Ask Rex Huppke: I Just Work Here
August 1, 2011
Did anyone consider just painting the debt ceiling the same color as the walls? It really would make the whole room look bigger.
That's my contribution to the debate that has gripped our nation.
Now, let's get to your questions.
Q: An attorney at work really smells bad, and it makes me physically ill. I've never had this issue before. Please help!
— Teri in Michigan, via email
A: There's no good way to tell someone they smell bad or have bad breath or should not be wearing jean shorts. (I just tossed that last one in because, really, enough with the jean shorts.)
Perhaps the trickiest thing about smells is that they're subjective — one person's "ewww" might be another's normal.
To explore this, I contacted Jim Drobnick, whom I'll call a "smellologist," although he's actually editor of the book "The Smell Culture Reader" and an associate professor at the Ontario College of Art & Design.
"There's no one universally disliked smell," Drobnick said. "What smells bad in one culture may not be considered at all bad in another. Even the military has tried to conceive of a stench bomb that would universally disrupt people, but they couldn't find a single smell that worked in all cultures."
So when a co-worker has an odor that's outside the norm, colleagues need to address the situation with a heavy dose of cultural sensitivity.
"A bad smell may be part of cultural factors such as diet," Drobnick said. "When a cuisine contains a lot of coriander, that can cause changes in people's odors. It could also be due to medical conditions — different kinds of diseases can bring about different odors from the body."
Peter Gillespie, an attorney with Fisher & Phillips in Chicago and an expert on workplace discrimination, noted: "Somebody who's coming in to work who may have issues with body odor and cleanliness, the problem might be deeper than simply whether or not they took a shower that morning. It can often be a sign of depression or other psychological issues. It could be that what co-workers are smelling is the manifestation of some other medical issue."
In situations like that, particularly when an employee's physical appearance or overall cleanliness seems to have suddenly changed, Gillespie said a boss or manager might want to let the employee know about the Family and Medical Leave Act, which can allow a person to take a leave for medical reasons with no risk of job loss.
That might provide that person with a hint and a sense of support from the workplace.
But if a person's smell is unrelated to mental or physical health issues, employers must tread carefully and make sure the employee in question isn't being harassed.
"The employer, for example, does have an obligation to reasonably accommodate someone's religious beliefs under federal law," Gillespie said. "That may require that the employer tell employees that this is a diverse workplace and they shouldn't be complaining about or hassling the employee in question."
My advice if you're faced with a workplace olfactory dilemma of this nature: Stand up, take a deep breath (or don't) and then bravely pass the buck to your supervisor.
Seriously, no good is going to come from talking to a co-worker about how they smell, unless, perhaps, you're close friends. And even then, I'd leave it to the people paid to handle these kinds of delicate situations.
Q: I'm 53 years old. The long first career is dead. A new second career is possible. I'm retraining in a field where there could be some jobs available. But what if they don't want an entry-level person over 50? Many say our middle-age retraining stories are inspiring, but when it comes to getting hired, not so much.
— Lou in Cincinnati, via email
A: Lou, I'm not a fan of sunny aphorisms or of telling people muddling through a crummy job market that everything's going to be OK. The fact is, you have logical reasons to be concerned.
But — and here's where the happy music starts playing — I do honestly believe that people looking for jobs have to remember that they don't represent a demographic, they represent only themselves. So if statistics say it's harder for people 50 and older to find jobs, that doesn't mean it's going to be harder for you.
You, Lou, are not all people over 50.
Before I say something that winds up as a peppy bumper sticker on a Prius, let me segue to an expert on matters of workplace behavior and careers. Karlin Sloan is the author of "UNFEAR: Facing Change in an Era of Uncertainty" and CEO of Karlin Sloan & Co. in Chicago.
"The more you pay attention to statistics, the more you have to really refute the idea that you are one," Sloan said. "I hear the same questions from college grads that I hear from people in their 50s and 60s now. 'How can I get a job in this market?' You have to stop telling yourself the story that you can't get hired."
I know, I know … it's easy for a person with a job to say; "Don't feel defeated." But Sloan's point is that if you can't walk into an interview with some honest confidence and enthusiasm, you're probably not going to get anywhere.
Sloan warned against three fear-based behaviors that can rise up during any job search: fight, flight and freeze. Fight means you turn irritable, perhaps becoming depressed or grouchy with family members. Flight means you just want to run away and hide or you suffer a complete loss of confidence. Freeze means you simply stop — you surrender.
She said to be vigilant that you're not falling into any of those traps. You can exercise, diet, do yoga, whatever — just maintain the mental toughness that will keep you going.
When I was a job-searching senior in college, my friends and I would post rejection letters on the walls outside our rooms, turning rejection into a bit of a communal joke. Sloan said she has a friend who has gone through about 100 interviews and keeps her pile of rejection letters as a motivator to keep pushing forward.
And on a final note of optimism (this is going to kill my snarky, pessimistic street cred), Sloan said she often favors older job candidates: "I always go for the older ones, personally. I want people who have real-world experience, who are willing to work hard. I have a bias in that direction."
So, good luck, Lou. If anybody needs me, I'm going to go cast aspersions on a few people, just to get my mojo back.
TALK TO REX: Ask workplace questions — anonymously or by name — and share stories with Rex Huppke at firstname.lastname@example.org, like Rex on Facebook at facebook.com/rexworkshere and find more at chicagotribune.com/ijustworkhere.
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