MT Special: What Not To Say

The first instalment of author Mark Vernon's ten tips on how to deal with awkward office situations.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Office life places people cheek-by-jowl. Often, the intimacy is good, nurturing personal friendships and professional success. But it can also bring surprises – sometimes hilarious, sometimes grave. Mark Vernon looks at ten difficult moments: what’s at stake, and how should you react?

1. Dress codes

Here’s a conundrum. Why is it that you can tell someone that you loathe the novel they’re reading or would hate to have their cat as a pet, but if you say they look porky in the suit they’re wearing or suggest that their shirt is more suited to the dancefloor than the office, it can cause offence that cuts to the quick?

The difference arises because, as the ancient Greeks used to say: ‘Clothes maketh the man’. We like to think that they don’t, even shouldn’t: the moral truism is that what matters is on the inside, not the surface. Rubbish. The world of the office is quite the opposite. Mark Twain’s quip proves the point: ‘Naked people have little or no influence on society.’

If you don’t believe it, think of the curse of the ‘dress-down Friday’, the day in the week when you can come to work in your ‘usual clothes’. It causes early-morning anxiety in front of a million wardrobes right across the land. Why? Because the clothes you wear by choice are the clothes that reveal something of you. Your work clothes may be sensible and grey but they come with the blessing of anonymity.

So be careful what you say about someone’s tie or top. Appearances run deep.

2. Body odour

No-one likes to confront someone with a personal hygiene problem. The aroma may be unbearable but colleagues will keep passing the buck rather than tackle the source of the effluvium. Which is why Dr Frank Hanna, founder of The Mediation Agency, an organisation that specialises in resolving workplace conflicts, has been called in to deal with precisely this situation.

‘An employee’s heaving body odour was playing havoc with the rest of the staff’s enjoyment of work,’ he explains. When one employee complained to her line manager, the manager passed it onto someone in HR, who left a note for her own manager, who happened to be on leave. By the time he returned it was too late: the originator of the complaint had handed in her resignation, thinking that no-one cared about her well-being. The smelly employee remained blissfully unaware throughout.

‘I gently but firmly told the employee with BO of his problem,’ Hanna reports. ‘He was devastated, naturally, and went home straight away to sort out the issue. But the lady who complained was gratified, and retracted her resignation.’

The moral of the story: even delicate moments at work are best confronted immediately.

We'll be revealing two more top tips every day this week. And for more of the same, check out Mark’s latest book, What Not To Say, which is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

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