Every office groomer has his reasons. Dan Glassman, 25, an engineer for a construction-equipment company, is bent on saving time. He eats breakfast on the morning train and keeps a toothbrush, toothpaste, and Listerine in his desk for a quick swish-and-spit in the men’s room. “Why should I wake up earlier if I can do it all at the office?” he says. And then there are the big boys, like Tom Hastings, 39, a production executive with Alliance Atlantis films, who believes rank has its privileges. Has-tings keeps a kit with a mirror, nail clippers, a nail file, a toothbrush, deodorant, and a pair of tweezers on hand and admits he blithely plucks away at the tiny hairs next to his ears that his shaver misses, all with little regard for who might be passing by his office. “I really don’t care what they think,” he says. “They’re good tweezers.”

In fact, it’s usually the men in the front office who are the worst perpetrators. “Power is tremendously disinhibiting,” says Richard Conniff, who has written about primate behavior and is the author of The Ape in the Corner Office: Understanding the Workplace Beast in All of Us. “The more power you have, the more social norms go out the window.”

Some offenders will pick their ears, and worse, just to put you off your game. Lyndon Johnson, one of the most psychologically manipulative men ever to occupy the White House, often held meetings with aides while sitting on the can. Such passive-aggressive behavior by bosses is common, says Dr. John Weaver, a Midwest workplace psychologist: “They’re doing it to send the message that you are not important. It’s how they maintain control.”

Plenty of corporations, from Xerox to the NBA, are beginning to show less tolerance for bad workplace manners. Both outfits are gussying up their dress codes. And even if they don’t yet have specific rules against grooming habits, they can take disciplinary action if the situation gets out of control. “It has to do with the atmosphere and the image a company has to convey,” says Judy Lampley, a lawyer with the Equal Employment Advisory Council. “If someone doesn’t respond to multiple requests to stop, the employer can generally use its discretion.”

Still, it may be that offensive grooming is the genie that can’t be put back in the bottle. It’s already a slippery slope from a stray clip to the inevitable pick. How else to explain the elite West Coast business-school professor who, in the midst of listening to a doctoral student defend a dissertation, decided his ear needed a proper cleaning? He rummaged with his finger, removed the offending wax, and held it up for critical inspection. Cameron Anderson, 33, an assistant professor at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, who knew the shocked student, says it was one of the more egregious moments in the annals of workplace grooming. Not simply because of the overt act but because of the professor’s reputation, and his lifelong study. “Ironically,” Anderson says, “this guy is a giant in the field of organizational behavior.”