How to Handle Uncomfortable Situations at Work

Whether it's a stinky coworker or an inappropriately dressed assistant, you're guaranteed to run into some awkward circumstances at work from time to time. Here are five of the most uncomfortable, and some advice on how to handle them.

1. Your coworker slacks off constantly, while you're hard at work. The solution: Try to ignore it. Sure, it's possible your boss is letting your colleague get away with this behavior, but it's also possible that you don't realize your boss is addressing it behind the scenes. Either way, the answer for you is the same: If it's not affecting your work, it's not your business. If it does affect your ability to do your job--because you have to take on extra work, or because you're dependent on your coworker to help you 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 forthrightly.

2. 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 a great 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.

3. Your coworker's strong perfume makes your throat close up whenever she's near. The solution: Make the problem about you, not about her. Say something like, "Karen, I love your perfume. But I'm allergic to some perfumes and have some respiratory issues when I'm around strong ones. It's lovely, but do you think you could wear less of it while at work?"

4. Your colleague monopolizes every meeting with long, rambling off-topic rants. The solution: Speak up! Redirect the conversation by saying, "Turning the topic back to where we started, we need to cover A, B, and C before we wrap up." Or when he pauses for breath, say, "I'd love to hear what others think about that." But if you're the one running the meetings where this happens, you should also talk to your coworker privately. Tell him, "I appreciate hearing your input, but I want to make sure that we're hearing from other people as well. Next time, I'd love it if you'd help me encourage others to contribute."

5. Your coworker has terrible body odor. The solution: First of all, if you're not this person's manager, considering bringing this 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 have it.

But if you are the fragrant 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. Be honest, direct, and as nice as possible. Start by mentioning that his work has been good (assuming that it has been) and then say something like, "I want to raise 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."

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Leader's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development. She now teaches other managers how to manage for results.


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