Colleague spitting out his words – literally

by Gregory Lay, Heartily WorkingTM columnist

They say don’t stand downwind
in a spitting contest.
Even smarter – don’t enter such a contest.

From: Getting an Extra Shower

An employee that I must interact with several times a week spits when he speaks. I literally get his spittle on me when he comes to my desk. I don’t have the nerve to say, “You’re spitting on me!” but it’s really gross. What should I do?


To: Extra Shower

Either find the nerve, or make like a salad bar and hide behind a plastic shield.

“Really gross” doesn’t begin to address this issue – it’s really unsanitary and really damaging to the organization. The sanitation issue is obvious. If health advisors want us to wash our hands and sneeze into our sleeves, you can imagine their position on serving as a target for another person’s saliva.

As for the organization, I’m guessing that you interact with this employee only when required and there must be others who manage to avoid him altogether. This means that he, and everybody who avoids him, is being robbed of communication that could make you more effective.

That’s why you’ve got to gather your nerve. You must plainly inform him what’s happening when he speaks and arrange an immediate cease-fire. The embarrassment which is making you hesitant to speak puts you at equal fault for permitting an unacceptable situation to continue.

“Kilroy, you may not be aware of it, but when you speak, I get spattered with drops of spittle. For my comfort, I need to be at least five feet apart when we communicate. That will help me maintain a professional line of communication with you. Is that agreeable with you?”

That will probably be equally uncomfortable for both of you. But the embarrassment will go away and you’ll have a better relationship if you aren’t ducking every time you see him.

If he apologizes and agrees to a no-spit-flying zone, then keep a supply of disinfectant wipes handy to clean your work area after his visits.

If That Doesn’t Work

Sadly, some people with a problem get defensive about it, using denial or excuses to avoid having to make a change. If he expresses disbelief or insists that it’s a “medical condition,” then you’ll need formal support from your supervisor or the human resources office to establish a safety policy.

Some organizations buckle under the threat of a “medical condition” because they fear that any attempt to get him to change would be called discriminatory and cause for a lawsuit. A smart HR executive understands that being subjected to unsanitary conditions without protections could cause illness or loss of income on your part, and that’s cause for a lawsuit.

The problem must be spelled out: “Regardless of whether you see this as a problem, when others experience it as a problem, then it’s a problem for the organization. What can you suggest we do about it?”

Denial responds, “It’s their problem. They’ll just have to get over it.” Excuse responds, “It can’t be helped. It’s a condition.”

Reality answers: “Not good enough. What else have you got?”

The strategy is to get him to suggest a solution, knowing how much more likely it is that the solution will work if it comes from the “horse’s mouth.” (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

If he won’t come up with a suggestion that could work, the company will have to establish the procedure to make everybody safe. If he wants to play his ‘medical condition’ card, play that hand out all the way by insisting on appropriate documentation from his doctor. Odds are, the doctor will provide the same Rx as the organization:

A safe distance and a clean handkerchief to dab his lips before speaking.

Are there people who produce so much saliva that they spray when they speak? Yes, there are. Most of them are self-aware and do something about it.

When somebody’s habit or condition is making your work experience more difficult, it is necessary to address it – kindly and considerately, with empathy and understanding – but address it.

“Please don’t spit on me,” is an appropriate communication. You can keep the friendliness in your voice and attitude when you remind somebody of essential needs, but you must remind them. Don’t lose sight of the importance of taking care of yourself, even if you fear that somebody will have their feelings hurt.

Health and safety trump wounded emotions.

Memo from Diogenes: “Of what use is a philosopher who doesn’t hurt anybody’s feelings?”

JobWise: Enunciate

Don’t say defining phrases too fast. Your defining phrase is something you say that identifies you with your role. A retail employee’s defining phrase is often, “Can I help you?” A receptionist’s defining phrase is the first phrase said when answering the telephone.

When we’ve said the same words repeatedly, the idea remains intact in our heads, but the words that come out are often slurred together in an unintelligible stream of sounds. It is old and boring for the person speaking, but a brand new impression for the listener.

Slow down and say it carefully for each person. Caring enough to be heard with your opening phrase will improve the entire communication. This goes double on the telephone, when sounds define your facial expression.

© 2009 Heartily WorkingTM

Gregory Lay’s Heartily WorkingTM responds to your workplace concerns. E-mail