How to Address Sticky Workplace Office Etiquette Issues

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

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
. 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
. 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
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.