columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

I am hoping to get some advice on a situation I am having with one of my employees. Michelle 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 Michelle makes drastic changes to her appearance, and these changes always happen during the work day. Most employees on my team (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. As her older male boss, I don't want to seem like I am appearance policing, and she is always within the norm for the dress code/appearance within our office and industry. However, I feel like doing this in the middle of the work day is hurting her professional credibility. Once 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.

Is this something I should be speaking to her about? If so, how do I do it so as to not make it about her appearance, but rather how it affects her professionalism and how people perceive her--even though 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?

Green responds:

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.

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, eccentricities, or so forth--and giving people room for that can make you a more interesting and appealing workplace.

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