It’s the Thursday “ask the readers” question. A reader writes:
I have a coworker — let’s call him Joe — who recently moved to our office from another office (same company) hundreds of miles away. He’s still very new to our city and doesn’t have a network outside of work.
A few weeks ago, I noticed something distinct about Joe’s appearance had changed (his skin and eyes turned very vibrantly yellow — it later turned out to be jaundice). I didn’t say anything because I feel like it’s impolite to bring up a colleague’s appearance, even out of genuine concern. And because the change was so noticeable, I figured he had to have noticed too. I asked him if he was feeling alright and he said he was a little tired but otherwise okay.
A colleague from his old office visited last week and bluntly brought it up right away (think “what’s wrong with your face” level of bluntness). Joe had no idea that his appearance had changed; he said the lighting in his apartment is very dark, so when he looked in the mirror, he didn’t see it. Still, he brushed it off and said it would probably go away. At this point, the whole team began gently encouraging him to see a doctor. He finally did after a few days and was immediately hospitalized for the next four days. Going forward, he has to see a specialist weekly.
When Joe came back to work, he said he wouldn’t have gone to the doctor if we hadn’t encouraged him to, and he thanked us for that.
I feel guilty because if our other colleague hadn’t said something, I’m not sure the rest of us would have spoken up, and I worry about what may have happened if we had waited much longer. I’m also sure that if he was still living in his old city, it would have been caught sooner as he has a large network of friends and family there and no one outside of work here. Joe is a great colleague, but notoriously — usually humorously — bad with basic life skills and we joke that he needs a whole office of mothers to help look after him.
But I also feel like it’s crossing a line to bring up medical issues/appearance with a colleague. Do you have any advice on how this situation could have been handled differently, and how to work with a colleague with Joe while he’s still new in town and doesn’t yet have the friend circle to help guide him with regards to some of these more personal issues?
I think this is an interesting question because on one hand it’s easy to think, “Your coworker’s face is vibrantly yellow! It’s okay to ask if he’s okay!” But it’s also true that it can be exhausting and intrusive for people who are aware of and treating a medical issue to get constant inquiries about it, particularly when they’re trying to work and particularly from people they’re not close to — and typically you wouldn’t assume someone kept their home so dark that they hadn’t noticed they were bright yellow.
In this case, it seems pretty clear that bringing it up was the right thing to do, and Joe’s “I’m bad at basic life skills” persona makes that more so. But I think there’s an interesting discussion to be had about how to navigate this generally. Readers, what are your thoughts?
when is it OK to approach a colleague about a possible medical issue? was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.