Shooting One’s Self in the Foot

An ad for a Reader’s Digest online article titled “Funny Interviews: Meet the Dumbest Job Applicants” popped up on a web page I was visiting. I couldn’t resist following the link. There were 28 sometimes amazingly dumb things people have done that surely assured they wouldn’t get the job.

Number 22 in particular caught my eye: “Cared about her hygiene too much.” The copy continued: “I once had a person clip her fingernails while we were speaking.” Source:

This particular entry caught my eye because I have received a question about this very subject for this very column not once, but twice. The writers wanted to know what to do if they were passing a colleague’s cubicle, and as they glanced in, they noticed the colleague clipping his toenails. I use this when I teach business etiquette as an egregious example of the inappropriateness of performing personal grooming anywhere but at home or, if absolutely necessary, in the restroom.


So if you happen to see this kind of behavior, what do you do about it? Typically, when addressing a personal issue with someone, I counsel that you do it in private, preferably post faux pas. The danger of addressing it on the spot is having the culprit react negatively, even hostilely. Yet, when it comes to something as outrageously inappropriate as clipping toenails on the job, saying something right away is exactly the right course of action. Some situations can’t wait for the perfect time to be addressed. This is one of them.

So, it’s not a matter of if you should say something, it’s how you go about it. A caustic, “Larry, you are really gross” may only serve to anger Larry. A better approach is to address the situation without characterizing the person. Address the situation first: “Larry, toenails, really?” Then offer an explanation of why: “If our boss or, worse yet, a client was walking by instead of me, it might not go very well for you.” Then offer an alternative: “At least do it in the restroom. Better yet, if it’s not an emergency, take care of your pedicure at home.”


Remember, your goal is to correct the behavior, not chastise or embarrass your colleague. By taking the approach that you care about your colleague and his continued success you have the best possibility of correcting the behavior and maintaining a positive relationship.

Bottom line: Take care of all personal grooming “maintenance” in the privacy of your own home. A minor repair – such as a broken nail or, for guys, the need for a quick shave – belongs in the restroom. And do your colleagues – and your image – one better. Clean up after yourself: No leftover stubble or clippings.

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