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David Eddie's Damage Control

Should I tell my colleague he has bad breath? Add to ...

The question

I hired an employee two years ago and he has become such a valuable part of my company that I have promoted him to a very senior position. Frankly, I'm not sure I could run the place without him. I admire everything about the guy except for one thing - his teeth. They're crooked and yellow and lined with a film of food, and, as a result, his breath is often, well, not too minty-fresh. I am admittedly a bit sensitive in the smell department but every time we're in a meeting with clients, I am cringing inside about his awful teeth and breath. The closest I've come to saying anything is raving about what a great dentist I have. He seemed interested at the time but never took it forward. Is there anything else I can do here without hurting his feelings?

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The answer

First I have to say: Tread very, very carefully here, soldier.

Telling someone he has a) chronic halitosis a.k.a. none-too-minty-fresh breath; b) film of the non-Academy-Award-winning variety on his choppers, c) that you've been thinking about it for a while and you feel he should see a dentist about it - well, these are all potential Explosive Interpersonal Declarations, or EIDs.

And you could wind up in your own personal "Hurt Locker" of the mind and emotions: pulling up one wire only to find it connected to a bunch of other wires, all connected to dusty, but potentially devastating, shrapnel-filled bombshells just under the surface.

Cut the wrong wire - the red one, wait, no, the blue one! - and ka-BLOOEY! This guy could explode, stomp out of your office and declare a holy war against you forever more.

And as you say, you've come to depend on this dude in a business sense.

It's such a universal problem. On any given day, it's almost impossible not to encounter at least one or two people whose breath smells like something died between their teeth.

It happens to everyone. This week I've been on the road, pimping Damage Control the book, just out.

You wake up, drink coffee, go into a studio, drink more coffee, talk to talk-show hosts, drink coffee, maybe step outside to sneak a quick ciggie, have more coffee.

You brushed your teeth, of course; but as the morning wears on, you start to realize it didn't quite "take."

I begged my publicist for a piece of gum. She didn't have any.

Finally someone behind a desk at a radio station had some and gave me a piece. I thanked her profusely. I told her the last thing I want is to leave behind an impression: "Whew, nice guy and I enjoy his writing but did you check out his breath?"

She smiled and said: "You wouldn't be the first."

All of which is a roundabout (and, obviously, shamelessly self-promotional) way of saying: I'm hyper-conscious of it. But it still gets away from me sometimes. It gets away from us all, sometimes.

But chronic halitosis is a particularly ticklish situation. Chronic halitosis trumps just about everything, it sometimes seems to me. You could be Oscar Wilde, dropping aphorisms, aperçus, and bons mots - but if your breath is a heinous blast-furnace of paint-peeling halitosis that's all anyone will remember.

Now, of course it would be the easy and safe route to say nothing. But the thing is: If it were me? If I were this guy in your office? I'd want to know.

So, yes, bottom line: Put on your (metaphorical) "bomb suit," take a deep breath, and go in, soldier.

Of course, as with any other potentially explosive situation, it takes a combination of delicacy, courage, and surgical decisiveness to avoid a detonation.

I think it's best to go in bluntly. I recall once having drinks with a couple of friends before a party. Casually, bluntly, as we were paying the bill, my friend P (who does bluntness well) said: "Uh, just so you guys know, before we go to this party, both of your breath could use some work."

Sure, it stung a little. But we understood he was doing us a favour. He was acting in our interests.

We thanked him; we appreciated it; we bought some gum.

You could use some variation of my friend's line. "Listen, you know I think you're a great guy. I really have come to value you and depend on you in this company. But I have to tell you, and I only tell you this as a friend: From time to time I've noticed your breath could use a little work."

Then don't stick around apologizing or over-elaborating.

Drop this on him; and walk away. He might be upset at first. But, hopefully, in the fullness of time, he will see that you did it for him; that you acted in his best interests; that it wasn't easy for you.

And that it took a hell of a lot of courage. Let him chew on it, for a while, and then, maybe, soon, he will also be chewing on sticks of breath-freshening gum.

David Eddie is the author of Chump Change and Housebroken: Confessions of a Stay-at-Home Dad. Damage Control, the book, was released last week.

I've made a huge mistake

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