How to Handle the 7 Most Cringeworthy Coworker Situations

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.













Alison Green

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager'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.

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  • Clarissa R.

    Good advice. I’ve had a co-worker who didn’t shower, but no one ever had the courage to bring it up to her. (Yes, her, a woman.) Turns out she was not only lazy with her appearance, one day she didn’t show up for work and we called her, her roommate said she was sleeping. Ha!

    [Reply]

    Alison Green - Ask a Manager Reply:

    I wish I knew what was in people’s minds when they do things like this.

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  • Maybe

    Your problem: Your assistant’s outfits reveal far more of her than you’re comfortable seeing.The problem: You are too prude and want to control what other people wear.

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    Elisa Reply:

    Or don’t want appearances to hurt your business’s relationship with clients or customers, which it definitely can do. 

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    frozen01 Reply:

    If that’s your reason, then fine, but it’s not the reason given in the example.

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    Susan Hurley Reply:

    So even if the boob or butt cheek is hanging out, no big deal, right?

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    Bob Reply:

    Right!!!

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  • Guest

    Regarding the first issue: My co-workers gave me a “you stink” letter right after the office XMas party last year. It was anonymous and no one has admitted to doing it even now. I was depressed and hurt for days over it, especially since I did not smell at all (and I’m being truthful here). The letter said that the odor problem had been going on for weeks, but I had definitely showered and worn clean clothes the entire time, and none of my friends or family (who are all the kind of people who would say something if it was the case) said anything at all to me. It really destroyed my working relationship with everyone in my area because I now see them as rude, insulting harpies who have nothing better to do than try to control what others do.

    [Reply]

    Alison Green - Ask a Manager Reply:

    This is one of the reasons anonymous letters are such a horrible way to approach someone. Not only does the person then not have a chance to respond or ask clarifying questions, but then they have to suspect every single person around them. It’s very damaging. I’m sorry you had to go through that!

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    My Poor Olfactory Senses Reply:

    I’m curious as to what one does when they both stink AND over-do it on the cologne/perfume as a means to cover it up. I share an office with a co-worker that does this and the most polite way I can describe the odor is a freshly-cleaned-but-just-used-mens’-room.

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  • Me

    I had a boss whose butt crack would show on a daily basis (no underwear band was ever seen).  It was never addressed by my colleagues or myself as a)he was our boss and b)he was male and we were female.

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  • Noone

    The cougher:  My hubby currently has this problem and it was brought up in a one to one workflow meeting as a general point.  They were brilliant and when told that the doctors are still working out why arranged to move him to an office to stop any issues for everyone – him and his colleagues. 

    Its only temporary but it was a lovely way to deal with it and ensure it wouldn’t be an ongoing problem without making him feel bad or cause co-workers feeling awkward.

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  • boni

    and what if my boss having an afear with my worker, she”s thinking she have all the power on the job, since I”m her manager , she act with attitude

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    Susan Hurley Reply:

    An afear as in, the boss is fearful of her?

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    Face Reply:

    What is wrong with you? Did you not understand her or just felt compelled to be a grammar Nazi?

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    frozen01 Reply:

    No, being a “grammar Nazi” would be pointing out how this is a spelling issue, not an issue of grammar ;)

    But seriously, did boni actually mean “affair” or am I reading too much into it?

  • COFFEEHOLIC

    Wonder article I’ve ever seem in my life. This always happen arouse us in the workplace all the time. Sometimes, maybe we’re the most difficult person to deal with others, that we can’t see ourselves clearly. Good work, Alison !

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  • Galyon77

    How about coworkers who think you’re their therapist? I have two different people now. I need to learn how to put my foot down about this.

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    Alison Green - Ask a Manager Reply:

    You’ve got to be assertive about setting boundaries — “I can’t talk now, I’m on deadline,”  ”I can’t talk much lately, I’ve got a lot on working on,” and so forth. Just keep saying that you need to focus on work. If you have to, you can get even more direct — “I have to cut you off now or I’ll never get this done,” etc.

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  • Susan Hurley

    What is wrong with you.

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  • Coughee not cougher

    “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.”

    BULLSHIT!!!!

    Blame the victim…I’m shocked at how often annoying cougher web articles contain a passage like this – blame the victim.

    It’s up to the cougher, not the coughee, to solve their problem. Either fix the medical issue or request special remote seating. Don’t throw the ball in my court.

    What awful advice. I have my own things to worry about but I don’t impose myself on my colleagues.

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    frozen01 Reply:

    Technically, both are victims.
    The cougher is the victim of his or her health, and the “coughee” is the victim of the cougher’s annoying problem.

    But otherwise, agreed. I have never had more problems than I do with my current office, and I’ve worked in several over the years. Chronic coughers, “scream-sneezers”, people who spend all day loudly bitching about everything under the sun, people who seem to be afraid of silence (they fill it by whistling, humming, and clicking their tongue), people who drown themselves in perfume… this place has them all. So many inconsiderate people!!! In the last office I worked at, I went over two years without having a single one of them, and now I have them all!!!!
    I mean, if I get water down the wrong pipe and have a coughing fit, or something like that, I remove myself to the lunchroom until it stops. If I want to have a conversation with someone, I’ll keep my voice low so I’m not disturbing others. Sometimes I think I’m the only one who makes the effort, though :

    I never understood why people hated offices so much until recently.

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    Leah Reply:

    I agree….we have a chronic cougher in our office. He doesn’t smoke. He’s been coughing for over a year now, every day, all day. He coughs so loud I have to get up from my desk and leave for a few minutes to get away. It doesn’t look like he is trying to take care of his coughing issue. Sometimes I wonder if he’s got a disease or some medical issue and putting our health at risk. He doesn’t cover his mouth when he coughs. He coughs with his mouth wide open and there goes all his mucus droplets airborne right into peoples coffee, face, etc. I don’t ever have any drinks or food at my desk because whatever he’s got I sure don’t want to get. I have to wipe my desk, computer, keyboard, mouse, basically everything with antibacterial wipes everyday. I believe he is being very inconsiderate thinking we will all adjust and get use to his loud distracting coughing outbursts because he is to lazy and not want to be inconvenienced by having to go to the doctor.

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    C Nelson Reply:

    If he had anything contagious, in more than a year, you would certainly already have caught it. And if a chronic cougher were to get up and leave the desk every time they had a coughing fit, and that happens constantly throughout the day, they’d be fired in short order for not getting their work done. (And people being what they are, along the way to getting fired, *somebody* would be complaining “why does he take so many breaks?”)

    A person with asthma, GERD, or COPD, all of which are really common causes of chronic coughing, isn’t contagious, can’t help coughing, and can’t stop everything just because they are coughing. Some coughing is also a side effect of medication — some heart medication and blood pressure drugs come to mind. A chronic cough from the meds vs a stroke or heart attack — of those, the cough’s least likely to kill you.

    I do shudder with you on the not covering his mouth, though. That’s just rude.

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  • Leah

    I agree….we have a chronic cougher in our office. He doesn’t smoke. He’s been coughing for over a year now, every day-all day. Could it be TB? He coughs so loud, sometimes I have to get up from my desk and leave for a few minutes just to get away from all that loud coughing. It doesn’t look like he is trying to take care of his coughing issue. He gets up sometimes to go to the mens’ room which is right next door to our office and I can hear him. He sounds like he is trying to hack something out! The walls nearly vibrate and sounds like cannons going off in that restroom. What I don’t understand is, why hasn’t he gone to the doctor to get that taken care of or it seems like he hasn’t since the cough seems to have progressed in a year. Maybe he’s got a disease and putting our health at risk. He doesn’t cover his mouth when he coughs. He coughs with his mouth wide open and there goes hundreds or thousands of microscopic mucus droplets airborne right into peoples coffee, face, etc. I don’t ever have any drinks or food at my desk because whatever he’s got I sure don’t want to get and just the thought of those mucus droplets grosses me out. I have to wipe my desk, computer, keyboard, mouse, basically everything with antibacterial wipes everyday. I believe he is being very inconsiderate and lazy thinking we will all adjust and get use to his loud coughing outbursts that way he doesn’t have to go to the doc? I could be wrong about the doc part but then again he sounds worse compared to a year ago. I have been seriously thinking about going to my managers office to talk with him about this but then again I don’t want him to think I’m the one being inconsiderate who’s whining and complaining. My manager is the type of person who doesn’t like to make waves either so I’m kinda stuck. The chronic cougher seldom misses work. The time he was out on vacation last year, it was so pleasant around here not having constant disruption of bouts of coughing all day long.

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