Does “professionalism” require a woman to disguise the effects of a mastectomy?
Recently, a woman wrote to Ask a Manager with a question about the workplace, professional dress, and breast cancer surgery. In her letter, she explained that she’d had a double mastectomy with reconstruction. However, the reconstructive surgery failed on one side, leaving her noticeably asymmetrical until she can try for reconstruction again in the summer.
The woman has an external implant which fits in her bra and produces the illusion of matching breasts. However, she doesn’t like to wear it. She explained, “
She hadn’t thought much about the impact on her professional appearance, as her office doesn’t have a dress code, and she doesn’t wear cleavage-baring clothing. Then one of the managers asked to talk to her about how her post-mastectomy look was affecting her co-workers. She wrote:
Now the woman is in a sticky situation. She didn’t commit to wearing the prosthetic, but she knows that the manager is expecting her to do so. Does a professional appearance require matching breasts? She wrote:
While the woman was unsure if office etiquette demands a boob cushion, advice columnist Alison Greene had no doubts. Greene flatly rejected the idea that the woman should have to “alter the appearance of your chest to suit anyone else, least of all coworkers.”
Greene called it “outrageous,” that her co-workers would complain about the state of someone’s breasts after cancer surgery. And it was even worse that a manager would bring it up and expect her to do something in response. Greene suggested a way to address it with the manager:
She added that if the manager doesn’t apologize and drop it, the woman could mention that cancer is protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Suggesting that cancer victims need to wear a prosthesis could take the company into nasty legal territory.
While the woman would be justified in taking an angry tone with the manager, Greene noted that a “collaborative” tone might help ease the tension. She also recommended that if the company has an HR department, it would be better to go straight to them.
And if that doesn’t work? While one could try to bring the manager to his senses by outlining the absurdity of the request, Greene has another recommendation: “Honestly if it gets to this point, talk to a lawyer because it’s past the point of reasoning with them.”