How to Handle the 7 Most Cringeworthy Coworker Situations

Oct 12, 2011
5 Min Read

Whether it’s a smelly coworker or a colleague who sees meetings as a stage for her own monologues, you’re guaranteed to run into some awkward situations at work from time to time. Here are seven of the most awkward, and some tips on handling them.

1. The Smelly Coworker

The problem: Your coworker smells so bad that you have to hold your breath whenever he’s nearby.

The solution: First of all, if you’re not this person’s manager, you may want to bring it to the manager to handle. This is an extremely awkward conversation, and you might as well take it to the person who gets paid to do it.

If you are the odoriferous employee’s manager, think about how you’d want it handled if it were you. You’d probably want someone to bring it to your attention kindly and discreetly, so that’s the way to go here. Be honest, direct, and as kind as possible.  Start by mentioning that his work has been good (assuming that it has been) and then say something like, “I want to discuss something that’s awkward, and I hope I don’t offend you. You’ve had a noticeable body odor lately. It might be a need to wash clothes more frequently or shower more, or it could be a medical problem. This is the kind of thing that people often don’t realize about themselves, so I wanted to bring it to your attention.”

Likely, the employee will be embarrassed. But if he’s combative, explain that he needs to come to address the issue because of the impact on the office. You might also suggest a visit to a doctor to find out if there could be a medical reason behind the odor.

2. The Chronic Cougher

The problem: Every day, all day, your coworker in the next cubicle is coughing. It’s loud, it’s distracting, and it never seems to stop.

The solution: You really can’t ask someone to stop coughing – if she could, she would have stopped already. Making her feel worse about the situation won’t help.

As is so often the case, headphones might be your answer here. But if headphones aren’t feasible, you might consider asking your boss if you can move your work space somewhere further away, so that you can better focus on work.

And remember, as frustrating as it is to have to listen to someone cough all day, it’s probably worse to be the one who can’t stop coughing.

3. The Inappropriate Dresser

The problem: Your assistant’s outfits reveal far more of her than you’re comfortable seeing.

The solution: Couch the discussion in terms of dress code and professional image. Say something like, “Jane, you’re an excellent employee and I feel a bit awkward about bringing this up, but some of your blouses are more revealing than you might realize. You’re very professional otherwise and I don’t want this to impact people’s perceptions of you. I’d like to ask that you raise the neckline on your blouses.”

Have this conversation at the end of the day, so that she doesn't have to spend the rest of the day feeling self-conscious about what she’s wearing.

4. The Perfume Overdoser

The problem: Your coworker loves Chanel #5 and leaves a trail of it wherever she goes. Unfortunately, you’re sensitive to chemicals and find your throat closing up whenever she’s near.

The solution: Make it about you, not about her. Say something like, “Karen, I love your perfume!  But I’m allergic to some perfumes and get some respiratory issues when I’m around strong ones. It really is lovely, but do you think you could wear less of it at work?”

5. The Slacker

The problem: You’re working away and your office mate is playing on Facebook or running a fantasy football league. Every day. It’s obvious to you and your other co-workers that he’s not pulling his weight, but for some reason your boss doesn’t do anything about it.

The solution: Try to ignore it. Sure, it’s possible your boss is letting him get away with it, but it’s also possible your boss is addressing it behind the scenes; you probably wouldn’t know about it if that was the case. Either way, the answer for you is the same: If it’s not affecting your work, it's really not your business. If it does affect your ability to do your job (because you have to take on his work, or you're dependent on his work in order to do your own job), then raise it with your boss from that perspective, keeping the focus on how it affects your productivity.

Of course, if you’re the slacker’s manager, then you need to address it head-on.

6. The Meeting Hogger

The problem: She monopolizes every meeting with long, rambling rants about items that seem to interest no one but herself.

The solution: Speak up!  Redirect the conversation by saying, “Turning the topic back to where we started, I think we want to cover A, B, and C before we wrap up.”  Or when she pauses for breath, say, “I’d love to hear what others think about that.”  And if you’re the one running the meetings where this happens, talk to your coworker privately after the next meeting where it happens. Tell her, “I appreciate hearing your input, but I want to make sure that we’re hearing from other people. Next time, I’d love it if you’d help me encourage others to speak up.”

7. When You’re the Problem

The problem: You thought everything was fine, but now your coworker is telling that your behavior in meetings drives her crazy, or that that star job candidate who turned down the company’s offer last week cited you as the problem.

The solution: Don’t get defensive. Even if you think your colleague is completely off-base, try to listen to the feedback with an open mind, and then thank her for sharing it with you. Unless your colleague has a serious personality disorder, delivering this kind of feedback probably wasn’t easy for her, so try to be gracious. Then, after the sting has had a chance to wear off, give real thought to what she said. Is there any truth to it? If not, why are you being perceived that way? Sometimes difficult feedback can be a service if it helps point you in a better direction.

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