Etiquette Questions, Answered: Tricky Conversations
How Can I Address a Coworker's Bad Breath?
Q. How can I tell my coworker that he has bad breath?
Bay Shore, New York
A. There’s a reason this question comes up all the time (much like the halitosis that prompted it). It’s hard to address effectively without doing permanent damage—to your colleague’s ego, your relationship with him, or both. And let’s be honest: If the funky breather is your boss, there’s not much you can do about it without putting your career at risk.
First casually offer your colleague some gum, mints, or breath strips. If he says, “No, thanks,” don’t give up. Make the suggestion the next day and again in a week or so. (But don’t pursue him to the point that he wonders if you’re getting kickbacks from Orbit.) Hopefully your persistence will prod him not just to take the gum but also to rethink his dental habits in general.
If the bad breath persists, you have to make a tough decision. The easier route is to limit your nonessential interactions with him. The harder route—which is an option only if (a) you feel reasonably close to this person or (b) your desks are a short distance apart and you can’t take it anymore—is to dive in headfirst and say something. Yes, I know, this is the third rail of impossibly awkward conversations, but sometimes the direct approach is the best one. Try saying, “Jim, I feel very uncomfortable bringing this up, but I know I would want to be told. So here goes: Your breath doesn’t always smell so great.” Are you cringing reading this? Me too. But if you can remove all guilt and embarrassment from your voice, he might be able to hear the message without going into a shame spiral. And if it’s any consolation, think of the service you’ll be doing him (and the rest of the office) in the long run.