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Ask Carmen Courtesy, Your Workplace Etiquette Expert June 2010

Do you deal with anger, frustration, embarrassment, harassment or conflict in the workplace? Carmen Courtesy addresses all of these issues. Carmen’s goal is to promote interpers…

Dear Carmen Courtesy,
I am the office manager for a surgical practice. I’m currently in the process of hiring a new receptionist to work at our front desk. I have met with a candidate that I feel would be a very good worker and fit in well in our small office. The only problem: She doesn’t have a polished look. Do you think I should approach her about how I would like employees to present themselves to patients and the general public?
Present Tense

Dear Tense:
Go ahead, tell her what to wear. With all the rants we hear about coworkers showing up in cutoffs, halter tops and flip-flops, it’s refreshing to hear from someone who is concerned enough about office presentation to want to raise the issue before the job offer is made.
I certainly don’t think you should hesitate in discussing appropriate attire, attitude and personal presentation skills with any candidate you’re considering for such a visible position. This receptionist will be the first person your patients and potential patients will see, so it’s entirely acceptable to discuss your expectations regarding appearance. In fact, I had a friend once who was up for a sales job at a very high-end department store. She almost didn’t get the job until the sales manager finally got up the courage to tell her she ought to wear face powder because her complexion was shiny. Fortunately, the manager made the suggestion, my friend aced her second interview and today she’s one of the top sellers in the ladies ready-to-wear department.
Perhaps this whole question says a little bit about the importance of personality over appearance. Present Tense you think this candidate would be ideal for the job, expect for the lack of a polished image. With a few guided tips about dressing and presentation you may be able to transform this potential hire into the perfect receptionist and maybe, just maybe, provide a path for this person’s future professional success.
Sincerely yours,
Carmen Courtesy
Dear Carmen Courtesy:
How do you politely approach a coworker who has terrible body odor or other personal hygiene issues?
Olfactively Offended
Dear Offended:
Before we start handing out the clothespins, we need to think about some possible explanations. I don’t know if this particular problem with your coworker is seasonal, such as a summertime problem. So, be sure to give your coworker some slack when the temperatures soar to 107. We can’t all be fresh as a daisy every day, all day. The same is true if one works in a warehouse or factory environment; in that case, hygiene needs to be measured on a curve.
It’s also true that a new diet, teeth trouble, or a cigarette or coffee addiction could be contributing to the problem. A few well-timed breath mints might help the situation. (An added word of advice: Never turn down a mint if you’re offered one.)
If the problem is truly unbearable and distracting, here are a few approaches from our southern expert on etiquette, Ms. Ann Chadwell Humphries. Ms. Humphries is president of ETICON, Inc., Columbus, South Carolina, a 15-year-old etiquette consulting firm, www.eticon.com or www.proudtobepolite.com.
What I would politely call “the cowardly approach” would be to anonymously leave deodorant or mouthwash on this coworker’s desk and assume he or she will sniff out the heavy-handed hint. But I don’t recommend that tack. While it’s certainly an easy way out, it’s likely to be hurtful to the scent-challenged coworker who may reasonably assume that everyone in the office is talking about the problem behind his or her back.
Only slightly more brave is the “no-blame game.” Urge your supervisor to review the company policy on grooming during a staff meeting, and perhaps she can subtly suggest there is a laxity in hygiene, department-wide, that everyone needs to resolve. Unfortunately, subtlety often doesn’t work with someone who has a true odor issue.
For the truly mannered approach, “Being direct, diplomatic and specific is the best way,” Ms. Humphries recently advised. “You can say, ‘Carmen, I’ve noticed over the last three days that there seems to be an odor problem. I just wanted you to know before it became a bigger issue in the office.'”
Humphries noted that this problem also presents itself in the reverse – people who wear too much cologne. The solution is the same.
You want to tell someone privately, but nojudgmentally, using the same confidential tone you would use to tell them they have spinach in their teeth or toilet paper on their shoe.
Before that conversation, however, it might be a good idea to check discreetly with a third co-worker to make sure it’s not just you who smells something strange. Also, keep in mind that cultural issues might be coming into play that you need to be extremely sensitive to.
If you just can’t do it yourself, convince a few coworkers to come with you to talk to the boss, suggested Humphries. “It’s better if it’s a group and not one single complainer.” Let the coworker know it’s truly a work distraction and action is necessary. Still, the boss should approach the problem in the same direct, diplomatic and private fashion.
Sincerely yours,
Carmen Courtesy
Dear Carmen Courtesy:
I have a coworker who is a snoop. Nothing is sacred. I have left my desk for a few minutes to get coffee, only to find things moved when I get back to my desk. This person will read documents on someone’s desk, then share this private information with others. This person also has no qualms about reading information on my computer screen and making comments and/or suggestions—even when it is my e-mail!
Privately Peeved
Dear Peeved:
It sounds like you have a triple threat there––this coworker’s not just a snoop, but a gossip and a spy, too. And trust me, what he or she are doing is just plain wrong. Unfortunately, this kind of person is not unusual in corporate America.
The problem, says Stacy Brice, professional business coach, president and chief visionary officer of Assist U, a virtual administrative assistance organization, is that the corporate culture in some organizations allows this to happen. They don’t have a privacy policy in place, or even if they do, they expect the employees to police themselves. Some companies even do this themselves, by explicitly stating that they monitor employees’ e-mails, Internet usage and phone calls, which can subtly send the message that snooping is OK.
Few want to confront a coworker about wrongdoing, but that is exactly what is necessary in this case. You need to take a deep breath and approach this co-worker directly, Brice suggests.
State gently but strongly that you know the person has snooped at your desk. (Be sure you do know who it was.) The person will likely deny it, and you may have to show proof. Or you can say, “I’ll apologize if I’m wrong, but I want to make it clear that it is not OK for anyone to go through the items on my desk.”
If the message still doesn’t get through, it’s time to go to your supervisor about this problem. And the supervisor should handle it, because invasion of privacy can be grounds for a hostile and unsafe workplace complaint.
Sincerely yours,
Carmen Courtesy

Linn Back is an affiliate owner at Westaff, which has offices in Lansing, Owosso and Grand Rapids. Westaff provides temporary and temporary-to-permanent staffing, professional permanent placement, behavioral and skills employment testing, and employment and background verification








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