In every organisation, at some point, a worker comes along with an intolerable smell, personal space issues, lack of volume control, or one of many problems that negatively affect your work environment and are particularly awkward to confront. While there's really no way to resolve your discomfort, when it's time to tell your coworker the truth there are definitely good ways to get the job done. Here's how.
A friend of mine once worked with a man whose seemingly unresolvable smell was so repugnant that it drove her to quit. She tried to talk to her supervisor to hopefully resolve the issue, but nothing seemed to work. I've worked with people who did nothing but talk every day in the office and seemed to get nothing done, driving my productivity level to near zero, and I rarely had the option of working from home. Others end up with coworkers who often invade their personal space, think it's OK to eat their food without asking, share inappropriate stories or say demeaning things, or bring their addictions to work in, well, unpleasant ways.
Whatever the awkward issue may be, it's important to remember that the person with the problem may not even be aware of it and feel awful that they're making others uncomfortable. This isn't always the case, but when broaching an awkward issue with a coworker it's important to give them the benefit of the doubt and remain sensitive.
Having The Awkward Conversation
Before you speak to your problematic coworker, you should check your employee handbook to see if your company has a specific point of view on proper employee conduct. You may also want to make your immediate manager or supervisor aware of the problem in advance and seek their advice so you don't get yourself into trouble in the event the coworker is upset by the conversation. Once you've covered your bases sufficiently, the hard part begins: actually saying what needs to be said.
I spoke with Ed Godin, Chief People Officer at Brightcove (a former employer of mine), who has broken this sort of bad news to many people over the course of his career. The circumstances varied, but his approach was generally the same. We'll use my friend's smell problem as an example. Here are the steps Godin suggests following:
- Take your coworker aside, privately, and let them know that you (and potentially others) have noticed a bad odour when you're nearby. Let them know that you don't necessarily know where the smell is coming from, but that you've simply noticed it. (Of course, in situations where a coworker is being loud or inappropriate you'll have to be more specific.)
- Put yourself in their shoes by sharing a similar experience. For example, you could share that sometimes when you're at the gym you start to smell less than ideal but you don't really notice because you're in it at the time. That smell, however, is far more potent to others.
- Offer to help. Sometimes your coworker will not be sure how to solve the problem and this opens up the opportunity for a dialogue. Together you can actually look for ways to fix the problem and strengthen your relationship. If you'd rather not put in this extra effort, however, you can talk to your supervisor beforehand and see if they'll be willing to help. That way you can let them handle the problem and the coworker can still get the help he or she needs.
It's important to remember not to be condescending or arrogant. We're all people and, at times, we're unaware of how our behaviour affects others. Most people will never want to want to intentionally hurt other people and will only react negatively to your confrontation because they don't want to admit to the problem. It will be harder for them to react this way if you're sensitive, kind, and understanding.
Getting Help For Your Problematic Coworker
While sometimes your coworker won't be aware of the issue, other times they will and won't know how to fix it. This might be a problem with smell, addiction, general social awkwardness, or anything that's a more deeply-rooted issue than you know. It's important for your coworker to know that there really isn't any problem in the world that someone else hasn't experienced, and there are very few issues encountered at work that are without a solution.
Generally "I can't fix this" means "I don't know how to fix this" or "I've given up on trying." Your goal is to get them motivated to solve the problem and improve themselves, even if you don't want to have a direct hand in that process. If you do, Ed suggests chipping away at the issue over the course of small conversations. Sometimes a support system is all your coworker needs. Alternatively, if you're not interested or unqualified to handle the problem, your company may have some resources available through the HR department.
Sensitive issues can be tough and you may not always be able to solve them yourself, so whenever you're dealing with these situations always try to find other people at work that you're comfortable with and trust. Have a conversation about the problem, avoid poking fun, and concentrate on the best ways to actually solve the issue. Most everyone, including yourself, will be confronted about an issue sometime in their life. Be sensitive, treat your problem coworker like you'd want to be treated even if they often cause you grief, and you have a far better chance of solving the problem.
A very special thanks go out to Ed Godin for his indispensable help with this post.