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What Would You Do?

Here's a situation for you. In this weekend's New York Times, a reader seeks advice:

My assistant doesn’t do anything for her appearance — no make-up, hair pulled back (and looking greasy) and dumpy clothes. I try to set a good example by being put together. Now that summer is here, she’s wearing open sandals and doesn’t paint her toenails. Her feet look rather unkempt, and I think painted nails pull a look together — especially in summer! How do I have a conversation with her? She wants to move out into the business world in the next year or so, after she completes her M.B.A.

The columnist suggests "keeping your beauty tips to yourself" and advises against crossing "the line of inappropriate topics." I agree, particularly because the advice-seeker doesn't mention anything about the job performance. Besides, this boss seems pretty high-maintenance.

On the other hand, the assistant's unkempt appearance isn't helping her career, and in strict business settings, looking polished is part of the gig. If her appearance began to distract people from focusing on her accomplishments, what would you do as her manager?


Join The Conversation
Captious Captious 8 years
I never thought I'd be the one to sound like a raging feminist but this is seriously not okay... There is a HUGE difference between hygiene and grooming. Expecting hygiene is fine. Expecting grooming is not. If her hair is just never washed then that's an issue. If her hair is greasy because that's the kind of hair she has and her ponytails are her way of dealing w/ that then seriously #&$@ off lady. Also women should never be EXPECTED to wear makeup or nail polish in a professional setting. This is clearly discriminatory as men wear neither. Makeup and nail polish are accessories not necessities.
monday monday 9 years
invite her for a girl's day out - have your nails done together or something like that.
Kelly-O Kelly-O 9 years
Honestly I can't get past the non-painted toenails comment. Does the assistant walk to work or ride a bus or train? If she's walking and getting hot during summer months coming in to the office, it might just be that she is having a problem during the heat (particularly right now on the East Coast.) For the record, assistants are not always the frumpy ones. I mean, I know that no one would make that generalization, I just wanted to address it, because "the frumpy assistant" assumption gets real old, real fast. (Too, an assistant may not have the funds to spend on new clothes for whatever reason. Not the manager's problem unless they're prepare to give this person a raise.) I also don't see a mention about whether or not this person has client contact, or whether the work this person is producing is a problem. And she mentioned the person is in the process of getting her MBA. She's working, going to school and probably trying to bust it in all things to be successful. It would not hurt this boss to cut a little slack. (And possibly remember what it was like when she was in college.)
okmaebe okmaebe 9 years
ladychaos, I work at VS too! At our store, if we want to wear open shoes, we are required to have polished toenails. Fashion and sales do have a bit higher expectation placed on appearance than perhaps this situation entails. I hate to have polish on my fingernails, but I buff them to a shine fairly often. My toenails are bright red and shiny, just for laughs. Three pedicures a year. June, July, August. I've had the occasion to have conversations with some of the girls about dress code or lack of proper formality, and find that it works best to just be really clear about professional expectation, and make sure to compliment fabulosity where it is due (hair's clean and done, or a new outfit for a girl who dresses down). It is a best friends kind of environment. And I want to help people succeed and exceed even their own expectations. Heck, if it's holding me back, I sure want to know about it. I'd give her the same advice so many of you have suggested. Kick it up a notch to keep yourself in the running for bigger and better things.
terryt18 terryt18 9 years
Sounds kinda bitch to me. . .
cubadog cubadog 9 years
I do think she needs to maintain her appearance. Generally when you are in your interview you are wearing somthing that makes you look your best I don't know anyone that tries to look unkept at their interview. I do think the toe nail thing is a little much but it takes 2 seconds to throw on some mascara and go to work. I have been in the fashion/sportswear industry for at least 12 years and so I may be a little jaded but I do expect my assitant to look her best just like the VP I report to expects me to put a little effor into my appearance. I also love to dress up and have fun with my clothes. Image is everything and no one wants to work with a slob.
HappyKate HappyKate 9 years
Appearance matters but what this women said is rude. Yes her shoes should be better and maybe some more appropriate clothing for the specific job but it is sad that women today cannot go without wearing make-up for fear for being judged.
JaimeLeah526 JaimeLeah526 9 years
If it truly is an issue than I think that the boss should talk to her assistant and tell her that she isn't following the dress code. I don't think it's necessary for an assistant to have painted nails or wear makeup but she can't have greasy unkempt hair or messy clothes.
juju4 juju4 9 years
I would address the issue if she was violating dress code, but other than that there isn't much that can be done. If she was meeting with clients or going to appointments to represent the company to outside of the office, then I think you could encourage her to try to think about looking a little more "polished and professional". But I don't think that it is appropriate for a boss to comment on lack of toenail polish. Maybe you could give her a gift certificate to a spa for a mani/pedi and say it was a thank you for her hardwork. Lastly, I strongly recommend not saying something like "I bet you have great should wear a pencil skirt!". I've dealt with a sexual harrassment claim that started in exactly that way. In this day and age, you really cannot comment on physical appearance without treading into some gray areas and risking serious offense to someone.
AmandaG AmandaG 9 years
If I were her boss I wouldn't say anything. Some people just don't look as put together as other's even when they have make up and clothes at their disposal. If she is a good assistant chances are the "business look" will develop as she progresses in her career. If she is really concered about her assistants future as a parting gift when she has completed her internship her boss could give her a personalized gift basket with a book on "how to get ahead in you job" or "looking the part to land the the job" and some gift certificates for clothes and a salon or something. Something any college student could use.
kayla74 kayla74 9 years
I'm in HR and have interviewed MANY girls who look professional at the interview. One in particular was articulate and sweet, had her hair combed and pants and a jacket on. We went on to hire her and she came in with her hair disheveled every day, no makeup (which would have been fine if she took care of herself) and ragged clothes. She was also rude and volatile and she was our RECEPTIONIST. I think part of being an assistant requires looking presentable when you're representing your boss. Sometimes all it takes is a nail file and a shampoo. It doesn't have to cost a ton of money to look presentable at work.
ladychaos ladychaos 9 years
Ok, so maybe my take on the situation may be a little different. I work at VS where its an all-women environment, and pretty much, we all talk to each other as we are best friends. It may be different because it sales, however, we do have to wear suits, and it is in company policy to dress neatly. However, I don't see anything wrong with a woman complementing another woman. There's a saying that goes like this: If you are confident, you are sexy. Building someone's confidence during one on one time (such as a trip to the day spa, or coffee, or drinks) and telling a woman that they have a good looking asset wouldn't be sexual harassment, and it would make her feel good. I'm sure there are double standards to this, but if she is a college girl, I'm sure she'd like the advice, plus, someone taking the time out to talk to her like a person and not a boss goes alot further. And for college students, there is always Forever 21 and Wet Seal. JC Penney's also has great sales and at all places you can get business clothes at a really good price. You can dress nicely without spending an arm and a leg.
Beauty Beauty 9 years
Yeah, I think the boss is pretty high-maintenance. I don't think there's anything wrong with having natural, unpolished nails. (Actually, mine are that way about 80% of the time.) This discussion is so interesting to me. I am genuinely enjoying reading everyone's comments.
emalove emalove 9 years
I agree with Kimpossible...I don't get how unpainted toenails equals unprofessional or unkempt-looking??? That's just weird to me.
ahles ahles 9 years
This woman sounds horribly catty.
snowbunny11 snowbunny11 9 years
Okay I just read this article in our newspaper about how a recent college grad who just entered grad school, and was an assistant went into a ton of debt when she started her job because she spent her cash on clothes and beauty treatments in order to project a certain appearance. It obviously made me think of this. I think the boss should seriously STFU and realize she is probably making 4 times what her assistant makes, and her assistant is in school too. This is why you see frumpy assistants!! I'm a legal assistant, and I seriously wear the same thing every week, these four really ugly pairs of pants from New York and Company and a couple sack dresses from the GAP. When I'm attorney, I'll rock the Hugo Boss. Unless you want to pay your assistant significantly more, just forget it. Get her a spa certificate, but geeez.
MzShanon MzShanon 9 years
I would definitely treat her to a girl's day at the spa as a reward for good work.
Kimpossible Kimpossible 9 years
People very often dress much differently for intervies than they do for their jobs once they get the position. Also, imo unpainted toenails does not equate unkempt. I think that is ridiculous personally. Hygiene is definitely an issue that should be brought up though, especially if it is interfering with the individuals productivity or the productivity of others around her. I once had an employee who had a very serious problem with body odor, all the other employees were filing complaints. I ended up having to talk to her and oh my talk about uncomfortable but it had to be done. Also as an after thought, if this employees dress has changed recently (meaning it hasn't always been this way) that could be a sign of depression or some other emotional issue in which case the employer could sit down and ask her if everything is ok. But I'm still seriously stuck on the whole painted toenails thing lol
hippiecowgirl hippiecowgirl 9 years
In my opinion, the boss should only say something if it begins to interfere with job performance. She's her boss. Not her fairy godmother. I really liked the idea of rewarding her with a spa giftcard for a job well done.
lovealways lovealways 9 years
If this girl is in school, she probably doesn't have the money for pedicures to begin with...and if she's not great at hand-painting nails, then self-painting her nails may look even worse than not painting them at all. A student can't possibly have that much $$ at her disposal.
Ellenora Ellenora 9 years
I think it's one thing to come in frumpy and disheveled and whole other thing if a person comes in wearing nail polish or not. The former can ruin or stifle a career and keep a person from rising up the ladder and the latter is personal taste. Honestly, being in college, the last thing I need to worry about is if my toenails are painted or not. I figure as long as they look clean and the nails are taken care of properly (i.e. clipped to a decent length and not yellow), I don't need nail polish. Why is she noticing that her assistant's toes aren't painted in the first place? Most corporate environments don't allow open-toe shoes. The boss has no right to discuss her assistant's clothing unless it infringes the dress code, if there is one. I agree with bellasugar.
quietriott quietriott 9 years
i think it really depends on the formality of the dress code in the office and also what industry this person is in. if it is one where appearance and personal interaction with clients, being unkempt could be a problem, particularly in fashion or pr, for instance. that being said, despite working in a "casual" office, i always dress up to go to work and make sure to look my best because i often have to interact with high-profile people at the spur of the moment. but i have always "dressed for the job i want, not the one i have," which was the best advice ever given to me in graduate school. and i was shocked when two interns showed up to their first day of work in not only tube/strapless tops (no sweater or anything to cover up) but also quite obviously no bras. call me old fashioned, but i did not think it was appropriate.
dd-sugar dd-sugar 9 years
When I was in grad school for my MBA, I worked full time, went to school full time and I'm pretty sure painted toenails were the last on my list.
Arias101 Arias101 9 years
i don't think she has the right to say anything unless she's willing to do something. Hey - if my boss wanted to buy me a "nice pencil skirt" and a pair of pumps, go ahead. But she's not taking to consideration the possible fiscal strain that her assistant is her.
rabidmoon rabidmoon 9 years
Sounds like the assistant is intelligent, and since the boss made no mention of her job performance, I have to assume she is okay in that respect. Its a difficult situation. The boss has no right to comment on clothes in my opinion, unless they are an obvious violation of the accepted "Office" level of formality and dress. I also do not feel nail polish should be mandatory. Its entirely personal, and as was said above is also not the most environmentally friendly stuff around, for sure. On the other hand, if the nails are dirty, if "Unkempt" feet meant..uh, I dunno...let's say scraggly nails, dry flaked heels, whatever...and her hair is greasy, then I would say that is a bit out of line but the trick is how to address it without breaking rules or being unnecessarily unkind. First, I would bring her into the office and make sure to start with some positives. An old rule of criticism I heard once is try to "sandwich" it with some positive notes, and I have always tried to use that rule in life, both personally and professionally. So saying that perhaps start out by saying "First, just want to say I have been really pleased with your (work here, dedication, whatever)...then move on, delicately, to the subject of professionalism and perhaps use the MBA comment as a launching point...and like others suggested above, bring in the "reward" as a way to tie it in.. I would make a point to avoid saying words like "Looks" or anything that implies its about her actual PHYSICAL self, and focus more on image, appearance and office professionalism. Neutralise it as much as I can. Something perhaps like... "..and you know, speaking of your MBA ambitions, I feel you will go far, but one thing that makes college and the workplace different is a certain level of professionalism..I know it can be hard with school, because its a more casual environment. But its important, a sad but true fact perhaps...but important, that in the business world a person needs to be sure they project an image that exudes confidence and professionalism. Its not enough to have it inside, though I wish it were, it sure would make things easier! That being said I would like to perhaps see you work on your outer image a bit more. You do fabulous work, and I think you will go far. But for that very reason I would hate to see little things hold you back...." ...I would continue on, and tie in the spa trip, or makeover, or whatever, maybe even a gift certificate for her to buy herself that first "work suit", something that says "up the game" without saying "YOU are not attractive", that makes it clear its about fitting the role, a professionalism statement, and not a beauty statement. Tough one though.
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