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'My employee drastically changes her entire appearance in the middle of the work day.' + UPDATE

'My employee drastically changes her entire appearance in the middle of the work day.' + UPDATE

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"My employee drastically changes her appearance in the middle of the workday."

In a post shared on Ask a Manager, a manager at a Fortune 1000 company wrote in asking for advice on a bizarre situation involving an employee:

I’m in management for a Fortune 1000 company. I have been a manager for just over a year, and I am hoping to get some advice on a situation I am having with one of my employees.

Michelle (not her real name) has worked here for almost a year. This is her first job after college and her second job ever. There are no issues with the quality of her work, but there is something that I think is an issue — but I am not sure if I should bring it up with her or not.

Michelle makes drastic changes to her appearance, and these changes always happen during the work day. Due to the nature of the work, most employees in my section (including Michelle) are exempt and lunches are generally longer than an hour. Over her lunch, she will drastically change her hair, clothing, and makeup.

For example: On a given day, she has long blonde hair, almost no makeup, and is wearing a gray suit. After lunch, she returns with black hair that’s ear-length on one side and chin-length on the other, with noticeable makeup and a black suit. Or she has shoulder-length curly hair that she is wearing down and she comes back with straight hair that is a different color, in an up-do and with an undercut.

Since she started working here, at least once a month she comes back from her lunch wearing drastically different clothes, shoes, makeup, and nails and she has radically changed her hair (color and length) over her lunch half a dozen times.

I don’t know if I should say anything because as her older, male boss I don’t want to seem like I am appearance policing, and also because she is always within the norm for the dress code/appearance within our office and industry (professional clothes, hair only dyed natural colors). However, I feel like her doing this in the middle of the work day is hurting her professional credibility.

There was one time when we gave a presentation for both internal and external people and Michelle was present because she had assisted with the preparation. After we broke for lunch, she returned with darker hair, bangs, and completely different clothes.

Many people at the presentation thought she was a different person at first. Another time she returned to a meeting with shorter hair, longer nails, and different clothes, and it was the same thing. Michelle does not have a car and take public transit. There is a large mall right by our office.

I haven’t said anything to her directly, but I have heard her telling others she prefers to get her hair and nails done on her breaks because the mall is so convenient and she doesn’t have to do it after work or on weekends. She doesn’t carry a purse or backpack, so when she shows up with different clothes and without her old ones, people do notice.

She says she puts her old clothes in a donation bin at the mall and has told people she will buy things at the thrift store near her home for the purpose of wearing to work on days when she is going to buy new stuff at the mall. Sometimes she goes to the mall or surfs the internet just to scope out clothes so she knows what she is going to buy when she actually goes shopping.

Is this something I should be speaking to her about? If so, how do I do it so as to not to make it about her appearance but rather how it affects her professionalism and how people perceive her, even there are no problems with her work and she is making all these changes on her lunch and not when she is expected to be working?

Commenters weighed in on this mystery

Pearly Girl said:

I’m just trying to wrap my head around buying thrift-store clothes for the sole purpose of throwing them out mid-day.

New Girl said:

I’m trying to wrap my head around fitting a dye job during a lunch break. My experience has always been that dye jobs take multiple hours.

Stella Maris said:

I thought maybe they were wigs? If she’s changing that dramatically and that quickly? (This just lends credence to the spy backstory.)

Zip Silver said:

I get my sides and neck trimmed up on lunch breaks, but I can’t imagine taking the time to get a full style change in the middle of the day

Lilly said:

My hair appointments (highlights and cut) take 2 hours so it’s hard to believe that she can make drastic changes over lunch. Wigs would make more sense if she truly wants to transform herself every month. Pricey habit!

Anon Anon said:

No kidding. It takes at least 2 hours to get my hair colored and that doesn’t include any sort of cut. I don’t think I could get my hair colored, cut, and shop for a new outfit in less than 3 hours. So I guess I wonder how long is the typical lunch break?

People were truly baffled.

Later, OP followed up with this update:

Thank you for your response and to the commentariat for their responses. As it turns out, the situation changed the day after I wrote in to you.

A manager several levels above me asked to speak to Michelle when she was visiting our office for a meeting. Michelle had made a drastic change during another meeting with external people besides the one I wrote in about. I was off on vacation and not present at this meeting, but the manager was.

She (the manager) was at the meeting I wrote in about too and had also attended a five-day seminar/trade show where Michelle was present, and Michelle had apparently made a couple of mid-day appearance changes (clothes, makeup and hairdo) when she was there.

This manager had similar concerns as me. We weren’t trying to imply in any way that Michelle should not change her appearance at all, just that she should not do it in the middle of the work day on days when she had to deal with external people.

The manager said there had been comments about it at the trade show and after the meetings, and more than one person had referred to Michelle as the one who always changes when her name came up. Our office is on the conservative side when it comes to the dress code and it definitely stood out in the culture of the company.

This manager let Michelle know that the mid-day changes were affecting people’s perceptions of her and overshadowing her work. This manager told Michelle she was approaching her out of concern because she herself knew how it could be difficult for women to be taken seriously in the workplace.

Michelle said she understood and thanked the manager for her help. She then left to take her lunch. Michelle returned from her lunch with a wavy, blue pixie cut. She went to the touchdown office the manager was using with her shirt completely unbuttoned and asked how professional she looked. Then she left the building and has not come back.

On Friday, Michelle emailed me and asked if I would be a reference for her during her job search. I was honest that I would have to tell the truth if I was asked why she left her job and she would be better off to have HR confirm her employment dates, but I cautioned they would also confirm she isn’t eligible for re-hire if they were asked.

Michelle said she understood and wished me luck in filling her old job. It is the only contact she has made since she walked out and she never told anyone she quit, she just left.

It was truly bizarre. At no point did the manager tell Michelle not to change her appearance at all and she also praised Michelle’s work and said she wanted the focus to be on Michelle’s good performance. She only told Michelle how mid-day changes during meetings and trade shows were overshadowing her work and making people take her less seriously.

The blue hair, unbuttoned shirt, walking out in the middle of the day, and quitting without telling anyone were a shock to everyone. If I had not seen it with my own eyes, I would have a hard time believing it.

(Also to clarify some things and answer some of the questions asked in the comments: I am black, Michelle is white. When I called myself older, I simply meant that I am older than Michelle. She is in her early 20’s and I am 38. Michelle drastically changes her look about once every three weeks but she only does it in the middle of the workday about once a month, the rest of the time it happens over the weekend.

She lives around the corner from a mall similar to the one near our office (I have heard her talking about it). Michelle does not wear wigs, it is all her own hair and long extensions. When she changes her look during the work day she always comes back with her hair shorter and/or darker. She gets the lighter colors and/or hair extensions are done over the weekend.)

What do you think he should do?

This was Allison's advice:

Michelle sounds kind of awesome. I can see why it feels a little off to you though — I suspect it’s rooted in feeling like part of professionalism is presenting yourself in a way where the attention is on your work rather than on your clothes, hair, nails, or so forth.

And it must be hard not to focus on those things when she’s coming in with one set of clothes/hair/nails and then dramatically changing them halfway through the day.

That said … is it really impacting the way she’s perceived? There are some offices where this would come across as being overly focused on appearance in a way that would read as not-serious. But those are probably a minority of offices rather than a majority.

If yours is one of them, it would be a kindness to let her know that, so that she can decide if she wants to alter what she’s doing. Hell, there are even some offices where it would be considered enough of a distraction that you could feasibly ask her to rein it in somewhat.

But for the majority of offices, I tend to think it’s not that big of a deal. At most, I’d worry that it will become the thing Michelle is known for rather than her work — but if her work is excellent and people know that, it’s more likely to be seen as an interesting quirk rather than her defining quality.

That said, I do think it’s reasonable to ask her to avoid drastic mid-day appearance changes when she’s helping with a presentation — since that’s more likely to be a distraction. When you’re helping with a presentation, it’s generally best to fade into the background, not to do things that will call attention to your appearance.

So in the same way that you might ask her to dress particularly professionally on those days, it would be fine to ask her not to make major mid-day appearance shifts on those days too.

But beyond that? Unless you see real evidence that it’s impacting how seriously people take her — or unless you know your office culture well enough to know that it’s going to — I’d let it go. It’s okay for people to have unusual traits or eccentricities or so forth — and giving people room for that can make you a more interesting and appealing workplace.

Do you agree with her advice? And do you have any theories about what's going on here?

Sources: Ask a Manager
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