Q: We have a new office arrangement in which I have been assigned to share a small office with a co-worker. This person has vile breath that spreads through the office the minute they talk or even breathe heavily. The odor makes me sick to my stomach to the point where I could vomit. I cannot work in these conditions if the problem isn’t corrected. What can I do immediately and for the long term?
A: Honesty is required, but honesty also requires the ability to deliver the message kindly and with empathy. It’s good to care about how your words affect others but not at the expense of being honest. This will be great practice to learn how to be honest without being crude, rude or hurtful.
Honesty is an important part of building the foundation for developing one’s character in childhood. Unfortunately, many parents are either young and immature or so overwhelmed with the stress of working to support their families that they don’t know how or forget to teach core values to their young children. Honesty, kindness, empathy and generosity cannot be left up to the schools but should be demonstrated by parenting through example. All one has to do is to read the news to see why honest communication baffles many. But learning how to combine honesty with clear and kind communication is a valuable workplace and personal skill.
Being honest is how a person gets to know who that other person is — likes, dislikes, interests, attitudes, habits and more. Differences in each of these areas enable a person to find others to like and to love. When you work closely with a co-worker, honesty will make or break your work relationship. But honesty is not always simple and easy. In delicate situations, it must be delivered with empathy and kindness.
The five senses — sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste — develop differently in individuals. Some people have a strong sensitivity to odors. It is not a subject to take lightly, so don’t be overly dramatic or emotional when you discuss the problem with your boss; yes, you will have to first talk to your boss about the problem you have with sharing the office with this co-worker.
Explain your sensitivity to odors of all kinds and that you cannot be in proximity to this new officemate until the problem is corrected. Your boss is likely aware of this person’s bad breath but has avoided the issue, as most would when in a quandary of how to approach a delicate subject politely. Whether an odor is caused by coffee, garlic breath or hygiene habits, you are not the first or the last person who will have to experience this.
Bad breath can result from many issues: Eating foods with a strong odor, such as garlic, onions or strong seasonings; smoking, poor daily dental hygiene (brushing teeth and flossing), bacteria and plaque buildup in the mouth due to a lack of professional dental cleanings, dentures or dental appliances, digestive issues, seasonal allergies or postnasal drip, respiratory tract infections such as bronchitis, chronic sinus or lung infections, diabetes and more.
Approaching the subject may be daunting for any boss, even ones who are typically direct and approachable. The boss may have to discuss the issue with the Human Resources Department as there could be myriad problems, but something must be done if this person is expected to work closely with others.
After explaining the problem, ask for a temporary move out of the shared space until the issue is resolved. If your boss asks for you to deal with your co-worker’s problem, ask for advice from HR. Since there are many causes for bad breath, a resolution might be to require the person to make a dental or doctor’s appointment, which is best coming from management. HR should agree to handle it, but if your company doesn’t have a formal HR department, ask to meet with the person outside for the sake of privacy.
Explain your sensitivity to odors and ask if the person is aware of this problem. It’s quite likely someone has spoken to him/her in the past and nothing was done about it. You could explain your hygiene habits and listen to his/her response. If you meet with resistance, turn it over to the boss, who would be foolish not to handle it. No one enjoys such a confrontation but conforming to certain cleanliness routines is part of being accepted in society.
Email [email protected] with all workplace experiences and questions. For more information, visit www.lindseyparkernovak.com and for past columns, see www.creators.com/read/At-Work-Lindsey-Novak.