A Manager’s Guide to Dealing with Offensive Office Etiquette

offensive odor in the elevator
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Published 10/3/2015

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. Offensive language. 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.

See A Manager’s Guide to Creating and Maintaining a Professional Work Environment.

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.

In any of these scenarios, I would strongly 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. 

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