"What is the best way to confront a co-worker who commonly discusses her bodily functions out loud and in detail? Our office is small, and she makes no attempt to be discreet. We really don't want to hear about her bathroom habits or her other inappropriate issues. Is this just a lack of manners or complete ignorance on her part? Help!"
L. M., Clearfield, PA
Almost assuredly, it’s ignorance. Because if it’s not, it implies she is intentionally trying to gross out you and your co-workers. If that’s the case, talking to her about the issue won’t help; it will only reinforce her behavior because she’ll see it is having the desired effect. A manager will have to step in and lay down the law. Her continued rude behavior could create an unpleasant work environment and negative morale problems, which will lead to lower productivity and profits.
Ignorance can be addressed—first by co-worker(s) and then, if necessary, by a manager. It could be as simple as responding to her right when she says something vulgar, “Jane, that is really too much information. Instead, I’d enjoy hearing more about your vacation.” Keep a light or neutral tone, or even try a little humor. The idea is to clue her in and then move on. It may take a couple of “TMI” notices to raise Jane’s awareness that certain topics are off limits.
Alternatively, a colleague with whom Jane is friendly could try having a private, one-on-one talk with her. That private conversation can focus on the issue and not on embarrassing Jane in front of her other coworkers. “Jane, I want to bring up an issue that you may not be aware of. I’m speaking to you as your friend, and I hope, if the roles were reversed, that you’d do the same for me. Sometimes when we’re all talking, you bring up information that really is better kept private.” A couple of specific examples could help illustrate what the colleague is talking about. And then the colleague could conclude with, “I’d be more comfortable, and I’m sure some of the other people at work would be, too, if you kept such information private. Is that okay with you?” It is important to ask the concluding question to elicit a response from Jane. If she agrees, great; if not, then it is likely time to bring the issue to your manager for her to handle.
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Patricia Hunt Sinacole is president of First Beacon Group LLC, a human resources consulting firm in Hopkinton. She works with clients across many industries including technology, biotech and medical devices, financial services, and healthcare, and has over 20 years of human resources experience.
Elaine Varelas is managing partner at Keystone Partners, a career management firm in Boston and serves on the board of Career Partners International.
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