I’m distracted by my coworker’s very visible cleavage

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A reader writes:

I am a straight, married, mid-thirties male. I work in a small company with a super-casual dress code — shorts and flip flops are regular wear during the summers for a lot of people.

I interact on a daily basis with a married female coworker who semi-regularly wears shirts that go beyond just showing cleavage. Despite trying hard to keep my eyes up, I can tell you her favorite brand of push-up bra because it’s often enough in obvious view. She’s a lot shorter than I am, which contributes to the problem.

This makes me really uncomfortable. She has the assets for this style of dress, and it’s hard not to notice when she’s showing them off. I really don’t *want* to notice, though.

I get that it’s on me to be self-controlled if that’s what I want to do, but I feel like she’s making it unnecessarily difficult. I don’t have this problem with my other female coworkers, even though one of them is remarkably well-endowed, so this isn’t just me being a lecher.

There was an incident last year where she clearly realized I was having a hard time not looking and both of us obviously felt awkward. Her clothes got more conservative for a bit without us talking about it, but she went back to the same bra-baring outfits within a month or two.

Our official dress code says that cleavage shouldn’t be on display, but no one is enforcing it (as often happens in small companies with formal regulations). Apart from that incident, this has been ongoing for at least a year and a half.

Normally if I have an issue with a coworker I’d first take it up directly with them, but that seems tasteless, stupid, and potentially dangerous here. While my intent is the opposite of sexual harassment, I could see it being perceived as such. Even if it weren’t, this would still be an incredibly awkward conversation and one that seems obviously inappropriate for me to have with her.

Failing personal interaction, my next step would normally be to ask my manager to help handle it, but he’s a man, too (as is her manager).

We have a one-woman office manager / HR department who is amazingly good at her job in most respects. I’m inclined to ask her if she can talk to my coworker about complying with the dress code. Given that it’s not been enforced up to now, I’m a little worried it will just make things awkward without changing anything.

Should I do that? Should I talk to someone else? Should I just continue trying to ignore it?

If your employer hasn’t objected to what your coworker is wearing, then it’s something they’re choosing to be fine with, and it’s on you to control yourself and not look at her inappropriately.

And you do need to stop. Look at what you wrote: You were ogling her to the point that you could tell you were making her feel creeped on. That’s not okay, regardless of what she’s wearing.

Men manage not to ogle women’s cleavage every day. It’s doable. But you have to care more about treating her respectfully and appropriately than about whatever impulse you might feel to look at her boobs.

I do want to acknowledge that if this had been a different letter, my answer here might be different. For example, if your main concern was that you’d seen signs that clients found your coworker’s clothing unprofessional, I could see raising that with someone. But when your only real concern is that you’re having trouble not looking at her breasts, you just don’t have the standing to ask that she be told to dress differently.

I’m distracted by my coworker’s very visible cleavage was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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