Every week, Mallory Ortberg answers additional questions from readers, just for Slate Plus members.
Q. Weird co-worker behavior: I have a co-worker with a weird habit and I’m not sure if I’m supposed to do something about it.
Here’s the deal. We’re professionals, and we often work closely with clients. My co-worker sucks his thumb. Now, I’ll admit, it’s a habit I don’t love, and he’s far from the only adult thumb-sucker I know, but I wouldn’t think twice about it except he does it all the time, in meetings, in front of clients, all of that.
He’s good at his job and seems to be plenty well-respected by our people and the clients, so I guess it’s not disrupting his career or hurting our image—in other words, why would I say anything to him about it? Except it’s also unsanitary—not the worst thing, but it grosses me out. It’s just so far outside of social norms that I always find it kind of appalling. And if our clients feel similarly, they’re not going to say anything. Also, he’s a grown man, so there’s no way he’s unaware that it’s generally considered inappropriate.
I’m so confused. I would totally say something, but I look around me—at him, at his wife (who’s a good friend of mine), at our management—and feel like I’m crazy because I must be the only person who cares, or someone whose job it is would’ve already said something, right? At least he’s not a big hand-shaker.
A: It may very well be disrupting his career and hurting your company’s image; you’ve noticed it, and you feel uncomfortable but haven’t said anything, so it stands to reason that there are plenty of others out there who’ve reacted the same way. It’s unprofessional, and it’s absolutely fair to bring this up. To be clear, lots of people have nervous tics, and you shouldn’t be cruel when you bring this up or make jokes at his expense, but it is fair to ask that he at least try to refrain from thumb-sucking while he’s at work, especially when he’s in front of clients.
Unfortunately, since you’re his co-worker and not his supervisor, you don’t have a lot of leverage in getting him to change his behavior. If you have a good relationship otherwise, consider talking to him well in advance of your next client-facing meeting, and ask him if he could keep from sucking his thumb until the clients have left and he’s in (relative) private.
Bear in mind that habits like this one are very difficult to break, and it may be challenging for him to change overnight. If you’re not comfortable speaking to him directly, or if he reacts badly, you can speak to your own boss. Mention your concerns that it doesn’t present a professional image to clients, that it’s unsanitary, and that you’re worried this could affect your business. You can make it clear that you think really highly of your colleague otherwise, but don’t let the fact that no one else has addressed this behavior keep you from speaking up.