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The Boston Globe

Business

Etiquette at Work

Personal grooming belongs at home, not the office

An ad for a Reader’s Digest online article titled “Funny Interviews: Meet the Dumbest Job Applicants” popped up on the webpage. I couldn’t resist following the link. There were 28 amazingly dumb things people did to assure they wouldn’t get the job.

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

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This entry caught my attention because I received a question about this subject for this column not once, but twice. The writers wanted to know what to do if they were passing a colleague’s cubicle and noticed him clipping his toenails. I use this 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, I counsel doing 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 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 whether you should say something, but how you go about it. A caustic, “Larry, you are really gross” may only serve to anger Larry. A better approach: “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, not chastise or embarrass. Take the approach that shows you care about your colleague and his continued success. You’ll have the best chance of correcting the behavior and maintaining a positive relationship.

Bottom line: Take care of personal grooming 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.

E-mail questions about business etiquette to etiquetteatwork@emilypost.com.

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