Ask MCG: What to do when you have a co-worker with disgusting habits

Dear Ms. Career Girl,

 I have a colleague that flosses his teeth and plucks his nose hairs right in front of me. Is this common in the workplace? There are at least 2 people in the office who clip their nails at work and it’s not only gross, but distracting. If these people are key decision makers, why are they spending time at work on personal hygiene when they’re supposed to be running the business? It would be one thing to do that in your own office, but in a shared space?


Unfortunately, there are many “office etiquette crimes” being committed every day in workplaces all over the country.  Inappropriate dress, nail clipping, and talking for hours on the phone with a friend are just some of the offenses that employees may have to deal with at one point or another.

But let’s make it clear: any non-work related behavior in the workplace is never acceptable.  Flossing teeth and plucking nose hairs are not only unacceptable, they’re also disgusting.  There isn’t anything that could justify that behavior.  In my opinion, even doing it in your own office behind closed doors is not acceptable, whether you’re an intern or the CEO.  Personal grooming is something that must be dealt with at home, in private.

How do you deal with inappropriate behavior at work? The best thing to do is to take action immediately.  By letting it go or ignoring it, you are reinforcing the behavior, silently telling your coworker that it’s okay to floss his teeth or pluck his nose hairs.  You don’t want to do that.  Take action immediately by being direct and confront your co-worker.

Find a time that you are both free and go to a private place to talk about the issue.  While being respectful, make sure to be firm and assertive to convey the fact that you are serious about the problem.  Keep your emotions in control and stay calm.  Focus on “I” and “me” oriented sentences, like: “It really bothers me when you floss your teeth and pluck your nose hairs in the office.”  This will keep your coworker from thinking that you are attacking or insulting them.

While having this conversation with your coworker, suggest something that could fix the situation.  For example, you could say: “I feel uncomfortable when you floss your teeth and pluck your nose hairs in the office.  While I understand that these are essential to personal hygiene, maybe you could do this in the bathroom instead? I would really appreciate that.”  Focus on the solution instead of the problem.

If you have made several requests and your coworker still ignores you, contact your supervisor or HR for additional guidance.  Stick to your guns and don’t let it slide unless you want the behavior to continue.

Many people may not opt to be direct to their coworkers because they are afraid of coming off as “uptight”.  Remember that you have the right to be comfortable in your own workplace.  Would you rather risk being seen as “uptight” to your offending coworker but feel comfortable at work, or be not seen as “uptight” to your offending coworker but feel uncomfortable at work?  If a coworker’s actions make YOU feel uncomfortable, chances are your other coworkers feel the same way.

Good luck, Ashley!

Have you ever experienced inappropriate behavior from a coworker at work? How did you handle it?

Vivian Ta

Vivian is a running fanatic and founder of The Daily Runner, a website dedicated to inspire people all over the world to start running. Currently pursuing her Ph.d in Experimental Psychology at the University of Texas at Arlington, Vivian is also a certified fitness instructor. Her fitness and wellness column is featured on MCG every other Wednesday. Connect with Vivian on Twitter @dailyrunnerpage and on Facebook Facebook.

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