How to Tell a Co-Worker He Stinks (Literally)

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Carol Althaus had a problem. One of her co-workers, a great hardworking guy whom everyone liked, had horrible body odor ‒ sometimes. Well, most of the time actually, but there were days when everything seemed fine. Or maybe she was just getting used to it.

It had become a topic of conversation among several people in the office, and everyone agreed that someone should mention it to him. But everyone agreed that it should be someone else.

The manager of Carol's team was also aware of the issue and chose to address it during one of their regular monthly lunch-and-learn sessions. She facilitated a discussion on the topic of "Fragrance Sensitivity" which included information about not using strong colognes and perfumes because they give some people headaches. Then she moved on to "other odor issues" and listed a series of potential causes on a PowerPoint slide:

  • Stress
  • Food (garlic, broccoli, curry, etc.)
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Medication
  • Hormonal changes
  • Genetics
  • Personal hygiene

She even went to the "How Stuff Works" website to walk the team through "The Cause of Body Odor" which ends with tips for managing body odor. She was more comfortable doing this than giving the group a lecture on personal hygiene.

Everyone agreed it was a good presentation. But nothing changed. And while it would be great to say that eventually someone had "the talk" with him and he made some changes and everything is better now, the truth is more complicated. No one said anything to him, but 6 months later he was passed over for a promotion to supervisor. He was frustrated because he knew he was better qualified than the person they promoted. And within another six months he left the company, accepting a supervisor position somewhere else.

And the reaction of his manager and co-workers? Relief that they no longer had to deal with the issue. So a valued, experienced employee walks out the door because no one was willing to have "the talk" about an admittedly uncomfortable topic.

When one of them recounted this story to me I asked, "Are there other tough topics that your group avoids?" She was pretty sure this was the only one. Hmm…

Be Direct, Compassionate and Discreet

Whether the issue is body odor or something else that is personal and potentially uncomfortable (for both parties) it is critical that someone is willing to address the issue head on, but in a sensitive manner. Isn't that what YOU would want, if others had noticed (and were discussing behind your back) something about you?

Be aware that many people are unaware of their own odor. Just because you can smell someone doesn't mean he can smell himself. I have found that the most productive dialogue goes something like this in a private setting when there is no time pressure:

"I want to talk about something that might be uncomfortable for both of us."

(Don't talk around it, or in general terms. Get specific quickly.)

"Almost every day you have a very noticeable body odor. I should probably have addressed this earlier, because I know that's what I would want if the situation were reversed, so I'm sorry that I waited so long."

(It is not your job to fix the situation – just to inform the person.)

"I don't want to minimize the situation just to be nice, so I have to tell you that it is very noticeable and unpleasant whenever anyone sits or stands close to you in the office."

(The natural response is "Who else has complained about this? Are they talking about me?")

"All I know is that the odor is very distinct and I would expect that others have noticed it. So I just wanted to let you know so that you can decide what you want to do about it."

It is very awkward ending this conversation, but if you have a (true) personal story you can tell to express your empathy, this can help. Something like:

"Look, I know how weird this is. None of us really can smell ourselves. Thankfully for me, my wife had a very sensitive nose and if she even gets little whiff of body odor from me I'm required to take a shower. And she never lets me out of the house in the morning without a quick check and sometimes she send me back for more deodorant, or even another shower."

Your approach should always be about problem-solving—not accusatory.

The same thing holds for colleagues with chronic bad breath. Passing a breath mint is subtle—almost a too subtle hint. Haven't you ever reminded your husband or children they need to floss between meals and get their teeth cleaned? Most people will appreciate a diplomatic nudge.

Choose Your Words and Tone Carefully

While some people are tempted to leave anonymous notes, the one-on-one approach is much more effective and ultimately more kind/respectful if you choose your words and tone thoughtfully. Don't use words like "repulsive" or "repugnant," or anything else that is overly harsh. Even if true, these words will likely create more harm than good.

"Less than fresh" is a good, relatively soft phrase to use.

Cultural or Medical Issues?

With so many diverse cultures in the workplace today, if you have something to say about body odor, do it in a way that doesn't suggest anything other than that this person needs to address the issue. Do not make even positive comments about cultural differences.

Some malodorous employees may have a legitimate claim to protection under the Americans With Disabilities Act, which provides equal access and opportunities to individuals with disabilities. If an employee can prove that his odor stems from a medical condition or that he is allergic to deodorant, for example, he would probably receive special consideration.

Should You Have HR Do It?

I know this is a common approach. Kick the ball over the fence to HR. But seriously, how would you feel if that happened to you? Wouldn't you think "Seriously? You guys couldn't just talk to me yourselves. You had to make it official? Geez!" and then out of embarrassment and frustration wouldn't you probably start looking for a new job?

So put your big boy pants on and address the issue directly.

The good news for you is that if you develop the ability to be more direct in this situation, it will benefit you in many other situations where you might be tempted to ignore the issue or hope someone else handles it.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.