Compliments from my colleague become uncomfortable

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Reader: My co-worker for about a year, “Jill”, frequently compliments my work outfits and asks about the brand or where I got them. They are not creators, generally for resale. At first the comments were sweet, but it got over the top when she said things like, “I like this so much I want to rip it off you.”

Our employer is organizing a big fundraising gala and is asking for volunteers to attend the event. Just the other day, Jill said, “Oh, I want to borrow that blue lace dress you wore to the XYZ event a few months ago!” I was a little surprised and didn’t answer at the time.

I will not volunteer for the upcoming event. I would like your opinion on how to react when she finds out that I will not be there because I have a strong feeling that she will pull the dress up.

Karla: All I’m saying is I didn’t get letters like this when people were working from home wearing hoodies.

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I was originally inclined to give Jill slack for her excessive compliments. Who among us hasn’t come out of pandemic isolation needing to recalibrate our social filters? With that in mind, my advice would be to laugh at his exaggerated comments. Either she’d appreciate you playing along with her obvious (ahem) joke, or she’d understand that professionals who want to be taken seriously don’t threaten to mutilate their colleagues like a jealous half-sister from a fairy tale.

But a direct request to borrow your clothes is clearly sincere, if ridiculous, and deserves an equally sincere response: an “Oh, I don’t lend my clothes.” Repeat as needed.

In case you were wondering if swapping clothes is something everyone seemed to be doing during the pandemic, like baking sourdough and playing pickleball, let me assure you that you don’t have to lend something you researched, selected and purchased for your personal use. Even if you are friends. Even if she outclasses you. Even if she pouts. Even if you never intend to wear this dress again.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that this escalates into “single white womanmovie scenario in which no amount of “Like I said before, I don’t lend my clothes” can chill Jill, or she begins to retaliate to a degree that hampers your ability to work in peace. If that sounds plausible, you might want to keep track of your conversations and the passers-by who overhear them in case you need to establish a clear pattern of HR behavior. Even if her behavior doesn’t technically violate any employment law, management should intervene if she’s upsetting and making her co-workers uncomfortable.

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But I wonder if this lady’s distress isn’t about that dress, but rather about anxiety about making a good impression at work while navigating the sartorial and financial minefield that is women’s fashion. If you’re the least bit inclined to help, you can recommend your favorite boutiques, vendors, and tailors, or even offer to consider photos of items she’s considering.

You can help a sister without having to literally give her the clothes off your back.

About Renee Williams

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