Can I comment on my coworker’s outfit without being creepy?

What you should do when you notice your coworker’s great outfit?
What you should do when you notice your coworker’s great outfit?
Image: REUTERS/Charles Platiau
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Q: When is it OK to compliment someone on their clothing or appearance without seeming patronizing or creepy? And in an era when people are much more likely to be openly gay, do different rules apply to them?

Dear Fashion Fan:

Got something nice to say about a coworker’s sartorial choices? Relax, take a deep breath, and fire away. Even in the #HypersensitiveEra, it’s perfectly fine to give someone a compliment about their fashion sense. What matters most is the delivery.

“Hey Joe, nice scarf—love the touch of color!”

“Hi Jane, those shoes are amazing—where did you get them?”

Notice how the emphasis of these comments is on the piece of clothing itself versus the person. As others’ individual personalities and levels of self-confidence may differ, it’s always best to steer away from comments on how others themselves look, and rather focus on how pieces from their wardrobe are interesting and unique.

Of course, it also pays to account for which items of clothing you’re commenting on as well: Expressing your fondness of a specific tie or purse is far more innocuous than doing so for, say, a dress, blouse, swimsuit, or other more intimate fashion choice. That said, let common sense be your guide here, as well as your relationship and prior interactions with the other party. Don’t forget: Not everyone will be as extroverted and comfortable with receiving compliments as others.

Context is also important. Perhaps a passing remark is best delivered in shared company, so as to remove any suspicion that there may be ulterior motives to your flattery. Alternately, maybe comments are best made one-on-one so as not to publicly put an introvert on the spot in front of others. It depends on the particular situation.

The key is to be factual and friendly—nothing more or less. And to keep the moment short and sweet, so as not to dwell on the subject, in case the person you’re speaking with would prefer to keep the conversation moving. Not everyone will be as interested in calling attention to themselves as you might be.

Note that corporate culture should also be taken into account. Some office environments may not be as conducive to casual remarks as others. But as the old saying goes “everyone likes a compliment.” Keeping social norms in mind for your workplace, it’s OK in most circumstances to make a passing aside that’s positive.

Regardless of sexuality, the rules here aren’t hard to comprehend. Be friendly, be polite and be to the point—keep it positive professional with others, and they’ll do the same for you.

Scott Steinberg is the author of The Business Etiquette Bible.

Do you have a workplace etiquette question? Submit to Scott by emailing