Bad breath boss

Dear Michelle

I have a great job – but there is just one problem. My boss is a close talker and his breath is terrible. I don’t mean coffee breath or pizza for lunch but all day long just plain bad. I don’t want to hurt his feelings but it is really unpleasant. In all other regards he is an excellent boss and mentor. I thought I might leave a bottle of mouthwash on his desk as a gentle hint or leave him an anonymous note. But I really don’t know how to proceed. What should I do?

Holding my breath

Dear Holding

These little interpersonal issues (which can have a big impact on your day-to-day life) are not always matters of ethics so let’s test it. Ethical issues can always be stated as a conflict statement. It is right to do this (and there are consequences) but it also right to do this (and there are different consequences). Of course there could be more than two possible courses of action.

Let’s try to create a conflict statement. It is right to tell someone that they have bad breath. You find it offensive and it may be interfering in that person’s personal success. On the other hand, it is right to be polite and ignore another person’s bad breath. It is possible they are very aware of the issue and do their best to control it. Perhaps they have a medical condition and mentioning it would be rude. That is just my interpretation – you might be able to find a better frame for the situation.

The next question is whether you are the person who should take action. In this case I can’t help but wonder if your boss has a wife or significant other who might be in a better position to discuss his personal hygiene. However, it does seem that this hasn’t happened. You have indicated that he is a mentor so you may have a privileged relationship that would allow personal comments.

After considering the first two questions the next step is to consider the conflict from different perspectives. I think there are three ways of looking at this that might provide insight.

Individual versus community – the individual is your boss. If you avoid hurting his feelings the broader community, coworkers and clients, will not be served. They must also suffer from his odious breath. You did not state whether coworkers have also commented on your boss’ breath so this may not apply.

Short-term vs long-term – I expect you might feel better in the short-term for speaking up. Of course it could affect your relationship with your boss in the long term (for better or worse). Conversely, the short term consequence could be that you have to deal with this and have a difficult conversation. The long term consequence might be that your boss discovers mouthwash and breath mints.

Truth versus loyalty – you are considering speaking the truth but how is that in conflict with loyalty? You might see telling the truth as being in conflict with maintaining a friendly working relationship (loyalty to your boss).

After considering the issue from a variety of perspectives you can use the resolution principles to guide your actions.

A rules based decision maker would do what they believe everyone should do in these situations. Since you have asked for guidance I assume you do not have a sense of a higher principle in this regard and there are no clear societal rules to rely on.

A care based approach might lead you to conclude that you would hate to have someone point out your bad breath. Or you might feel you would be forever grateful. This is a good time to consider how you would feel if you found an anonymous note or bottle of mouthwash on your desk. Would it feel like a helpful hint or would it feel hurtful and sneaky?

If you use an ends based approach you seek the resolution that does the least harm or the greatest good. Perhaps a quiet little chat would do the least harm. Can you discuss the issue directly and with compassion? Can you be supportive if your boss is embarrassed? Can you be calm if your boss is insulted?

For many people in this situation it is fear that they cannot speak the truth with kindness that holds them back. If that is the stumbling block, practice what you want to say and how to say it. Be as brief and as direct as possible.

I hope this helps. Unfortunately, only you can decide how to proceed.

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