What better way to squander valuable work hours than to give yourself a pedicure? So reasoned one New York investment banker with a six-figure paycheck and a blonde trophy wife: He kept a Swiss Army knife in his desk for just such a task. Daily, he would shave cuticles and calluses off his feet, much to the horror of his young secretary. “I would see him in his office with his foot propped in his lap, playing podiatrist,” says Janet, who quit after eight months of enduring this unique regimen (which was accompanied by compulsive nose-hair trimming). “I always felt sorry for the cleaning people. What looked like a pile of premium Peruvian blow under his desk was just old, crusty foot skin.”
When it comes to grooming, some unself-conscious aesthetes enjoy putting their private rituals on public display. Cube gophers from Madison Avenue to the Chicago Merc are exfoliating and plucking out in the open at a fierce pace, treating the once-sacrosanct work zone as if it were their boudoir. But who can blame them? Office workers practically live at their desks. More than a third of male college graduates work 50-plus hours a week. And if you’re in one of those round-the-clock jobs that come with being a man-eating attorney, architect, or stock trader, you’re probably pulling your share of all-nighters in the ubiquitous “space efficient” office (read: cube farm).“You’re in closer proximity to your coworkers than you are to your family,” says Jill Bremer, a Chicago image and etiquette trainer. “It’s like being in an elevator all day.”
Ironically, all this out-in-the-open preening has its roots in a slovenly mind-set. “Casual dress led to casual behavior, which is running rampant,” says Bremer, who blames techie culture and the dress-down mentality for the current plague of bad workplace manners. But the ill-mannered are not just taking their cues from the sight of the malgroomed Google guys on magazine covers (can’t two dudes worth $20 billion afford eyebrow waxing?). They’re simply behaving as their zookeepers had intended.
The cubicle, home to 70 percent of our white-collar workforce, was designed, in part, to give an illusion of privacy. But if you think no one sees you adjusting your dice while you’re fiddling with your spreadsheets, you’ve been taken in. “People really can see your hands under the desk,” says Sherry Maysonave, an Austin-based image consultant who teaches business etiquette to Hollywood stars, TV newscasters, and Fortune 500 CEOs. “If someone is standing and you’re sitting, the elevation gives them a much better view than you think.”
Sometimes the offensive behavior can’t be seen, only smelled. Robert Irvine, a 57-year-old contractor, remembers one former colleague at a Vancouver shipping firm, a hirsute accountant who was fond of shaving in the restroom no less than three times a day. His five o’clock shadow would appear by 10:30 a.m., Irvine says, and not only did the man commandeer the staff sink with his foamy slop, he would slather his face with a concoction of aftershaves. As soon as he stepped into the main office, the whole floor knew it. “He stunk so bad it made our eyes water,” Irvine says. “The reek varied and worsened as the day went on.”