd, but because I didn't hear him say it, I can never be sure. He may have been leery and he may have been staring at her chest through their whole conversation.

That said, I can still totally understand the icky feeling. I too have been harassed at work, and it's not pleasant. Document the incident, because if this is the beginning of something insipid, you'll want a paper trail. If it's not, you'll want a document path in case he (or his boss) tries to fire you for "dress code bullshit." You may be able to say, well, in fact there was this one issue, and I have not worn a tank top since we discussed that.
posted by bilabial at 7:51 PM on June 9, 2006


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