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Career Q&A: Co-worker's fish stink up office

Q: For the past few months, my co-worker has been cooking frozen fish and vegetables in the common microwave every day for lunch. He cares deeply about nutrition and is also very busy, so keeping a stash of frozen food at work saves him time and energy.

The smell that this cooking process creates, however, is potent, lasts for at least half an hour, and makes me and many others feel nauseated. The smell is worst in my co-worker's office, but the entire open space where we work also reeks. Clients come to our floor sometimes, and I think it is embarrassing and unprofessional that they are greeted by the stench of microwaved fish.

I do not feel comfortable bringing this up with my co-worker. I also don't really want to be identified; is it crazy to send HR an anonymous note about the situation before I go? I am leaving the office soon, so part of me wonders if I should drop it.

A: Oh, fer cod's sake. Plenty of busy, health-conscious professionals understand that they are not entitled to sicken their co-workers for the sake of convenience. That's why you won't find me standing in front of the open office fridge, wearing sweatpants and eating peanut butter from the jar with a plastic takeout knife.

But, as with dress codes, some people need explicit guidance on office-kitchen etiquette.

Without naming names, explain the problem to HR — or to your boss, if that would be more effective. Be sure to cite the effect on productivity and professional image, especially if you can convey actual client reactions. Then ask for an official microwave policy that sets comprehensive standards. Surely you have co-workers who incinerate popcorn or leave red-sauce stalactites for others to clean up.

If that feels too passive-aggressive, or if your resident pescatarian really is the only offender, you can always take a deep breath (through your mouth) and politely ask: "Would it be possible for you to cook something other than fish for lunch, or to bring in precooked seafood that doesn't need reheating? The smell tends to be overpowering, even over where I sit." I imagine the gratitude from the rest of your soon-to-be-former co-workers would more than outweigh any resentment you may stir up with him. That is, until he starts leaving unrinsed sardine tins to ferment in the trash.

I understand your reluctance to put yourself on the hook, but as you say, you're leaving soon anyway.

Or, since this is a full-service column, feel free to clip 'n' post this handy notice (enlarge as necessary):

Crossing the line with religion

Q: I work for a large nonprofit — tax-exempt, but not faith-based. Our new supervisor is a conservative Christian who formerly worked for a faith-based organization and is open in the workplace about his beliefs.

At his first staff meeting, he asked us to go around the table and declare our value system. He led with: God, country, family, work. In his office, he keeps a Bible on his desk and frequently rests his hand on it when asked to make a decision. Some staff have reported interrupting him praying in his office during work hours. In the middle of the day, he streams a right-wing conservative radio show. If you are scheduled to meet with him at that time, you cannot avoid listening to it.

Many of us are uncomfortable. Are his actions permissible?

A: Are you sure he's praying? When I'm bent over my keyboard muttering sacred names, it means something quite different.

I asked Jonathan Segal, an employment attorney with Duane Morris and self-described "Jewish guy who wears a chai," to enlighten me on the intersection of divine law and labor law. "I don't think you can — or should — keep faith entirely out of the workplace," Segal says. "Where people get into trouble is when they proselytize." Expressing your faith through words, deeds and garb is generally protected, but pushing others to express the same — or suppress their own — may cross the legal line. Also, an employer must be equally respectful of all sincerely held beliefs — as well as nonbelief.

Your boss' behavior to date doesn't seem to rise to the hostile work environment level, even if it skews politically to the right of your comfort zone. But as the boss, he should be mindful of appearances. For example, touching his Bible might simply help him focus — but, Segal points out, that gesture could be interpreted as a "link between faith and decision-making" and possibly cited as evidence of religious bias if the decision has an adverse effect on someone who doesn't share the boss' beliefs. And if the boss starts insisting everyone join hands and bow heads before a meeting, or if your annual performance review feels more like a religious inquisition, hie thee to HR.

But you can seek another path that avoids holy ground altogether: "I want to be sure I'm giving you my full attention. Would it be possible to mute the webcast, or reschedule our meeting?"

Or perhaps he could walk in one day and find his Bible opened and marked with a sticky note at Matthew 6:5 ("And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men.").

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