Imagine you’re hard at work on a report that’s due by the end of the day. It’s been a busy week so far, and you’ve got a long way to go, so you need to avoid distractions. Unfortunately, your eyes are watering and your nose is twitching because the guy in the next cube, the one who bikes ten miles to work every day, is . . . aromatic. And not in a pleasant way.
It’s time to either fill your cube to the brim with potpourri or confront Joe Cyclist. Although the latter is the more effective option, this is a sensitive topic you’re broaching. You’ll have to find a way to request odor relief that’s somewhere between a too-subtle “Hmm, what’s that smell?” and a too brutal “Dude, your stench is rank!”
When tackling delicate subjects, setting aside harsh criticism in favor of precise, tactful language can mean the difference between straining a workplace relationship and getting results. Our suggested dialogs for potentially awkward workplace scenarios should help keep your office environment more liveable, and your relationships with your colleagues more comfortable.
Situation #1: Smell me! I work out.
Your colleague is an active person. You get it. Everyone gets it, because being in his vicinity means coping with aromas reminiscent of the inside of your high school gym locker. You’ve tried dropping subtle hints, but they’re not working.
What to say
First, make sure the conversation is private. You might also consider talking at the end of the day, so your colleague doesn’t have to spend hours feeling self-conscious. Assure the person that you like and respect him before tackling the odor issue.
“I think it’s awesome that you exercise every day before work. I admire how motivated you are to stay healthy.”
Don’t make accusations. Be kind but not condescending. Your colleague will likely feel embarrassed no matter what you say, but you can soften the impact by downplaying the severity and assuming they practice good hygiene. Admit the topic is awkward for you, too.
“I’m a little uncomfortable bringing this up, because I’m sure you shower every day, but sometimes I notice a strong odor after you’ve had a particularly strenuous workout. I just want to make you aware so you can decide on the best way to deal with it.”
Situation #2: The familial fundraiser
You cringe when you see one of them coming down the hall with a catalog and an order sheet in hand. These coworkers have kids in school, and every time you turn around they’re participating in one fundraiser or another. You don’t need any more wrapping paper, overpriced chocolates, cheese, sausage, or useless trinkets, thanks.
What to say
You might start by empathizing with the seller’s plight. After all, your colleague probably isn’t any more thrilled about having to solicit than you are about being solicited.
“Wow, looks like it’s that time of year again! Schools and organizations sure pile on the fundraisers.”
Now that you’ve acknowledged that the fundraiser struggle is real, it’s best to get right to the no-thank-you. Don’t browse through the sales materials, don’t ask what little Susie is selling, just politely decline.
“I get swamped with these requests from colleagues, friends, and neighbors. I’ve bought my share of things I didn’t really need in the past, so this year I’ve decided I’m not going to buy from fundraisers anymore. Thanks for understanding.”
Some workplaces have policies against selling anything in the office. If you’re aware of such a policy, feel free to tactfully bring it up.
“I remember seeing an HR policy about fundraising in the office. Do you think you should look into that so you don’t accidentally stir up trouble?”
If you’d really like to do something nice, ask if there’s somewhere you can make a donation without buying anything you don’t need. (Odds are good your colleague won’t know and you’ll be off the hook either way.)
“I don’t really need anything, but I’d like to help out. Is there a way for me to make a cash donation instead of a purchase?”
Situation #3: What’s yours is mine
Your cubicle may be fairly open, and your stuff may be out in the world for all to see, but that doesn’t make it any less your stuff. Not only is it irritating when someone “borrows” your things, it can even make you less productive.
What to say
You may want to shout “Paws off my stuff!” but there’s a more tactful (if less emotionally satisfying) way to handle this—just ask.
“Please don’t take things from my desk without asking. I’m counting on them being here, and it makes it harder for me to get things done when I have to track down my supplies.”
If your colleague brushes off your request or insists it’s no big deal, you may have to push a little harder.
“Just humor me on this. It really bothers me when my things go missing.”
Situation #4: The chatty one
Some people like to talk. A lot. And when they want to shoot the breeze with you throughout the workday, it can put a serious dent in your ability to get things done.
What to say
You have a right to work time free from unnecessary interruptions, so ask for it directly. Just focus the conversation on your needs rather than your colleague’s behavior.
“I have a lot of trouble concentrating sometimes, and interruptions really take me out of the flow when I’m working. Could we save chit-chat for when we’re off the clock?”
When to consult HR
If your problem colleague is also your supervisor, or anyone higher up the hierarchy ladder than you, or if you don’t have a particularly close or amicable working relationship, it’s wise to let someone else do the talking. In fact, in any of these situations, if you don’t feel you can approach the conversation yourself in a way that will resolve conflict rather than create more, ask your boss or the human resources department for help.