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Mar 5, 2013 04:48 PM

How do you nicely tell a server that they have severely bad breath?

I went for lunch today, and when my server asked me if I was ready to order I nearly gagged at the way her breath smelled. This was at a diner, counter service so she was only a couple feet away, and it was horrible. I wanted to say to her, boy it sure is dry in here, I bet you would love a glass of ginger ale. *(it is a trick someone told me gets rid of bad breath) But i didn't say anything. But it was so horrible that every time she came by to ask if I needed anything I held my breath. IS there a polite way to say something to your server in a crowded situation where there is really no privacy?

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    1. re: sal_acid

      I didn't think so, it was so uncomfortable, and I felt so sorry for her.

    2. If I had it available I would have offered her a piece of gum or altoid. Just politely not in an offensive manner. Maybe she would accept it or get the hint.

      1 Reply
      1. re: jrvedivici

        Trust me, I wish I had some mints or something. It was extremely bad, almost like the smell of an abscess.

      2. You don't tell the server, you find the manager or owner and tell him/her. Management doesn't want customers offended.
        Last night, I was out in a neighborhood Italian restaurant and the waitress reeked of cigarette smoke. I excused myself from the table walked into the bar area and asked the barkeep to get me the owner. When the owner arrived, I sat down with him at a corner table and discussed the offensive odor from our waitress. I went back to our table and three minutes later a different waitress delivered our mains. The odorous waitress was not seen in our section the rest of our visit.

        Was she sent home, told to spray herself with cologne or just had her section switched? I don't know or care, but I wasn't going to have my family suffer and be unable to enjoy our meal because a waitress reeked.

        46 Replies
        1. re: bagelman01

          No, for an issue as personal as this, you don't involve other people, especially not the boss...if the boss is a jerk she could end up being written up, short-scheduled, or full-out fired. And halitosis doesn't warrant any of those things.

          If I said anything at all (don't know if I would have) it would have been very quiet at very close range, or just a note passed subtly.

          Same with the smoker -- I agree it smells bad, but it's not worth someone else's livelihood.

          1. re: sunshine842

            I absoluetly disagree with you.
            I have been a business owner, both retail, wholesale and in the food/hospitality business.
            I must know if my employees have offensive bodily odors/habits that are making my customers uncomfortable and may be driving them away.

            Better that I have the chance to discuss this with the employee, even if the employee does lose employment, then suffer enough loss of business that all emploees lose their jobs and the place closes.

            The OP wrote of this here, but who knows how much bad word of moputh could spread locally?

            1. re: bagelman01

              I agree. Handling the staff the job of management, including who gets their hours cut and/or who gets hired and fired, and if I did anything other than leave, I would discuss the matter with management. Acceptable solutions would be to be moved to another section of the restaurant, or providing me with a different server.

              I'm also offended by body odors, either too much perfume, smokers clothes, or other odors. Same solution.

              1. re: bagelman01

                I agree with Bagelman. A server with offensive odors hurts the owner's livelihood. Why is it ok for the owner to take a ding in revenue but not the employee?

                1. re: Rick

                  One point I have not seen here is that it is that if the offensive issue is so bad that the customers notice, it is difficult for me to believe that the owner/manager is not aware. If so, there is a larger problem.

                  Back in the day as they say, managers at good restaurants inspected the staff prior to shift, and the problems were corrected prior to meeting the public. I miss those days.

                  1. re: Bigjim68

                    Managers still 'inspect' their staff, if they're good managers and are looking out for the welfare of the owner's business. I love a restaurant where there's 'hands-on', by either the management or owner, the entire time the business is operating. It makes a huge difference and those are the places I tend to take my business.
                    I agree with you, though, on the matter of the owner/manager not being aware. If the cigarette smoke, bad breath, too much perfume etc., is a problem, with even one mention of it by a customer, then there's definitely something else, larger, going on with management.

                  2. re: Rick

                    It's true that lots of things, including smelly servers, hurt the owner's bottom line. This does not mean it is appropriate to tell the owner your opinion of every single thing that you think is hurting his business.

                  3. re: bagelman01

                    and what, exactly, would you do if it were because it was a medical condition (which is not uncommon)? Particularly if it were beyond her control (also not unheard of)?

                    As her employer, you have no business in her personal medical condition, and it would be a crying shame for you to punish her (write-up, short-schedule, or termination) for something that is beyond her control.

                    A subtle word from a customer is less threatening and offers at least a little dignity than being called into the office -- or unforgiveably, being called out for on the floor.

                    1. re: sunshine842

                      if it is a medical condition, then that employee has a 'defense' to employer sanction via provisions of the ADA.

                      I doubt that halitosis which can be masked by a breath mint is a qualifying medical condition.

                      And, employers have the right to know about any medical conditions that limit the ability of an employee to perform the job without accomodation.

                      1. re: bagelman01

                        how about sinus infections (including chronic), gastrointestinal issues...there are plenty of physical issues that are beyond someone's control -- particularly if the health insurance offered is stingy, or if she's a part-timer who doesn't qualify.

                        That's the point -- bad breath doesn't fall under ADA -- but it's still grossly unfair to sanction or terminate her, and it's none of your business.

                        1. re: sunshine842


                          I understand your point of view and agree with it, for the most part.
                          Why is it an automatic jump to assume the employee's going to be terminated?
                          If a person's going to be working with the public then they should prepare themselves for it.
                          All the medical issues you've stated are something the patient is should be completely aware of, and the physical consequences that go along with it, and therefore work hard to make sure they're not offending anyone....
                          Especially in a place where people are eating.

                          1. re: latindancer

                            because reporting to the manager, by definition, marks it as a problem that affects this person's employment.

                            Not all managers are fair or caring individuals, and many don't need a very viable excuse to send someone packing.

                            1. re: sunshine842

                              But, ultimately, Sunshine, isn't it the employer who really is the ultimate decision maker?
                              It's the owner's business and if an employee isn't living up to the standards his/her employer is requesting then the owner should know.
                              A few years ago I was dining in a very upscale restaurant with a friend. The table next to us absolutely reeked from one of the woman's perfume. My friend said something to her thinking she might not know how offensive it was....perhaps go wash some of it off? The woman gave a look that could kill & proceeded to ignore my friend. We endured it and didn't bring it to the attention of the manager. In retrospect, we should have made a huge scene because of the woman's complete disrespect, in many ways, for my friend and me.
                              Telling a waitperson her/his breath is horrible, and thinking you're helping their situation, does *not* necessarily mean you're going to get the response you're expecting.

                              1. re: latindancer

                                I would far rather endure a server's wrath than to think that she got reprimanded or fired because I took a personal issue to the manager.

                                Please remember that I said "If I said anything at all (don't know if I would have)"

                                What is it that you think the manager should have done in your situation -- it certainly wasn't the manager's fault, and it certainly wasn't anything he had any control over.

                                Should he have kicked the other table out? In my eyes, a completely different situation -- a fellow customer who made the conscious choice to wear perfume. Not an employee who may or may not have any control over the issue.

                                1. re: sunshine842

                                  Thankfully, I now dine in many restaurants where the chef/owner/manager make if perfectly clear there's no perfume allowed in their establishment.
                                  It's posted and if there's one waft of scent, including deodorants and bath gels, they're asked to leave.
                                  Anything that takes away from the ambience, aroma and taste of the food is offensive.

                                2. re: latindancer

                                  Yes, and I understand your point, but playing devil's advocate, that woman was a fellow diner whose livelihood wasn't threatened by you telling the manager.

                                  And you're right...telling the server may not solve the problem or get the desired response, but I do believe it's a better (and gentler) first step than going above the server's head to the manager.

                                  1. re: pinehurst

                                    we're thinking with one mind tonight, pinehurst.

                                    1. re: pinehurst

                                      Here's the thing I'm not understanding.

                                      I have worked with the public on many occasions....lecturing and educating which, at times, requires very close contact with people.
                                      If I *know* I'm going to be doing that I'll pay *special* attention to how I look, how my skin looks, if there's anything 'out of place', etc. My breath? I can honestly say that'd be foremost.
                                      If I need to...I'll ask a colleague to give me some feedback before I proceed. It's *that* important to me how I come across for many reasons.
                                      This server goes into the public eye without checking it? Sorry, but she's a reflection of the establishment. She should have checked it out before she started waiting tables unless she just doesn't care.

                                      1. re: latindancer

                                        You normal is not that of anyone else. What you do, what I do, what Bagelman does before we go to work are all different.

                                        So let's go another way -- what if she was simply running late that day -- pick a reason - traffic jam, flat tire, overslept, sick kids, et.c, etc., etc. and she flew out of the house and forgot to brush her teeth this morning. The other 364 days of the year, she brushes her teeth fastidiously -- this morning it just didn't happen and she truly didn't realize how bad it was (we're all somewhat immune to our own smells....)

                                        Is it really, truly worth putting her job in jeopardy?

                                        1. re: sunshine842

                                          I disagree. You are not putting her job in jeopardy, she is.

                                          All the reasons given amount to excuses, and it is up to the manager, not the customer, to decide who gets fired, gets a break, or who gets hired.

                                          1. re: sunshine842

                                            Do you really think that someone would get fired for having bad breath ONE day?

                                            1. re: dmjordan

                                              Yup. See the example elsewhere about a server with what a customer judged was too much cologne.

                                              1. re: sunshine842

                                                The two are not the same issue. As I understand the issue with the cologne or perfume, it was a customer. But if it was a server, they should have never been allowed on the floor.

                                                The issue with objectionable customers is a separate issue. Frankly, there is little that the restaurant can do. I have encountered this issue and simply ask to be moved. If the answer is no, then I have a decision to make. Do I accept the terms or service, or do I settle up and go elsewhere. I am capable of making that decision.

                                          2. re: latindancer

                                            Your position is my position. If you are in a position of serving the public, or more importantly in a business that serves the public, then it is not the job of the public to point out the mistakes. And you are not going to fix the problem as a customer.

                                            I said earlier, that a good manager would never allow a staff member with a problem to meet the public. You don't find unkempt, smelly, wildly tatooed counter help even in McDonalds. Much less so with more upscale restaurants.
                                            You get a spot of sketti sauce on your coat, you would not be allowed on the floor until you changed it.

                                            As I also stated, I would find it hard to believe that that management is not aware. If not, there is a larger problem.

                                            Just to clarify, I was addressing the post by latindancer. I've gotten my post out of context.

                                        2. re: latindancer

                                          I'm curious, what would "a huge scene" have done except affect everyone else's dining experience?

                                          Just because you expect a certain reaction, doesn't mean you are entitled to it or that you are in the right.

                                          1. re: latindancer

                                            I wouldn't say anything. I'd feel incredibly rude doing so.

                                        3. re: latindancer

                                          Adding, briefly, and it (telling the server, not the owner) eliminates an unnecessary party. If I ate there again and the problem wasn't rectified, I might consider telling the owner.

                                          Off topic, but I hope relevant....during high school, I worked in retail. A coworker was fired for wearing too much Polo cologne. Apparently, a regular customer was offended by the overkill of the scent (and it is a powerful scent), and told our store manager. That was it---one complaint of a regular customer sunk this kid. I am sure he would have appreciated a word from the customer first.

                                          As Sunshine said, if all managers were fair and balanced, that would be one thing, but I doubt if everyone is like bagelman, etc, or the majority of 'hounds.

                                        4. re: sunshine842

                                          If you (the server) have a sinus infection I sure don't want you handling or serving my food.

                                          Health insurance is not the customer's concern, you are overreaching.

                                          I never said sanction or terminate, that's an owner's decision. BUT if I was losing customers because of an employee's bad breath, I'd want to know about it, have an opportunity to discuss it with the employee and come up with a plan of action.

                                          As to termination being grossly unfair, In the United States employees who do not have a employemnt contract or work under a labor agreement (union contract) can LEGALLY be terminated at will. That's why they are known as 'at will employees.' That's the law and the American way.

                                          Ever want to see really bad service, try dining in a Communist country where a worker has no incentive to produce and no fear of firing.

                                          For many years in the 1970s and 80s I traveled and did business in Eastern Europe and the only to get service was to bribe the employees.

                                          1. re: bagelman01

                                            sinus infections aren't contagious -- they can also be nearly unnoticeable to anyone but the sufferer.

                                            I didn't say that health insurance was the customer's concern -- but if a restaurant offers no healthcare, only a lousy plan, or short-schedules servers so they'll never qualify for insurance, it's a valid reason why someone might not be receiving proper medical attention. All of these situations exist -- and your employees' medical concerns are none of your business unless they choose to include you in that topic.

                                            I've dined in a Communist country (Okay, Russia isn't technically communist anymore -- but I'm not sure it's really capitalist, either)and had wonderful service.

                                            And just because it's legal doesn't make it just or fair. And sometimes the American way isn't, either.

                                            1. re: sunshine842

                                              <sinus infections aren't contagious>

                                              They most certainly can be. If a person is draining from the sinus and blowing their nose with an infection and serving food to people? I've been through enough of them, in my lifetime, with an ENT doc who's main concern, other than getting me well, was to alert me to how contagious I could be with it.

                                              1. re: latindancer

                                                okay, if they're draining that badly and blowing their nose that often, they shouldn't be working in a restaurant that day.

                                                But sinus infections can often be undetectable to anyone outside the throbbing skull of the sufferer, says the voice of experience.

                                              2. re: sunshine842

                                                I never made a claim that a sinus infection is contagious, I know it is not. However the symptons that can accompany a sinus infection, such as mucus discharge, runny watery eyes, impaired hearing are all things that make me NOT want someone with a sinus infection to handle my food.

                                                Russia is not a Communist country and hasn't been since the breakup of the USSR.
                                                Back in the 80s there were many restaurants in Poland, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Albania, etc where the only way to get waited on and receive any food was to bribe the Maitre D, waiter and kitchen staff. Romania was worse, we had to bring our own food and bribe them to cook and/or serve it. Meanwhile thay had 'jobs for life.'

                                                To quote my late father: 'nobody ever said life is fair' If you don't like the laws concerning employment at will, vote in legislators that agree with your thinking.

                                                If you've ever owned a business you are very glad employment at will is the law,

                                                Think back: ever had a terrible teacher or your kids have one (public school). You complain about it, but the principal can't do anything because the teacher has tenure and there's a union contract...
                                                That's one of the reason American schools and education are no longer world leaders.

                                                Stop making excuses for employees who don't perform. The OP posted about a server with bad breath. The OP never said the server had a medical condition.

                                                BTW>>>>I am a social liberal, but a fiscal conservative, a former retail and hospitality business owner and an attorney

                                                1. re: bagelman01

                                                  I didn't say the server had a medical condition, either -- none of us has seen the server in question, so none of us can make a diagnosis. But the possibility exists.

                                                  Nobody said the employee wasn't performing, either. The only thing we know about this entire visit was that the server had bad breath.

                                                  I have been involved in small family-run businesses my entire life, up to and including making hire/fire decisions. Just because it's legal doesn't mean it's ethical and doesn't mean it's right. The American way isn't always the best way.

                                                  I also didn't ask your politics, and they are irrelevant to the discussion. They're as much none of my business as your employees' personal lives.

                                                  1. re: sunshine842

                                                    <The American way isn't always the best way.>

                                                    Yes, true, but the American way is that the employer owns the business and the employee works for the business.
                                                    The employer, unless there's something illegal happening in his/her business, has the final say.

                                                    1. re: latindancer

                                                      and that's exactly why it shouldn't be escalated to the manager or the owner.

                                              3. re: bagelman01

                                                "and the only (way) to get service was to bribe the employees"

                                                Almost sounds like tipping ;)

                                                1. re: bagelman01

                                                  Fortunately there are countries outside the former Soviet bloc where people have health coverage and workers have some rights...

                                                  As for the server, could a polite note to him or her be a solution? Lots of people really don't know they have a problem. It is like clean people who have bad body odour - happens for several reasons other than not bathing or changing one's clothing.

                                                2. re: sunshine842

                                                  I was going to point out the same thing. There are some health issues that aren't severe enough to cause disability, but can cause some mighty stinky breath. Even lactose intolerance, which is quite normal for much of the world's population, can cause rotten breath when someone with LI drinks milk or eats a food containing lactose. And sometimes, the condition is just temporary (for example, the server may have a had an absessed tooth or just had her tonsils removed) and will go away with time.

                                                  Rather than risk someone's job, I think I'd just hold my breath. Heck, I held my breath for 5 years when my mother in law lived near us, and just kept Lysol in every enclosed space, including my car, to air it out after she left.

                                            2. re: bagelman01

                                              I would never want a person fired because they had bad breath, and I didn't say the name of the restaurant for that reason. Everyone has a bad breath day. or a B-O day, or just a stink foot day. I don't know if they just had an infected tooth or ate sardines, I just wanted to know if it happens again, how do you tell someone you don't know they smell like they brushed their teeth with a kitty box candy bar.

                                              1. re: gryphonskeeper

                                                exactly, YOU DON"T TELL the server they have bad breath, you mention your concern/observation to the owner/manager and the owner/manager deals with it.
                                                The owner/manager of a restaurant is responsible for all health/cleanliness issues and this includes the staff.

                                                Last week I read in the New Haven independent that an establishment failed their inspection because an employee was assembling a sanwich while wearing fake nails. the nail came off in the latex glove while the employee was removing the glove, but it could have ended up in someone's food. Fake nails are verboten by the health code, just as dirty real fingernails.

                                                1. re: gryphonskeeper

                                                  <I would never want a person fired because they had bad breath>

                                                  i can't imagine anyone wanting that to happen, gryphonskeeper.
                                                  If I have ever gone to the manager with any concern, I have always prefaced the conversation by telling him/her that it was not my intention to get the person in trouble.
                                                  On the very rare occasion I *have* spoken to a manager about an employee, the employee was never fired. The problem was always rectified, from what I could see.

                                                  1. re: gryphonskeeper

                                                    The only way to gracefully handle this is to offer a breath mint or gum. Years ago, my mother told us children never to refuse a breath mint because if someone offered it, we needed it. I can only hope anyone I offer a mint to had a mother that told them the same thing!

                                              2. re: bagelman01

                                                I actually find a difference between cigarette smoke/smell vs. bad breath.

                                                As someone pointed out the bad breath could be from a medical condition such as an abscess or some stomach disorders can contribute as well. Giving the waitress the benefit of the doubt assuming it's not just poor hygiene I would not bring a manager or anyone else into stated I would offer them a gum or mint and a subtle hint.

                                                Cigarette smoke/smell is another thing all together. If you are smoking you know 100% what you are doing and the potential smells associated with that. This is a choice your making which can lead to the discomfort of others around you. If you don't care enough about yourself, your customers or those around you to go to the bathroom and wash your face and hands after smoking (and a spritz of cologne) then your manager does need to know, in my opinion.

                                                1. re: jrvedivici

                                                  Completely agree--there is a difference between a choice to smoke and smell badly, versus something that may be medically caused. However, this is speculation...the server may just have really bad breath and not know, not care, have poor personal grooming practices, whatever. Not enough info to know for sure.

                                                    1. re: jlhinwa

                                                      I never knew how bad I smelled when I smoked until I quit smoking and smelled others.

                                                2. Don't say anything. It's always your option to leave.

                                                  1 Reply
                                                  1. re: taos

                                                    And this, of all the passionate arguments, seems to be the most logical.

                                                  2. My Uncle was on medication that affected his own breath, so in a restaurant whenever he came across this he would leave a stick of chewing gum with the tip.

                                                    1 Reply
                                                    1. re: HillJ

                                                      I LOVE THIS REPLY! That is genius HiiiJ