HR Frump

Cynical Girl Laurie Ruettiman has occasionally described HR as frumpy, an accusation I thought slightly unkind yet largely irrelevant. But when I surveyed the crowd of primarily female HR people at a recent seminar, she was right.

With a few notable exceptions, we were middle-aged, frumpy and on the chubby side.

Of course, age is just a number and heavy women can exude beauty and style.  In case you don’t know, I am no fashionista; I am a tomboy with hints of thrift-store flower-child. My mantra has always been: comfort, comfort, comfort. Working in a nonprofit, I love that I could probably come to work in pajamas and not raise eyebrows. For much of my career, I wore khakis, a shapeless shirt, and shoes that can’t accurately be described as anything except butt-ugly. In other words, I was an ideal candidate for TLC’s What Not to Wear.

In fact, this show helped me see my attire in a whole new light: as a way to brand and promote myself, market my contribution to my organization, make myself feel good, and also communicate to the people in the room that I anticipate and honor our time together.

Since watching the show, my style evolution has been slow, modest, perhaps even unnoticed by others.  I struggle with a proportionately small waist and curvy thighs, making it almost impossible to find pants that don’t simultaneously gap and bind. Skirts would be a great alternative except I’d have to think ahead and shave my legs. And probably wear uncomfortable shoes. Yes, I’m still a tomboy.

But then I think about those ladies at the HR event and it gives me pause. Forgive me, but I couldn’t escape the thought that, with a few notable exceptions, we looked like a convention of retired librarians.

I wondered,  what image do we project to our employees when we dress like this? To our leadership, customers and constituents? Do we project confidence, boldness, vision, courage, innovation or vibrancy?

In fact, does anyone even notice us at all? Does the way we dress command attention and respect? Or do we just blend into the background where we belong while we quietly alphabetize workers comp forms or whatever else people assume HR does.

What would happen if we dressed as though we worked in advertising rather than in admin or in PR rather than Personnel?

As much as I love comfort, there will be no more HR frump in my office. I’m going to be creative, use color, explore my style and maybe even show my legs – confidently, vibrantly and without apology. Doing so communicates that I am awake. I am confident. I take pride in myself. I am aware it is 2011. I reinvent myself. I try new things. I take risks. I am my own person. I am not afraid.

After all, I am part of the HRevolution – not the HRarchives.

photo by estranelo_edessa

About the Author

Krista Francis

Krista Francis, PHR, is nonprofit HR Director and sometimes Acting Executive Director. She lives outside of Washington DC with her soccer-crazy hubby, two active teenagers, a neurotic cat and the best dog in the world, Rocky, aka Party like a Rockstar. In her loads of free time, she tries to keep her scooter running, tests margaritas for quality control purposes and blogs at aliveHR. You can connect with her on Twitter as @kristafrancis.



I agree with what you say here and I too have all but given up on the attendance to HR functions and as of late lacked my will to dress the part-bringing back my “A” game to this position. Just an FYI I’m stealing your “tests margaritas for quality control purposes ” as I love it ! THANKS !

Krista Francis

@Laurie, you could be right about the distraction factor. A week or two ago I wore a black linen shift dress and heels to an important employee relations meeting. In the hall between sessions, several female staff called me sexy and asked if I had a hot date. So I’m thinking I may need to moderate my new approach and shoot for something somewhere in between the extremes of frumpy and sexy.

Laurie Ruettimann

I’m often conflicted about describing HR as ‘frumpy’ because there. but. for. the. grace. of. god. go. i.

I’m most comfortable in clothes that don’t hug my skin — but my rule of thumb at work has always been to make my clothing as innocuous as possible. If my clothing is the subject of conversation, I am doing it wrong. So I tried to stay current, stay somewhat fashionable, and stay out of the picture so that no one could accuse me of being out-of-touch and frumpy just by looking at me. They’d have to hear my ideas, first. 😉


Great article! I totally agree. It’s important to me to show my individualism at work, as I think it breaks assumptions about my role. I do think that the frump extends beyond HR. I’ve been in offices full of khakis & shapeless shirts. But it’s important for us not to blend into the background. I also defy the standard advice that job interviews require black or grey suits. I still dress appropriately and make sure I’m tailored and put together, but I won’t be a cookie cutter candidate.

Plus, I feel even more comfortable when I wear an outfit that conveys creativity and confidence! I love my fat pants, but I save those for home where I’m not trying to gather consensus on anything aside from what we’re having for dinner.

Krista Francis

@Lyn, I’m glad you enjoyed it.

@Bonnit, after writing this post, I think I’ll be nervous about attending any events where the Women of HR will be! I will be second-guessing my wardrobe choices.


I just read this and went and changed my outfit for the day! Thanks for the heads up!

Lyn Hoyt

I wonder if Vegas SHRM was inspirational to move away from the frump? From what I’ve seen on the tweet stream and descriptions of pool-side hang out, nobody was going to be seen as frumpy in Vegas. Fun post Krista. Thanks.

karen mattonen

This is a GREAT article.. and sadly it is true.. We tend to judge people by their appearance, but I guess we dont’ stop to think what our appearance is screaming out as well..

Thanks for the message

Krista Francis

Ironically, on the day this went live, I wore jeans. But I paired them with a colorful, fitted blouse and heels.

Thanks you all for reading and commenting.


Worth consideration….thanks for being honest…as an HR professional who meets fellow colleagues all over the country…and hear comments about what people say about HR…I think we need all the help we can get to be seen as credible partners in our company’s success.


Excellent post, very well said! Even I have frumpy days sometimes, but for the most part I try to step up my game. I’m a fashion monger outside the office, so I figured why should my style suffer just because I work in a manufacturing plant? On the days I really put forth the effort and put thought into my style I feel confident and ready to take on the world.

Jennifer Payne

Love, love, LOVE this post! Thanks for having the guts to say what I’m sure more than just a few of us have noticed. Fashion sense has nothing to do with age or weight, and everything to do with attitude. And you are probably correct that attitude about self translates to attitude about and at work.

Kimberly Roden

Good for you Krista! This is a great post and can be pretty accurate about the industry. I stopped attending my local SHRM dinners because the room of several hundred folks was about 95% filled with duds. When it becomes painful to start a conversation and keep it going, you quickly find out that watching paint dry is more stimulating. I have to say that I’ve always loved clothes and shoes and consider my wardrobe an investment in me. Plus, I hate shopping so when you buy quality, it lasts. I also believe that our outward appearance has a lot to say about how we feel about ourselves regardless of the work that we do. I don’t care if anyone notices what I wear because I do it for me.


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