Workplace doctor: Manager doesn’t like the way I dress

I have a high-profile job, which means I have to attend numerous events in the evenings in Dubai. While I like to think I’m fairly presentable in the way I dress, one of my managers thinks otherwise. I was called into the office the other day and she asked if my dress code could be “a little more chic”, particularly for evening events with our high-profile clients. I asked her to be more precise and she made a flippant comment about my “garish choice of colours”. As a woman, these comments were hard to take and, to be honest, I felt insulted. What do I do from here – seek the services of a stylist or find a new job with a manager who appreciates my style? AA, Dubai

Certain jobs and sectors place more emphasis on presentation and appearance than others, and your position and role mean that you are constantly visible to others, attending events, networking and meeting new people. Also, with billboards of leading fashion brands everywhere, malls full of designer outlets and a heavy stress on physical appearance, there is a probably a stronger emphasis on fashion and clothing in Dubai than in many other parts of the world.

My personal view is that dress code, or style, forms only one small part of an individual’s personal brand and that it can be more appropriately defined by their work style, communication manner, personality, day-to-day activities and interests. However, for one of your managers, dress code probably makes up a significant part of what she sees as your “branding” and what you represent. This seems short-sighted, and I can see why her comments were hard to take and why you felt insulted, as her flippant remarks lack both empathy and tact.

That said, this is the way you are perceived by one of your managers, and it is important to consider how you wish to address this. First, on a positive note the comments are not towards the work you are doing, the effort you are putting in or about your personal character; they are about your outfit and choice of clothing. This may be because your style differs from how she dresses, or her view of how the company should be represented. The clothing choices you make can set the tone for how you are seen in your workplace.

I am not sure finding a new job with a manager who appreciates your style is a good idea, unless there are other factors that are affecting you, or this comment is one of many flippant or inconsiderate remarks that this manager has launched towards you. It may just be her opinion on one of your particular outfit choices, and maybe you should find out how others see your dress sense.

It may be more useful not to think about your choice of clothing as being “good” or “bad”, but instead think about it in the context of the organisation. It may be that you could incorporate different elements into your outfit, adapting your style according to how your manager would like you to “dress for success”, yet still dress how you like outside of work. This is similar to an employee who has to adjust their communication style at work. I am using the term “adapt” rather than “change”, and if you feel adapting the way you dress is somehow going to change who you are, and how you see yourself, then maybe this is not the right idea.

But if you are willing to adapt your style in line with your manager’s views, then that could be relatively simple. You may want to get her buy-in by asking her along when you are next choosing work wear, or seeking her feedback on an outfit you have selected. The flippant comment is definitely uncalled for, but if you are considered in your response and prepared to adapt (even slightly) it may yield benefits for you in her eyes and also in your career progression.

Doctor’s prescription:

Comments about our physical appearance do tend to leave a mark, but it does not need to be permanent. Your role is high- profile in a place where appearance counts, so consider the benefits of adapting your dress style. But remember confidence and comfort are key. Only you know if modifying your approach to work wear is too far away from who you really are.

Alex Davda is a business psychologist and consultant at Ashridge Business School based in the Middle East. Email him at for advice on any work issues

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