All Ranks Too Scared to Communicate

By Lindsey Novak

July 25, 2019 5 min read

Q: I've worked for a county department for nearly 20 years. When I interviewed, the woman who was a supervisor at the front desk told me I smelled. I was hired despite that. In my 15th year at work, I was transferred to the front desk, and that supervisor became my supervisor. We've had two skirmishes so far about that same issue. She and others also said they were upset I hadn't taken the test to become a clerical supervisor.

The first skirmish was when I stopped speaking to my co-workers. I did so because they were on her side. I was written up, so I spoke to the supervisor's boss, who laughed at me. A week later, she asked us to see a therapist, which neither of us did.

The second skirmish came when I had enough of her talking about me smelling. She also talked about me publicly in front of the residents who were waiting in line to be helped. I stopped working and left.

The next day, I put in for and took a week's vacation. When I returned, her boss met with both of us. I told her what the woman was saying about me, and again, she scheduled us to meet with the therapist. I went this time, but the other woman refused. Now the crew isn't speaking to me because I reported my supervisor for promoting a toxic workplace and demeaning me in front of co-workers and the public. I want to find another job after I retire.

A: It sounds like a culture change is 20 years overdue to correct a workplace with no responsible upper management, guidance, feedback or helpful communication. From the boss to the supervisors to your co-workers, your county department has accepted unprofessional behavior from all, and management is shirking all problem-solving responsibility.

It begins with the supervisor's greeting of "you smell." Even if you had body odor, it was a cruel and insulting way to express oneself to anyone, as well as inappropriate and unprofessional. This supervisor's continuously rude behavior is evidenced by publicly insulting you in front of the other employees and the residents in line waiting to be served. Each of these verbally abusive comments should have been written up and a formal reprimand delivered to the supervisor. In a professionally managed office, this behavior would not have been overlooked nor excused.

But you, too, are guilty of unprofessional behavior by walking off your job, though your utter frustration with the boss laughing at you is also rude and inappropriate. Putting in for a vacation week to help you cool down may have helped, but the boss should have addressed the situation before approving your vacation. Her resolution of telling both of you to see a therapist is inexcusable: She apparently has no business in a manager's position since she seems unaware of what is and is not professional behavior. Promoting an employee with specific job skills minus the human aspect required for managing is a predominant "undermanagement" problem in the workplace according to Bruce Tulgan, founder of RainmakerThinking, Inc. (a global management and training company) and author of "Not Everyone Gets a Trophy"; "The 27 Challenges Managers Face"; "Managing Generation X"; and "It's Okay to Be the Boss: The Step-by-Step Guide to Becoming the Manager Your Employees Need." Tulgan says, "If you have no authority, use influence." The department manager, human resources and supervisor used neither. The problem likely escalated because no one addressed the body odor with you in a kind and informative way. They perhaps deemed it more polite to complain about you not taking a test to become a supervisor, which you apparently did not need to perform the job duties.

People experience extraordinarily different upbringings, so it's possible your family did not teach you about daily hygiene. It may be why you never seriously considered their criticism nor understood their malicious treatment — something that one sincere conversation could have resolved from the time you were hired. Some messages are more difficult to deliver than others, but you are not the first to have experienced this at work. You may want to address the situation on your own so when you start a job search after you retire, you will not once again be subject to such ridicule.

Email your workplace issues and experiences to [email protected] For more information about career and life coach Lindsey Novak, visit, and for past columns, see

Photo credit: FreeToUseSounds at Pixabay

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