What to do when your coworkers are gross

Life is gross, but sometimes your coworkers make it even more disgusting than it has to be. If you have a colleague who picks his teeth during meetings, cuts her toenails at her desk, or does any number of yucky things, what can you do?

If you're the boss, of course, it's your responsibility to speak up and to stop the gross behavior. But if you're a colleague, you have no authority over the germ-covered person in the next cube. Speaking up can be tricky. Here's what you should and should not do to address the problem:

You should:

Use humor. No one likes addressing things like lack of hand washing, but if you can do it with a touch of humor, it goes a long way. "Whoa, Steve, either you're the world's fastest hand washer or you forgot to wash!" Say it with a smile and maybe, just maybe, Steve will turn around and go back to the bathroom.

Blame yourself. "Jane, I know flossing is great for your teeth, but for whatever reason, it skeeves me out. Can you possibly do that in the bathroom?" That way, you're not saying, "Jane, you're gross." You're saying, "I'm really just weird about this." It doesn't matter that you're not weird about it, what matters is that Jane moves into the bathroom to do her flossing.

Use hand sanitizer. It would be lovely if your co-workers all washed their hands thoroughly, with soap, after using the bathroom, but they don't. Neither do the people who opened the door to your office building, pushed the grocery cart before you, or sorted through the clothing display at the mall.

Germs are everywhere. It's likely that your computer keyboard is far more germ filled than, well, toilet seats. So, use your hand sanitizer and wash your own hands. You can even keep a bottle at your desk and be seen using it frequently. Then when you offer some to your gross co-worker, it won't seem rude, it will just seem like you're obsessively clean.

Talk to the boss. If you've tried to fix the problem on your own and it persists, you can bump it up to your boss. "I know this is petty, but Jane flosses her teeth at her desk and it's gross. Can you possibly talk to her?" Now, bosses don't like dealing with this stuff any more than the rest of us do, but it's their job. That's why they get paid more money.

You should not:

Be rude. Don't ostracize your gross coworker or gossip about him. If you have a problem with his hygiene, take it up with him and not with your other co-workers.

Post notes in the bathroom. Do you really think your coworker got to age 45 without knowing he's supposed to wash his hands? Of course not. He just doesn't want to. So, posting a sign in the bathroom, reminding people to wash their hands isn't likely to work and it might make you end up looking like a jerk.

Believe it if you haven't seen it yourself. Yes, if you observe someone doing something gross, you can be sure they are doing it. But you shouldn't believe workplace chatter, which may be nothing more than malicious gossip.

Plus, there is a chance your assumptions could be wrong. Case in point: Several years ago, my department and another department transferred into a new building, together. Prior to that, each department had their own bathrooms. We all began blaming the other department for unsanitary toilet seat issues. It actually turned out that the water pressure in the new building was too high, and when you flushed, the toilets self splattered. Maintenance fixed the problem and we never had the problem again. If no one had checked with maintenance, we could have gone on blaming each other for the problem.