My co-worker’s compliments are getting uncomfortable

My co-worker’s compliments are getting uncomfortable

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Reader: My co-worker of about a year, “Jill,” frequently compliments my work outfits and inquires about the brand or where I got them. They are not designer, usually resale. At first, the comments were nice, but it’s become an overreach when she’s said things like, “I like it so much I want to rip it off you.”

Our employer is having a big gala fundraiser and has been asking for volunteers to be at the event. The other day in passing, Jill said, “Oh, I want to borrow that blue lace dress you wore to XYZ event from a few months ago!” I was a little surprised and didn’t respond in the moment.

I’m not going to be volunteering for the upcoming event. I would like your opinion on how to respond when she gets wind that I won’t be there because I have a strong sense that she’ll bring up the dress again.

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

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I was originally inclined to cut Jill some slack for her overreaching compliments. Who among us has not emerged from pandemic isolation needing to recalibrate our social filters? In that light, my advice would be to laugh off her over-the-top comments. Either she would appreciate your playing along with her obvious (ahem) joke, or she would take the hint that professionals who want to be taken seriously do not threaten to maul colleagues like a jealous fairy tale stepsister.

But a direct request to borrow your clothes is clearly sincere, if ludicrous, and deserves an equally sincere answer: a kind but firm, “Oh, I don’t lend out my clothes.” Repeat as needed.

On the off chance you’re wondering if swapping clothes is something everyone just seemed to take up during the pandemic, like baking sourdough and playing pickleball, let me assure you that you are under no obligation to lend out something you sought, selected and bought for your personal use. Even if you’re friends. Even if she outranks you. Even if she pouts. Even if you never intend to wear that dress again.

Of course, there’s always the possibility this will escalate into a “Single White Female” movie scenario in which no amount of “As I’ve said before, I don’t lend out my clothes” can get Jill to chill, or she starts retaliating to a degree that hinders your ability to work in peace. If that seems plausible, you might want to keep track of your conversations and bystanders who overhear them in case you need to establish a clear behavioral pattern for HR. Even if her behavior doesn’t technically violate any employment laws, management needs to step in if she’s being disruptive and making colleagues uncomfortable.

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But I wonder if this damsel’s distress isn’t about this dress, but rather anxiety about making the right impression at work while navigating the sartorial and financial minefield that is women’s fashion. If you’re at all inclined to help, you could recommend your favorite shops, sellers and tailors, or even offer to weigh in on photos of items she’s considering.

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