Monday, September 17, 2018

How to Address Sticky Workplace Office Etiquette Issues


A Pennsylvania man was allegedly fired for farting too much at work. Seriously. Apparently he had some medical issues, and he’s now suing his former employer.

Given that I write advice for managers, my immediate reaction to this story was to put myself in the manager’s shoes who had to deal with this sensitive breach of office etiquette. How would you like to have that conversation?

According to the lawsuit, it went something like this: "We cannot run an office and have visitors with the odor in the office," and "We are having complaints from people who have problems with the odors." 

Unfortunately, as a manager, chances are, at some point in your career, you will have to deal with some kind of office etiquette issue. While it may not be excessive farting, it may be one of these:

1. Swearing. No, I’m not talking about politically incorrect language, although that seems to be making the headlines too these days. I’m talking about dropping “F-bombs” at work. Some would say that swearing at work depends on the culture. I happen to disagree. In my opinion, the use of the F word has no place in any work environment. A manager’s use of language sets a good or bad example, and overlooking it is the same as condoning it. Just be aware that the swearing may be a medical condition.

2. Too much aftershave or perfume. This one’s pretty common – it’s “that guy” who shows up for work in the morning after dousing himself with his favorite man-spray. This one’s a little more subjective, as some people are more sensitive to strong smells than others. I would tend to overlook it and chalk it up as more of a “pet peeve” (unless another employee is allergic to such odors). After all, the smell does eventually dissipate, and it’s not as bad as …….

3. Body odor and bad breadth. This one depends on type of work environment (outdoors vs. indoors), type of work (physical labor vs. office work) and proximity to co-workers and customers. And again, odor is subjective. While probably more than a pet peeve but perhaps not as serious as excessive farting, it’s something that a manager could at least discuss with the employee. The employee may not even know and again, it could be a medical condition.

4. Talking too loud. We had one of these at a former company I worked at. He was great at his job and a super nice guy. However, employees didn’t want to sit next to him because he was so loud on the phone. While there are some workarounds to this kind of thing, the manager may need to have a discussion about use of “indoor vs. outdoor” voice. It becomes even more of an issue if the loud phone calls are not even work related, i.e., arguing with a spouse or having an argument with the cable company.

5. Dress code violations. Some employees just don’t seem to know the difference between dressing for work and dressing for a night out clubbing. If just an individual employee, the issue can be handled with a little coaching on how to dress appropriately at work. Or, you may have to establish a formal dress code policy.

For any of these sceneries, you first need to decide if the issue is just a “pet peeve” or a legitimate performance issue. See Are You Managing or Just Nagging? to learn more.

Here are two acid test questions:

1. Can I make a clear connection between the behavior (or lack of) and the performance output?

2. If the behavior doesn’t stop (or start), are you willing to take progressive disciplinary action, up to and including termination?

If your answer is “yes” to both, then it’s a performance issue, and needs to be dealt with. See How to Discuss an Employee Performance Problem to learn how.

In any of these scenarios, I would suggest that the manager consults with their human resources representative. They all contain potential landmines (ADA, harassment, discrimination, etc.), so it’s better to be cautious and smart instead of making a mistake that gets you and your company in legal hot water.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

What if it's the manager that has some of these issues? My previous manager would call me names, talk in front of us about her sex life, demand our attention at all times (even when we were with patients). She would gossip about nurses and gang up on us if we disagreed with her on anything. She would fire people just because. It's great that managers are there but not if they are not actually leading. Why do companies keep these managers?