Resources for feminist, anti-racist professional dress codes?
September 20, 2016 8:40 PM   Subscribe

Asking for a friend: I'm looking for business-minded arguments or resources for dress codes that would not allow more obviously controversial symbols like the Confederate flag, but perhaps not so stringent that it would forbid t-shirts with quasi-political, positive messages (more context below the fold)

I already looked at this question but would appreciate more ideas for this specific situation.

Friend works in the beauty industry in a very diverse urban setting. Friend's white co-worker (I believe she was even the receptionist) at Friend's salon wore a Kanye West shirt that features the Confederate flag pretty prominently. Friend was wearing a not-necessarily-obviously-feminist shirt. Friend's white male boss doesn't believe that sexism exists, and equated Friend's feminist shirt 'offensive to him as a male' to receptionist's shirt, and reasoned that he wouldn't forbid either shirt.

I'm guessing that convincing Boss that sexism & racism exist (and that reverse-racism/reverse sexism do not exist) is not going to happen... And honestly I'm kind of floored just from a business standpoint - seems like even a very politically conservative boss wouldn't want to chance losing clientele by allowing controversial symbols as part of staff dress code--especially being worn by the receptionist, the first person potential clients are likely to see/meet. I have suggested to Friend that she attempt to approach it from a business-minded angle rather than social justice, but that's about all I've got.

Friend is willing to ultimately give up wearing her positive message shirts, but would prefer not to, if she can find a way to convince her boss otherwise... And maybe elevate the dialogue about this issue in the workplace. The rest of the staff seems split about 50/50 on caring about the matter at all. Friend (who happens to be a minority themselves) & the lone black employee were the only ones who attempted to address the matter of the Confederate flag shirt with management.

Friend has to tread carefully in general at this workplace, too, so that's a factor.

So mefites, got any succinct phrases my friend could use in this situation? Or better arguments than I can come up with? Or a cure for idiots? HALP and thanks.
posted by leemleem to Work & Money (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Friend's white male boss ... reasoned that he wouldn't forbid either shirt.

Friend is willing to ultimately give up wearing her positive message shirts, but would prefer not to, if she can find a way to convince her boss otherwise

I'm not sure I understand why she would need to give her shirts? Unless she's planning to argue to the boss that all tee-shirts with messages should be banned, and she's willing to give up her shirts for that reason.
posted by bunderful at 9:04 PM on September 20, 2016 [3 favorites]

The business case for not permitting a white receptionist serving a diverse clientele to wear a shirt featuring the confederate flag should be obvious, and if it's not, given everything you've said, I don't think any kind of logic will reach the owner. If he doesn't want to restrict anyone wearing t shirts of any kind, he won't, he's the owner, sounds like he's dug in his heels.

(That said, I think that shirt was about Kanye reappropriating and subverting that symbol. Idk what it means for the business in question if it's being used and read in different ways than he meant, or in the ways he meant.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:43 PM on September 20, 2016 [4 favorites]

Regardless of what one thinks of Kanye, I don't think anyone rational thinks Kanye is arguing in favor of racism. From your description, I would guess that a high portion of the clientele would recognize the shirt as being from his fashion line? If one know's it's a Kayne product, it's pretty clear that it's a subversion (successful or not) of a racist symbol, not an endorsement of it. Does your friend think that the receptionist is literally endorsing the concepts of the confederacy by wearing the shirt or is just a clueless Kanye fan who doesn't understand that the shirt might still offend some people?

Friend was wearing a not-necessarily-obviously-feminist shirt.

You're being cagey about what the shirt is, which makes me think that there's a reasonable chance that it might be misconstrued by people.

So mefites, got any succinct phrases my friend could use in this situation? Or better arguments than I can come up with?

If you want to argue against shirts with ambiguous meanings, you shouldn't wear shirts with more ambiguous meaning.

Or to be completely pragmatic, 出る釘は打たれる - the stake that sticks up gets hammered down. If your friend "has to tread carefully in general at this workplace" this may not be the best hill to die on if they need the job. The boss sounds like a jerk, but unless there's a higher corporate power to get rid of the boss, that's neither here nor there if your friend also needs to pay rent and doesn't have other opportunities.
posted by Candleman at 9:54 PM on September 20, 2016 [5 favorites]

More context:
Friend's shirt was this... Wasn't trying to be cagey, the brand is just a little involved to explain - I believe the shirts & brand were established to bring attention to the fact that even though the hair & beauty industries are predominantly made up of women, the men in these industries are still more likely to make more money - so the "cut hair like female" slogan is along the same lines as reclaiming "hit like a girl"... It's about valuing hairdressers objectively by their skill, not by their gender.

I think this was the offending Kanye shirt, not particularly obvious that it's a Kanye shirt

"a clueless Kanye fan who doesn't understand that the shirt might still offend some people" - Friend doesn't think that receptionist is even a Kanye fan, receptionist prolly just bought the shirt bc it's trendy... And the black coworker was directly offended, even after discovering that it was a Kanye shirt...

I'll try not to threadsit too much, but points taken about not dying on this hill / that boss is likely just too darn jerkish & ignorant
posted by leemleem at 10:18 PM on September 20, 2016

Shirts like these have too much nuance involved to easily write a policy that can walk this tightrope. It then comes down to the owner having to make some sort of decisions on a case by case basis and that gets messy.

I'm ok with the "its cool unless a customer complains" type of solution which I've seen in these settings.
posted by bitdamaged at 10:23 PM on September 20, 2016 [5 favorites]

bunderful, yes, giving up all shirts with messages is the request Friend would make...

And I think Friend's coworker was uncomfortable upon seeing the Confederate flag shirt at all, and didn't know that it was a Kanye shirt. But even after finding out that it was a Kanye shirt, coworker was still uncomfortable with the receptionist and the shirt

Edit: Confederate flag is unambiguous
posted by leemleem at 10:33 PM on September 20, 2016

I've been racking my brain, trying to come up with a combination of words that might persuade your friend's boss -- but if Boss doesn't believe sexism exists, and doesn't understand why a confederate flag shirt is a poor choice for a receptionist in a diverse setting, then... Well, let's just say he sees the world so differently from me, you, and your friend that I don't think anything any of us could say would change his mind.

I think your idea of approaching it from a don't-offend-the-customers angle is a very smart and rational one, but my prediction is that Boss will dismiss any arguments, no matter how carefully reasoned, by saying something like, "We're not going to lose any customers over something silly like a shirt. You're the only one who seems bothered by it."

I do think Boss might listen to customers if they approach him directly, though. If Friend knows any clients who were there the day the shirt was being warn, Friend might approach them directly, see if they were offended, and encourage them to speak to Boss themselves.

This is a high-risk approach, because if Boss suspects that Friend put them up to it, then Boss will forever see Friend as "that employee who deliberately embarrassed me in front of the customers." (You and I know it's the opposite-- that Friend is actually trying to prevent the establishment from being embarrassed -- but I predict Boss will see it as an attack on his authority.) Given that Friend already has to tread lightly, Friend might decide it's not worth the risk.

But I thought I'd at least mention it as one potential strategy, since I'm so completely stumped.
posted by yankeefog at 3:13 AM on September 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

I admit, I don't really get that shirt. I wouldn't have known it was intended to be a positive or feminist message if you hadn't pointed it out. I think "what if someone doesn't understand/misinterprets the message" is a pretty solid argument against t-shirts with slogans/graphics in the workplace, and both shirts are good examples even if they are at different levels of appropriateness. (I am sort of floored that the boss allowed the Confederate flag shirt.)

I abhor strict dress codes and am generally on board with letting everybody wear what they want to work, but there are some parts of dress codes I agree with. Lots of workplaces have blanket rules against graphic tees or clothing with writing because of the potential for confusing/upsetting/angering coworkers or clients, and because the clothing's message might not be in line with the company's. (It also looks a little tidier and can help distinguish employees from customers.) Practically speaking, I think this would be a better policy to implement than trying to figure out a rule that determines what messages are or aren't acceptable.

I think if your friend tries to create a dialogue about the two specific examples, it's not going to go anywhere productive and it's going to sound personal. And it seems like her boss just doesn't want to think about the issue at all. Suggesting a no-graphic-shirts dress code for the sake of professionalism and avoiding future confusing messages might be her best bet.

Bravo to your friend about saying something about the flag shirt. For every person who speaks up about something like that, there are countless others who don't show their reactions. I have absolutely stopped patronizing businesses for stuff like that; I don't say anything to the manager, I just leave (and tell my friends).
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:00 AM on September 21, 2016 [7 favorites]

Friend's shirt was this

OK, that's much less troublesome that I'd imagined from the initial description, but as others have said, it's kind of confusing. The bad grammar does not do it any favors, to the point that some people might think that it's insulting women's ability to speak. But the boss's equating it to a Confederate flag shirt as far as offending potential customers is off base, and probably an indication of being a jerk.

If she thinks that he's genuinely misunderstanding the meaning of her shirt, she could suggest that it would be appropriate to retire both it and the Kanye shirt from the place of business, and she could switch to something that's still feminist but is more clear. If he's just going to say that anything that's feminist is offensive to him as a male, then it's probably time to look for work elsewhere if possible, especially if he's also the owner.
posted by Candleman at 7:50 AM on September 21, 2016

Looked at the shirt graphics. If you didn't know who designed the Kanye shirt (and why would you?), you could easily think it was a KKK shirt that advocated killing black people. That is one clueless design. There is no way anyone should wear that at work, particularly a white person (who shouldn't wear it at all).

That aside, wearing any kind of slogan t-shirt at work is unprofessional because your job is to promote the business during work hours, not an unrelated cause.
posted by w0mbat at 10:53 AM on September 21, 2016

It seems really hard to win this one. Boss doesn't believe that sexism and racism exist, and friend has to tread carefully, which makes me think there's a possibility she could lose her job easily and doesn't have a strong rapport with the boss. It's really hard to give someone advice that jeopardizes their livelihood.

Your suggestion to make the argument about what's best for the business is solid. But it sounds like there was already some sort of discussion, if the boss has made a statement not banning either shirt.

Did other people in the workplace hear the discussion? Even if the boss didn't ban the tee-shirts, and even if the receptionist defended her Kanye shirt, she might decide not to wear it to work in the future if she realizes it that it might be offensive or even just cause friction in the office.

There are times when I've tried to get people to explicitly agree with me and they wouldn't, but quietly changed their behavior anyway, later. So she may have already said all that she needs to say.
posted by bunderful at 5:57 PM on September 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

« Older MIL is sick and won't let FIL leave her side   |   Help me choose a tablet for reading comics Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.