Office Etiquette: Tread Lightly Lest Thy Co-workers Smite Thee

Personal hygiene issues and personal behavior in the workplace can be a problem. From bad breath, too much perfume or people who don’t like to take a shower on a regular basis, these issues range from annoying to debilitating for those exposed to them. Here is the first part of an article on dealing with these issues.

On April 27, published an article from the Washington Post entitled “Managing quirky behavior in the workplace.”  FedSmith publisher/editor Ralph Smith was kind enough to bring it to my attention and to let me know that he would be referencing my previous articles on dress codes, tattoos and body piercings. (See, for example, Dress Codes, Tattoos, and Federal Employees: A Brave New World and Is a Dress Code An Anachronism or Useful Tool in Projecting an Agency’s Image?)

The Washington Post’s article observed, accurately, I believe, that “Most people know how to behave in the workplace, but there are always outliers who are aggressive or quirky, or who have never figured out the acceptable social norms.”

The article began with a “story of a federal employee who would burp in the face of a colleague or manager when given a task he didn’t want to perform. Even though the employee’s job performance was fully satisfactory, people complained about this behavior and saw it as mocking and a sign of deliberate disrespect.”

The article went on to opine that “uncomfortable issues arise in offices across the country every day,” giving as another example “body odor in the workplace.”

I addressed such personal hygiene issues in Dress Codes, Tattoos, and Federal Employees: A Brave New World (June 14, 2007), offering the opinion that a “supervisor…has a vested interest in ensuring that personal hygiene issues due not become a problem for the unit.”

As a long-time supervisor and even longer-time human resources (HR) advisor, I always found personal hygiene issues to be difficult to talk about with the alleged offender because the issue was so personal.

But I think the issue is significantly larger than just personal hygiene, so I am going to address in this article a variety of behaviors that would fall under the general heading of “office etiquette.” I also believe that those of us who have the good fortune of closing a door behind us may not fully comprehend how much more important office etiquette is to our co-workers whose office is a cubicle. If you work in a cubicle environment, and I think that is the case for the overwhelming majority of Federal workers, you are far more exposed to the elements, for better or worse.

It is my belief that agency managers and supervisors can best deal with these matters by implementing a two-pronged strategy. The first prong would be to make sure that employees know what the agency’s expectations are with regard to office etiquette. I think that a particularly good means of educating new employees on the agency’s “standards” in that sensitive area is the new employee orientation. For those agencies which don’t bring groups of new employees together for an orientation to the agency, the individual supervisor should convey this information to the new employee and entertain questions. Even where new employee orientations are conducted in groups, it is a good idea for the employee’s supervisor to reinforce the information about agency expectations.

Another reason for attempting to educate employees early and often as to agency expectations regarding office etiquette is that some people are simply not very self-aware and may not realize that whatever they are doing is offending their co-workers.

I learned a valuable lesson about office etiquette a long time ago, the hard way, as usual. I was working at a McDonald’s in Colorado Springs. Most of us, except the managers, were kids – I was probably 17 – and we learned to do all of the different jobs in the restaurant. I particularly enjoyed blanching the potatoes for French fries, a process wherein we soaked the potatoes in cold water in a large sink. I was indifferent to the work itself, but the task gave me access to cold water and towels. I would roll up the towels, soak them in the water, and aim them, during non-busy times, at the paper hats of my colleagues. It was very entertaining for me, and the more practice I got, the more accurate I became. Unfortunately, I was slow to notice that my co-workers had grown weary of having their hats knocked off by flying wet towels.

One day, I found myself surrounded by victims, several of whom held my arms behind my back while others took the sprayer from my sink and soaked me up, down and sideways. They then escorted me, kicking and screaming, to the walk-in freezer. They pushed me into the freezer and shut the door behind me, sliding a large screwdriver through the door handle to prevent my escape. By the time a colleague decided to set me free, my lips were blue and I was shivering uncontrollably. Lesson learned.

In my “Dress Codes…” article, I quoted office etiquette tips from Regina M. Robo, News Editor, Hobsons: I repeat them here, adding my comments:

·     Cleanliness – Practices vary from culture to culture, but in U.S. business it’s customary to arrive at work having showered and shampooed within the previous 24 hours.

My comment: This isn’t a problem for most employees, but I have worked with a few people in my career who I wasn’t sure had showered and shampooed within the previous 24 days.

  • Groomed nails – Fingernails should be kept clean, short or moderate in length – and out of your mouth.

My comment: If I can keep my fingernails trimmed -– they grow so fast that I could match those of the latter day Howard Hughes in a matter of weeks — then practically anyone can do it. However, using a nail clipper in your cubicle isn’t particularly advisable, since a clipping or two could hop the partition and land in your neighbor’s caffe mocha.

  • Cheerful breath – Food-related bad breath can be managed by keeping a toothbrush at work for those after-lunch meetings. Chronic bad breath is a treatable medical condition; consult your doctor if you think it’s you.

My comment: If you speak to someone shortly after lunch, and he/she immediately beats a hasty retreat or passes out cold, you might consider the advice from to avoid such foods as garlic and onions.

  • Understated scent – Light, discreet perfumes and colognes are a form of personal expression and pride; but overpowering scents can detract from your more important messages about the work itself.

My comment:  My olfactory sense is so weak that I sometimes miss the fact that there is a skunk under the deck I am standing on, but even I have had to hold my breath in an elevator when someone’s aftershave, cologne or perfume has been overpowering. Sometimes the offender is no longer even on the elevator when you enter it, but he/she has left a reminder that will assault your nostrils all the way up to the 39th floor.

Will “education” solve the whole problem? Probably not.

One possible explanation is that group or individual new employee orientations can’t reasonably be expected to describe every type of individual behavior which could offend others in the workplace. And in addition to employees who don’t know they are being offensive, there are a few who will deliberately offend co-workers and/or supervisors, like the federal employee in the Washington Post article who would burp in the face of a colleague or manager when given a task he didn’t want to perform.

The second prong of the office etiquette strategy is taking prompt and effective corrective action when office etiquette is violated. If I were the burper’s supervisor, I would call him into my office, identify the offending behavior, explain its effect on co-workers and supervisors, and ask the employee for his side of the story. If the employee blamed a medical problem, I would ask for documentation. Otherwise, I would let the employee know that the next time a burping incident took place, I would be taking disciplinary action.

The employer’s documented efforts to educate employees on standards of office etiquette can provide the necessary underpinning when a supervisor has to speak to an employee about something he/she is doing, or not doing, which is proving problematic in the workplace.

What often happens in these situations, in my experience, is that an employee or a group of employees will complain to a supervisor about some aspect of behavior or personal hygiene. If you are the supervisor and call the perceived offender in for a counseling session, the first question out of that employee’s mouth is likely to be: “Who said that about me?” In such a situation, or in any situation which could lead to discipline, I learned to observe the offending behavior for myself whenever possible. That way, I didn’t have to identify the complaining employee(s), which could easily cause a rift between employees, and I could speak from my own personal assessment of the situation.

One thing worth mentioning here is that if the supervisor winds up taking some form of disciplinary action where the employee has a right to review the evidence file, that supervisor will generally want to acquire signed statements from any witnesses, and those statements have to be made available to the employee, in that he/she would have the right to confront his/her accusers.

I’ll wrap up this article by making brief reference to agency dress codes, or lack thereof, and related issues. As I noted in the “Dress Codes” article, some Federal agencies, or components thereof, have dress codes and others do not. If an agency has a dress code — and the number of agencies which do has been steadily diminishing — an individual supervisor can refer to that policy.

Even in the absence of a dress code, I believe that a supervisor always has the right –- and the responsibility –- to determine appropriate dress for the workplace. There are many factors which may come into play in determining how employees in a particular organization should dress, including the nature of the work, whether and to what extent there is contact with the public, how others typically dress at meetings or conferences that employees of a work unit attend, the climate, and local customs.

I would recommend covering the issue of appropriate dress, too, in a group or individual new employee orientation. Supervisors should recognize that, like personal hygiene, issues involving how employees dress for work are often very sensitive. They should also understand that an employee can take issue with a supervisor’s decision as to appropriate dress, i.e., via a grievance or discrimination complaint. The key is for the supervisor to be able to articulate one or more valid, non-discriminatory business reasons for requiring an employee to dress in a certain manner, or within certain parameters.

One strategy which is often effective is to identify mentors for new employees. I have found that in agencies which have effective mentoring programs, new employees can often learn vital information about an agency’s “culture” early in their careers, and mentors can provide suggestions, based on their experience, rather than directions, as a supervisor might do. For example, in an agency without a dress code, a mentor might point out that employees who are successful in the organization generally dress in a particular manner. On the other side of that coin, a mentor might point out that there are career advancement risks in wearing potentially distracting clothing such as low-cut blouses or muscle shirts. And while statistics tell me that this might not be the case for many more years, obvious tattoos and body piercings are probably not yet accepted practices in Federal agencies as a whole.

In the second part of this article, I’ll talk about “cube etiquette,” in that employees whose work environment is a cubicle, or, even (shudder!), open space, do not have the opportunity to close the door on offensive behavior and are often in the middle of office “traffic patterns,” including phone calls, visitors, and conversations between/among co-workers.

About the Author

Steve Oppermann completed his Federal career on March 31, 1997, after more than 26 years of service, virtually all in human resources management. He served as Regional Director of Personnel for GSA and advised and represented management in six agencies during his federal career. Steve passed away after a battle with cancer on December 22, 2013.