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How to address the nastiest workplace habits

How to address the nastiest workplace habits

Ka-shinkkk. Ka-SSSHINKKK. It's a sound that may echo from your colleague's neighboring work cubicle and make you cringe: the dreaded clink of human nail on metal nail clipper. It's disgusting, distracting and, unfortunately, just one of many nasty habits you may have to face in the workplace.

"Anything that is a repetitive sound, a strong smell or mars the senses can actually be extremely disruptive to the work environment, causing workers to lose focus and, therefore, productivity," says Dr. Kyle Steadham, EdD, SPHR, CPLP, a human resources instructor for the University of Phoenix School of Business. Instead of popping up over the cubicle wall and shouting out your frustrations, Steadham suggests the following approaches to resolve unsavory disputes.

Disgusting sounds

A noisy co-worker

Problem: Your co-worker repeatedly belches, hacks or slurps coffee while talking to you, or while you're on the phone with an important client.

Solution: Instead of telling your coworker to stop it in front of the rest of the team, says Steadham, recommend that the co-worker go to another venue, for example, to suck the Doritos cheese off his fingers. Better yet, gently remind the offending person that the offensive sound may reflect poorly on the company to clients. However, he warns that some distracting sounds may be related to underlying medical conditions, so if in doubt speak with a supervisor to seek advice about how to handle the matter.

Toxic scents

An employee eats fast food at their desk

Problem: The office reeks of sulfuric egg salad, fish curry or burnt popcorn or — worse — strong perfume and cigarette smoke.  

Solution: "Don't go around exaggerating, amplifying, being dramatic or perseverating how intense the smell is," says Steadham, citing a case in which a boss prone to migraines simply avoided an overly perfumed co-worker altogether. Instead, privately ask the offender if you can offer professional feedback. "Most people will say yes," says Steadham. Then, tactfully explain that you have a genuine allergic or physical reaction to the smell and offer solutions, asking the co-worker to give you a warning before bringing strongly scented food to their desk so you can remove yourself from the room.

Grooming (and not grooming) issues

A close-up of nail clippers in use

Problem: This category can include a wide range of offenses, from at-desk nail clipping and flossing to unkempt, stained clothing.

Solution: Confronting your co-worker in an annoyed, angry or accusatory tone, or gossiping behind their back, is disrespectful, Steadham says. Instead, ask the offending co-worker to go to another location, or simply not conduct the action in your presence. If a company dress-code violation exists, take your complaint to the human resources department.

Germ spreading and other sanitary violations

A pile of tissues surround a keyboard

Problem: It's hard to forgive the thoughtless employee who launches an unshielded cough or sneeze in your direction or chooses to leave the bathroom without flushing or washing their hands.

Solution: Steadham says not to expect a co-worker to immediately change an ingrained behavior by sending email admonishments. "I've had a person come in to tell me: 'every time I sneeze or cough, the person next to me sends me an email telling me to cover my nose or mouth,'" says Steadham. "You should confront the matter face to face and in a diplomatic manner to avoid creating dissention in the workplace since that can cost productivity." It's better to subtly display tissues or hand sanitizer, ask the offender to cover their mouth and nose, or post polite reminders in the communal restroom.

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