Human Resources News & Insights

Would you tell the boss his fly was down?

The workplace is full of awkward conversations. Which ones are you most reluctant to have?

Employees are more comfortable telling co-workers that their zipper is undone than to point out any other embarrassing gaffes, according to a recent CareerBuilder survey. Two-thirds of employees said they’d tell a peer about an undone fly, while half would do the same to a higher-level co-worker.

Lowest on the comfort scale? Discussing personal hygiene. Just 28% would tell co-workers they needed a shower. The number’s just 11% when the dirty employee is higher in the ranks.

The rest of the list:

  1. You have food in your teeth (66% for a same-level co-worker, 49% for someone higher)
  2. You have something in your nose (51% and 33% )
  3. You have a stain on your clothes (51% and 34%)
  4. Your hair is messy (33% and 13%)
  5. You need a breath mint (33% and 14%)
  6. Your clothes aren’t appropriate for the workplace (32% and 10%)

What conversations are you most uncomfortable having with your peers? How about folks higher up in the company? Let us know in the comments section below.

Print Friendly

Subscribe Today

Get the latest and greatest Human Resources news and insights delivered to your inbox.
  • Cathy

    The most uncomfortable discussion I have ever had in the workplace was when I needed to be excused to go to the doctor because of female problems. My immediate supervisor was out of the office at the time (a female) and I had to go directly to the president of the company ( a male). Talk about embarrassing! Even as much pain as I was in, I know I stuttered alot trying to find words to say without coming right out and saying, “I’m in terrible pain due to my menstrual cycle and need to go to the doctor”. I can’t remember exactly what I said at the time but I remember that the president was understanding and didn’t ask a whole lot of questions.

  • Jill

    I had a male co-worker at my desk one day. Not only was his fly open, his white shirt tail was sticking out like a swan-like cloth napkin. He leaned back in the chair and put his hands on the back of his head, which made it even more obvious. I new he was meeting with some customers that day, so I called a male co-worker and told him to let “Mike” know his zipper was down. The co-worker laughed and said he wasn’t going to tell him. So I sent the guy an email that simply said “XYZ”. He replied “What the hell does XYZ mean”. So I told him, examine your zipper.
    He came back over to my desk laughing hysterically, wondering why I just didn’t tell him when I noticed it.
    The funny thing is, about a month later, this same guy brings his dad over to my desk to meet me. As I got up to shake his hand, I noticed that his dad’s zipper was down TOO! I guess it just runs in the family.

  • Jo

    When I was in the military, I was ordered to take a younger airman to the gym and show her how to shower. A lucky guy got to take her hubby and do the same thing. I often wondered why medical personnel were not given that task

  • Edgar

    Any conversations concerning hygiene and dressing habits tops my list as a difficult conversation. I’d been a supervisor for over 10 years, and it is the most difficult conversations any person could ever have. Managers have the option to discuss those matters with Labor Relations advisors, and EEO managers. Those folks are prepared to assist managers in addressing those uncomfortable issues.

    Concerning personal illneses, most of my employees have been candid enough to share their personal illnessess, down to the intimate details that I would never imagine. With that said, as a manager I owe them the trust and confidentiality that they deserve. Other employees will come to you asking about why employee X is absent, trying to pry details. Your response as a manager should always be, ‘Employee X absence is my concern; I am pretty sure that you expect me to respect your privacy when you are absent’. Regardless of the type of supervisor (kind or a jerk), employees have the obligation to tell managers that they were sick, and for exceptional cases of prolonged sickness, the cause of the sickness or diagnosis. This should be no cause for embarassment, when communicating with your boss. If your boss cannot handle it, he/she should not be in a supervisory position.

    Concerning the other items, ie. open fly, food in tooth, stains in clothes, tag sticking out of garment, toilet paper caught in shoes, etc…. I consider those easy things to address, regardless of the person’s position in the company. I do not have any hesitation to discreetly tell a co worker, superior or an employee about the item. I believe that keeping quiet about that occurrence without telling the affected employee, is enough reason to distrust you, or to believe that you do not take them serious enough. I to tell me when something is not right about my appearance. When they do my response is always ‘thank you, I appreciate watching out for me’.

  • Jen

    Cathy, I feel your pain. I’m having to go through some testing right now and have had multiple appts over the course of a couple of weeks. My male boss wants to know details. First of all, he shouldn’t ask, and I shouldn’t feel compelled to tell him (which I do). Secondly, I don’t even want to tell my best friend, let alone my boss. Really, he doesn’t want the details, really!

    Jill, thanks for the story, I needed that laugh today!

    At our facility, the inappropriate clothing is the problem. Most of our managers won’t address their own employees about what they’re wearing. It’s a losing battle, so our written dress code isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. I have no problem with my team, and address things as they come up. I think it’s the fear factor that “they won’t like me” if I address this with them.

  • Carole

    Our small office has only one restroom, and we have one male employee, the director. Frequently, I and some of the other female employees, find urine on the front portion of the toilet rim (where the seat is open) and/or the floor in front of the toilet. Ugh!

    We have not yet determined how to address this issue. Anyone have any ideas?

  • GetAKlugh

    As the HR manager, I had an employee and his manager (all males) in my office discussing his perfomance (very low key, not a counseling session) but the poor lad said “well, it’s really hard. I had to tell my wife there would not be any more Saturday nights…” Both his manager and I were clueless as to what he was talking about. He went on to tell us his Viagra was no longer working for him…??? I know, TMI!!! Not hygiene or zippers but I believe his explanation was 100% on the uncomfortable scale for me.

  • Randi G

    Carole, I don’t think there is a solution! If anyone has any ideas, I’d love to know also.

  • When my husband was an Operations Manager in a bank, he had to talk to an employee about his hygiene. There had been lots of complaints. My husband said he was so nervous, he was sweating and was afraid he’d be the one with the problem by the time they sat down! So he did talk to the guy, who seemed not only not embarrassed but pretty OK with the conversation. He said his bathtub faucets weren’t working (or something) but he’d take care of the hygiene. That did improve for a few days, but the odor was back after that. I think he had to be talked to several times. That would be pretty uncomfortable, although may less so with repeated conversations. As far as the zipper, I think I could do that discreetly.

  • Carol – on the toilet thing – I once had a co-worker with whom I got into a similar discussion – not because he had offended, just talking (I guess we were scraping the bottom of the barrel!) Anyway, he said in some men, because of their unique “biology” they actually can’t aim straight and I said I didn’t think that would affect their eyes so they should be courteous enough to clean up after themselves. No offense, guys, I know women have some inconsiderate habits, too.

  • Jo


    No way to tippy toe around that one. Get the director by himself and ask him to kindly make sure the bathroom is clean and ready for the next person. If you get a blank look or he asks what you are talking about simply state it is a hygiene/sanitary issue for employees to clean other employees urine.

  • Mary D.

    I kept getting complaints that the toilets were often dirty and people were not flushing the toilets…and a few times I witnessed it myself. So, I’ve put signs on the back of the toilet stall doors. “If you make a mess, clean it up and don’t forget to flush.” I really can’t believe that adults have to be told this information. And this activity went on at a corporate headquarters…all officers, managers and clericals.

    As for the unzipped trouser fly, I’ve done that one. My boss was standing up behind his desk putting on his jacket when I entered his office. I just quietly and politely told him he should check his zipper. He looked down, quickly turned around, zipped up his zipper, turned back around with just a little redness in his face and said that he was thankful that I walked in when I did because he was just headed out to a meeting and that would have been really embarrassing.