The Sick Coworker You Don’t Know Well

Scarves, originally uploaded to Flickr by theqspeaks.Reader S wonders what to do about an ill officemate she doesn’t know very well…

I have an office etiquette question. I work in a large office suite and am on nodding acquaintance with a woman on the other side of the floor. Recently she has started wearing a head scarf, and once I saw her without one, and she has lost all her hair.

Should I just ignore this? Or a general “everything OK?” and let her disclose what she’d like?

Hmmn. I think this really depends both on the office as well as what you know of this woman. My gut is telling me to continue your relationship as normal rather than say anything — smile, make chitchat, and see if she brings it up. I think my reasoning is going like this: if you don’t talk to the woman much now, and then you start this conversation and she says something like “well yes, actually, I have cancer and have six months to live,” then what are you going to do with that information? Be her best friend? Go back to not talking to her? It seems selfish to bring it up to satisfy your own curiosity.  (Pictured: Scarves, originally uploaded to Flickr by theqspeaks.)

On the other hand, if it’s a smaller office and the woman doesn’t have many people to talk to, you may want to broach the subject if you’re ready to be the person she can lean on at the office. The next time I saw her — in the coffee room, washing your hands in the ladies room, whatever — I might go one of two routes, and say something like “How are you feeling?” — or something very casual, such as “that’s a beautiful scarf — is it silk?” Or something like that, and see where the conversation goes.

I’m curious, readers — what do you think? Do you think the coworker should know Reader S is concerned and has noticed — or that Reader S should mind her own business?


  1. As someone who has had friends and family in this situation, I would say a couple of things. First, find out if there is someone she does talk to who would be able to tell you how she wants it dealt with. Some people are very private about it and see work as their place to “get away” from the medical stuff – so, they don’t want to talk about it, especially to people they barely know. But, I would also say that if she took her scarf off in public or is choosing to wear a scarf instead of a wig, etc. than this is a sign that she may be okay with people knowing/talking about it.
    But, I do think its better to be straightforward with your approach rather than “pretending” you are talking about the scarf, when really you are talking about why she is wearing it. I think saying something like “I couldn’t help but notice the scarves you’ve been wearing lately. I just wanted to say that I hope things are going well and if I can do anything to help you out, just let me know.” is much more meaningful than making the comment on the scarf. But, only say it if you mean it. Just my $.02…

    • When the manageing partner is sick, he STILL comes in to my office and blowes his nose. FOOEY!

      I told him NOT to get me sick b/c I need the pay check and he is many times to sick and should NOT even be @ Work to begin with!

      So when he came in last week, I told him NOT to touch anyething and to turn RIGHT around and call me. His office is RIGHT across the hall, b/c he likes to stare at me all day. FOOEY!

    • Diana Barry :

      Ditto to all of this. Only comment (and Sue’s suggestion is spot-on) if it is meaningful to you, and not because you feel you ‘should’.

    • Third to all of this. When my mother had terminal cancer it seemed to dominate everything in my life. It was great to have slight acquaintances who didn’t know anything about it and were willing to talk about other things with me. Celebrity gossip was a welcome distraction to the real drama in my life.

    • I like Sue’s suggestion.

    • Was starting to putting together my reply aling the lines of what Sue said, but not half as good.

    • so very anon for this :

      As someone in the bald coworker’s situation (I had cancer, and went bald and wore hats/scarves while saving for a wig — they’re very expensive, so my not wearing one was not an indication that I was more open to chatting about my situation) I’d say Kat’s gut feeling is right on the money.

      My hope, at work, is to have my outward appearance ignored so that I can be perceived as the professional who has returned to work and is trying to manage a happy and healthy existence. I realize it may be difficult for people to ignore. However, if someone wasn’t a close acquaintance before, my new appearance doesn’t make her one. A compliment on my headwear will, for better or worse, come off as thinly veiled curiosity.

      My best friend growing up had alopecia, and she didn’t welcome comments from classmates who weren’t previously her friends, either.

  2. I had to wear a cast once and found it absolutely exhausting explaining it everyoone everywhere I went. I can’t even imagine what it must feel like to have to do all of that while facing something truly impacting your health. I absolutely would not say anything unless she chooses to bring it up. I wouldn’t want to be another voice reminding the person that they’re not looking like they normally do or give any sort of impression that they’re possibly the source of office gossip. If you aren’t close enough to routinely converse with each other (rather than just small talk in the halls) than I don’t think you’re close enough to break normal expecations of privacy. It truly should be her choice on whether she wants to talk about it or not. (If you’re in the person’s circle, mind you, I think this would be different. You would be offering support. I think the key difference is you also have different expectations on how much personal information you typically share when you’re actually friends.)

    • Ugh. I need a serious editor today. Time to step away from the keyboard.

    • so very anon for this :

      Agree, agree, agree. Very well said.

      It IS exhausting. The worst part of it, for me, is that if someone does comment or ask a question, I feel too bad to give a curt response and shut the conversation down. I answer, with a smile on my face, and stave off anxiety (is my response headed for the rumormill now? Did HR put her up to this? WHY ME?!) for the rest of the day.

  3. I don’t know. I used to work with a man who had testicular cancer and everyone knew but no one wanted to talk with him about it, maybe because it was in his man parts. I always asked him how he was doing, how his treatments were going, how he was feeling and he always thanked me for aksing and seemed to be happy to talk about it.

    If the OP feels like it she can ask, once, “Hey, how are you feeling?” If she gets a curt, “Fine,” then drop it. But if the woman opens up to her, then I think she can continue to ask.

    Asking after someone’s health is a way of showing you care, and some of us are happy to have that human contact.

  4. If it were me (and I come from a non-lawyer field), if it was someone I felt comfortable speaking to, I’d say something to the effect of, “hey, I’ve noticed your gorgeous scarves. If you ever want to chat, let me know.” and let it go. If I got the vibe that she might be shy or others might overhear, I would probably leave a note at her desk, “thinking of you… I don’t want to intrude and won’t bring it up again unless you do but if you ever want to grab coffee, let me know.” That way she knows she can accept the offer or turn it down and it won’t be awkward either way.

  5. I would handle it by saying “that’s a beautiful scarf” on a day when she’s wearign a scarf that you think is pretty, and let her take it from there. That way it’s her decision whether to just say thank you or to talk about her health.

  6. AnonInfinity :

    I wouldn’t handle this by commenting on the scarves. I think if she does want to talk about it, such a tactic can make the situation more awkward for her.

    AnonInfinity: What a beautiful scarf.
    Co-worker: Thanks; I have cancer.

    IF you say anything (and that’s a bit IF), I think saying something like, “How are you feeling?” Is less awkward for her (though possibly more awkward for you) because both “fine” (i.e., I don’t want to talk about it) and “I’m handling the chemo well, thank you” (i.e., I do want to talk about it) could be responses from her end.

    • MissJackson :

      I don’t know. If I were the coworker, the conversation might go something like this:

      AnonInfinity: What a beautiful scarf.
      MissJackson: Thanks. Having an excuse to buy gorgeous scarves is the one upside of cancer.

    • I agree with this.

    • We’re assuming that she does have some serious medical condition. She could have alopecia (I think that’s what it’s called–where a person’s hair falls out periodically even though there isn’t anything “wrong” with that person) or perhaps another, similar disorder. A guy I went to high school with had this problem and was allowed to wear hats when his hair was falling out even though the hats otherwise violated dress code.

      Because she might not have a serious condition, I like the idea of commenting on the scarf, which allows her the opportunity to just say “thank you” or explain further.

  7. Fashion-related question:

    How do you all keep wrinkle-free at work, when wearing a pencil skirt? Or even a straight skirt? I spend most of my day sitting at the computer and within an hour or two of arriving to work I have terrible wrinkles across my lap. The only thing that I’ve found that works is a wearing polyester. But sometimes a girl wants to wear a nice wool blend or even cotton and not look like a frumpy mess. Is there a solution to this issue?
    (yes, I’m wearing clothes that fit me. I’m aware that too-tight skirts cause this problem but trust me, that’s not the issue here). TIA!

    And regarding the issue posted about…I feel like too often people avoid these types of topics thinking that the person doesn’t want to talk about it…but sometimes I think that’s just an excuse for your own discomfort. In my experience, it is very nice to have someone offer some discrete sympathy and support.

    • I only manage to avoid wrinkles when wearing non-wrinkle fabrics. Otherwise, pencil skirts and sheath dresses wrinkle just from sitting on the subway on the way to work! I’ve pretty much stopped wearing linen for this reason, and I’m picky about what cotton I’ll wear and when. I don’t have this problem with wool though. Most of my straight wool skirts are really thick wool and they’re lined; I don’t know if that makes a difference. The only solutions I’ve found are to be pickier about what I buy or not care about the wrinkles.

    • Huh, my wool skirts are the least likely to wrinkle of all my skirts. 100% wool in a tight weave like gabardine is the key.

  8. Anyone see this article on women and job burnout? I don’t get what makes this a “women” issue v. an “everyone” issue… but then I didn’t read too closely.

    • I think it’s a follow-up article to this:

  9. Cancer Sucks :

    Speaking from personal experience (I’m currently undergoing chemo for breast cancer and working full time through treatment), I think a general “how are you doing?” would be the least obtrusive. If I’m having a good day, I might give a little quip about how I’m enjoying sleeping in a little more in the morning since I don’t have to worry about fixing my hair. And if I’m having a bad day, I might just say “fine” and hope the issue gets dropped. But honestly the same question might trigger a different response at 10 a.m. than it does at 11 am. But I also assume that everyone knows I’m going through cancer treatment, FWIW.

    • Clea dress :

      Huge hugs to you.

    • soulfusion :

      Big hugs to you! I just finished chemo in October and am just starting radiation therapy now so I have been there. I worked through about half of chemo and am now back at work during radiation. And I agree with you 100%. A simple “how are you doing” or “how are you feeling” opens the door to allow the woman to talk about it or skirt by the issue. Sometimes it is refreshing to talk about other things and sometimes it feels weird to avoid it, like the proverbial elephant in the room.

      The fact that I chose not to wear a wig, from my perspective, meant I’m comfortable talking about it. I don’t view having cancer as anything shameful I need to hide away and honestly, I will take any and all the support I can get. I was actually shocked when a co-worker at an office cocktail event asked if my “new look” was something I planned on keeping. He was, of course, mortified when I told him it was due to cancer and not a fashion choice. When things got really bad during chemo and I was no longer working, I found coming into the office bolstering at times because there was so much support, not just from people I already knew and considered friends but from random people throughout the office with whom I had previously only exchanged passing greetings. There are a number of people with whom I feel much closer because of the support they offered me. Obviously everyone handles these things differently but from my perspecitve, I welcome every offer of genuine support I can get because cancer sucks. I knew I had cancer (had to change that to past tense!!), I felt it was fairly obvious to those around me because I was bald (have enough hair now that someone complimented my “haircut”!) and was actually surprised when people didn’t know. I say, try and approach her and don’t take it personally if she brushes you aside. Coping with cancer and chemo side effects can also make you emotionally raw, or at least it did with me.

  10. I think treating the person normally is best for someone you don’ t know well. “how are you?” “snow coming- so chilly out there!” “what’d you think of htat presentation?” whatever. I don’t like near strangers butting into my personal stuff even if they mean well. Had someone I know only by name only jokingly try to chastise me for drinking coffee pregnant- it was decaf. Shut up, random woman! No thanks for the judgy!
    Even if they are trying to be nice, often I am very busy, emotionally and physically exhausted, and don’t want to engage in extra drama. The flip side is if the person is lonely and wants to engage- I am assertive enough that I’d make that happen (scheduled lunch last week with a woman I know a little bit who has gone through pregnancy at my company, etc.). but I get that others may have a harder time reaching out. Then again, aren’t the private/shy types the ones who might least likely like a random person approaching them? I don’t know what it’s like to be introverted- any of you out there who can opine?

  11. I have arthritis and sometimes I need a cane to help me walk. There are only a few people in the office who know about my need for the extra “fashion accessory” and I prefer to keep it that way. I would hate it if people I wasn’t close too asked me about my cane when I am using. I am still coming to terms with being under 30 and diagnosed with an incurable illness and with the fact that I will need a hip replacement in the near future. I also don’t feel like I need to tell everyone about every little thing in my life. I prefer to keep work at work and keep home stuff at home.

  12. For anyone with a disability (and cancer is in that group) the etiquette is to treat them as fully dimensional people. Most people don’t want folks at work discussing their medical situations – “Oh, you had a physical! What was your weight? Any high blood pressure?” “So, was that an anti-depressant pill you were taking ?” Some things are too personal. The nurse, your spouse, ok, but not acquaintances, especially at work.

    If you get information, keep your assumptions in check, and keep the information as confidential. If her change in status is a reminder that you could be a little more outgoing, generally friendly and social in the office, do that. Don’t single someone out based on an assumption. She may value the continuity of your relationship staying the same – low key.

    Many years ago my boss was sure she should come see me at the hospital post-partum, and I was recoiling mentally. I wanted my privacy, and didn’t want to have the work stuff “on” for her at a time that would so clearly be personal.

    • well said – ADA girl. (I can’t believe your boss came to see you in the hospital – dumb move!)

  13. New to Law :

    I’ve been on the opposite side of this equation. I have a big scar on my chest that is visible in most blouses because I had surgery to address a life-long illness. I always notice people staring at the scar, but almost no one asks me why it’s there and no one, even many close friends, knows about my illness. They just stare.

    While there are plenty of people that I absolutely do not wish to discuss my health issues with, there are many situations where I feel like it’s more awkward because people don’t ask. I will never say anything unless someone else brings it up because it’s an odd thing to simply announce, but it’s not like I don’t know that the whole world notices. It is also something that is a big part of my life, so it’s really odd if friends don’t know. I’m pretty sure anyone who wears a head scarf knows that it’s rather obvious that she has health issues.

    My advice is that it depends on your relationship with this person. If you are in any position of authority over the co-worker, or especially if you are in HR, then don’t say anything. It’s just not appropriate. If you are a casual acquaintance, say something nice, but leave it at that unless she wants to talk. You could say that you hope everything is ok and your happy to listen if she ever wants to talk. If you have gone into the realm of being friends, or even just friendly – say you have lunch together or chat for 30 minutes at a time – then not saying something is going to make things really uncomfortable for her. Just ask, but be respectful about what she wants to tell you. “I don’t mean to pry, but I’ve noticed that you wear a head scarf now. Do you mind me asking about it?” Most likely, she will want to talk because it’s a big part of her life. But if she doesn’t, you have already told her that you don’t mean to pry and she can just say she’d rather not talk about it.

  14. Consulting :

    Personally I think “how are you doing?”/”How’s it going?”/”How are you?” is more appropriate than “How are you feeling?” because it is something you might ask anyone, and isn’t implicitly asking about her medical condition. When I was pregnant, people asked me “How are you feeling?” all the time and it drove me nuts…

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