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Sweat the small stuff! Eliminating minor workplace annoyances can yield big results.

September 4th, 2012  |  Lorene Park

Most employment advice focuses on the big stuff – avoiding sexual harassment, complying with wage and hour laws, and more. No question, those issues deserve most of an employer’s attention. However, do not forget that small issues may help determine whether you have high employee morale or not. Addressing smaller issues that annoy, upset or make employees uncomfortable may avoid high turnover and may help prevent negative reactions from disgruntled employees (e.g., lawsuits, theft, violence). The best way to uncover these issues in your workplace is to provide a forum for complaints and suggestions. Ideas are provided below. In the meantime, some workplace issues to keep an eye out for include the following:

The restroom – it doesn’t have to be a spa but, come on, use some Lysol.

Pay attention to your restroom. A recent national hand washing survey by the Bradley Corporation showed that 83 percent of Americans believe the condition of a workplace restroom is one indicator of how a company values its workforce. Most rated employer restrooms as excellent or very good but approximately one-third reported a range of annoying issues. These mainly included toilets that were clogged or not flushed; bad smells; and toilet paper or towel dispensers that were empty or jammed. So, if you have housekeeping staff, make sure they are doing their jobs. If you don’t, consider assigning the chores to someone.

Odors – Do employees really want to smell a coworker’s lunch? Her perfume?

If your company does not have a break room with a table, fridge and microwave, consider designating one. Some employees eat lunch at their desks but, depending on the work environment, this can be a bad idea. Not everyone likes the smell of Chinese food, pizza, or other carry-out. Even popcorn can be an issue. Odors from nearby desks can linger, distract, or annoy. Also, do you really want an employee to drop crumbs or sauce on a keyboard while surfing the net at lunch? Having a break room and prohibiting eating lunch at one’s desk could eliminate those issues. It might also avoid the potential argument that an employee should have been compensated for lunch periods because he or she sat at a desk and did some work while eating.

Even if lunch odors are no problem in your office, there are other odiferous considerations. For example, if you have an employee who wears heavy perfume or cologne, nearby coworkers may not be appreciative. If you can smell it when you walk by, especially after the first morning splash should have worn off, it might be a problem. If coworkers complain, consider instituting a policy against “heavy” perfume or cologne and enforce it consistently among all employees.

Foul language – something just short of putting out a “swear jar” should be sufficient.

Even the nicest person may unthinkingly drop an “f-bomb” once in a while when hanging out with coworkers. However, if you have an employee with a potty mouth who makes free to pepper his or her speech with expletives, nip it in the bud. Even curse words used jokingly can be offensive or intimidating. Far from being charming, having a potty mouth puts off coworkers, customers, and the general public, especially in the workplace context. Not to mention, certain foul words are frequently used as evidence in hostile work environment claims. Tell your expletive-happy employee to save it for the upcoming game at the local sports bar.

While you are at it, watch your own language. In a nationwide Career Builder survey of more than 2,000 hiring managers and 3,800 workers across industries and company sizes, 64 percent of employers said they think less of an employee who repeatedly curses but 25 percent admitted to swearing at their employees. This is interesting considering 81 percent of employers believe the use of curse words calls professionalism into question; 71 percent that it shows lack of control; 68 percent that it shows lack of maturity; and 54 percent that it makes the speaker appear less intelligent. From an employee’s perspective, being cursed at by the boss takes it to a whole new level. It’s a hostile work environment claim waiting to happen.

Find your own top ten and address the issues.

It is easy to find various “top ten” lists of workplace annoyances online. These often include: playing music loudly, flirting, hovering at a coworker’s desk, and asking coworkers to participate in a child’s fundraiser. However, behaviors that annoy one set of employees may not annoy another, so you need to identify your workplace top ten. There are a variety of ways to do this, such as providing a suggestion box where concerns can be voiced anonymously. Or, for a direct approach, create a list of issues (like those above) and have employees rate how problematic those issues are in your office. Add blank lines so employees can add their own concerns.

After collecting individual (anonymous) responses or suggestions, create an “office top ten” and post it where employees can see it. It is possible that some employees who engage in offensive behavior are not aware that it is offensive and seeing it on the list may result in self-correction. Be sure, in your list, to refrain from adding personally identifying facts so no employee feels targeted. For example, if only one employee eats tuna sandwiches at his desk, don’t reference “tuna.” Instead, refer to eating lunch at one’s desk. Also consider using humor in creating your office top ten. Humor can go a long way to diffuse hurt feelings or embarrassment.

If posting the issues does not prompt self-correction, take additional steps. If you routinely have administrative meetings, go over the list in a meeting. Avoid personally identifying facts and do not allow the meeting to become an open discussion where employees might confront each other. Public humiliation will get you nowhere. Also consider creating a list of office etiquette rules addressing the behaviors. Enforce the rules consistently and fairly. With a little bit of effort, you should be able to keep the small annoyances in your office from becoming a big problem.