Scent Situation: Offensive body odor in a small office

by epi on June 7, 2012

Q: I work in a small department within a large organization.  One of my associates has very offensive body odor.  It is so bad that it makes some of us physically ill.  Everyone, including management, speaks about his problem behind his back, but no one wants to bring it up with him.  How should this be handled?

A: Ouch!  This is one of the toughest situations to deal with in any office.  It may help to know, however, that the vast majority of people surveyed say they’d want to be told about body odor, preferably by a friend.  Your colleague needs a friend at work to talk privately with him.  The trick is to couch the conversation in terms of helping and improving, rather than criticizing, in order to solve the problem without embarrassing the person: “[Person's Name], I need to discuss a subject that’s difficult for me to raise, but that I’d want you to bring up with me if the shoe was  on the other foot.  I also want you to know that I care about you and want you to have the best possible chances for success.  That’s why I’m telling you, as a friend, that your body odor is an issue.”  From there, the friend can offer suggestions for dealing with the issue.  If no friend is available, then the other workers need to ask management to step in.  The bottom line is, the current situation is negatively affecting other workers, and may be causing difficulty with clients or customers as well.  It needs to be dealt with.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Vanna Keiler June 9, 2012 at 8:49 pm

I hate to say it, but the “management” is not doing it’s job in not taking care of this issue, they’re shirking their duties. If there is something which is distracting people from doing their job and making it hard for employees to do their job, management are paid to resolve these issues. What they should have done is sent an email out to all staff, reminding everyone about company policy regarding dress code, etc. (hopefully your company has one) and then reiterating that for the benefit of everyone, if an employee from now on is not following the specific guidelines, they will be talked to. If a company does not have a written policy, they need to create one and pass it around to all employees, and get them to sign it. I would imagine that a large organization does have such policy.

To have a coworker speak to another coworker is inviting internal conflict, and the odorous coworker may choose to misconstrue constructive criticism and turn around and complain about the conversation between them. Since you are an employee, I would not do anything at this point and let the management eventually deal with this themselves, unfortunately.

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Jerry June 10, 2012 at 8:48 am

Vanna: I respectfully disagree; EPI got this one right. The problem with sending a blast e-mail to all staff regarding dress code is that everyone says “I’m not doing anything wrong.” Because seriously, who knowingly violates dress or grooming standards? The indirect communication you suggest creates a very real possibility that the person who most needs to hear the message will lose it in the noise of all of the other messages he receives during the day.

It would truly be an act of friendship for someone — even a co-worker — to approach this person and let them know that the body odor is an issue. EPI did not suggest that the friend try to make the odoriferous person feel bad, or tell the odoriferous person what to do (and telling people what to do is where many conflicts start). And, based on the fact pattern, it sounds like management realizes that there is a problem. Maybe the solution is to have the friend tell management that, unless they say otherwise, he is intending to speak to the odoriferous person about the B.O.? Then the friend covers his fanny, the message gets to the person who needs to hear it, and everyone wins. How does that sound?

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Vanna Keiler June 10, 2012 at 1:31 pm

Jerry: I appreciate your comment. I still strongly believe this is entirely an issue for management. From the point of view of the innocent but concerned employee, even if he/she approaches management and makes suggestions, the manager(s) could turn around and use the employee as the scapegoat e.g. “Employee A told us it bothered him/her, so if you have something to say in your defense…”. I am throwing this possibility out there because of the fact that management has not stepped up this far and done their job. If everyone were to sign the document (again, if it has gone around already this year), this would be a red flag to ALL that there is indeed an infractor in the group, and everyone would be trying to figure out if they personally committed an infraction. Having to sign anything nowadays makes people carefully read what they are signing. If the odorous employee did not change his or her ways, then management would be justified in taking this person aside, and talking to them about complaints of a “smell”.

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Jerry June 10, 2012 at 2:26 pm

Vanna: You have much more faith in the ability of people to pick up so-called “red flags” than I do. From many years of experience, I know that people often don’t pick up on the fact when they are the problem. Want some proof? Every summer, law firms hire summer associates. The summers are given dress codes ahead of time. Yet every year there is generally some summer associate (usually a woman, but not always) who routinely shows too much cleavage, wears flip-flops, or wears skirts that are too short. It’s not until someone takes them aside and says “hey, you’re not dressed appropriately” that the person gets the message. And if these summer associates — who are supposed to be the best and the brightest and who have extreme financial incentives to impress — don’t get the message after receiving a memo, what chance do you think everyone else has?

Also please note that EPI’s advice didn’t say an “innocent but concerned employee” should approach the smelly guy. EPI used the term “friend,” and I can only assume that this was intentional. Also, note that management has shirked its responsibility here. The question specifically states that “[e]veryone, including the management, speaks about the problem.” Given that management has decided to do nothing, I see your solution as the functional equivalent of “do nothing, it’s not your problem.” That’s certainly a valid response, but it does nothing to solve the problem.

Another solution just occurred to me. Given that the O.P. works in a small department in a large company, he could consider sending an anonymous note to human resources. This is a double edged sword, however, because management will most likely be offended if it ever finds out who went over its’ head. I still think EPI got this exactly right — if you’re going to something, approach the smelly guy as a friend. But do so only with management’s knowledge and approval.

(BTW, Vanna, I appreciate your grammar in using the colon.)

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Ralph June 13, 2012 at 6:00 pm

My mom recently passed. Is it appropriate to acknowledge their upcoming wedding anniversary with a card?

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Winifred Rosenburg June 13, 2012 at 9:49 pm

For your father I assume? That would be nice. Just don’t give him an anniversary card as they tend to be cheery. Your best bet is a blank card where you can say something about how you were thinking of your mom, etc.

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Joanna April 5, 2013 at 8:49 pm

Re: Odoriferous body
So what do you do when you’re in a office with no windows and you are the person who “stinks”? Did it ever occur to you that the person w/the odor has tried just about every product that’s been on the market in the last 40 years and none of them do the job completely. I can’t go home and take a shower every other hour. If I use deodorant and/or perfume the odor police complain to management they don’t like the perfume, that it makes them sick. If I don’t use the deodorant and/or perfume, the odor police complain to management, they don’t like the body odor, that it makes them sick. I shower every day. I never wear an article of clothing twice without washing in between. I’ve tried dietary changes. Nothing helps. I’m thinking of taping a car pine scented fragrance thing on the back of my chair. EXTREMELY FRUSTRATING!!!!!

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Winifred Rosenburg April 6, 2013 at 9:54 am

Deodorant is generally not in the same category as perfume as far as odors go. Perhaps you were wearing deodorant with a particularly strong smell. I suggest getting an unscented or mildly scented deodorant and using a thin layer. I strongly doubt you will get complaints from that.

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Becky Heiland December 30, 2013 at 11:44 am

I work in an office where the public comes to. We have a person who comes in everyday and smells badly. That person is dirty, and I think has never taken a bath since coming in two months ago. Is there a sign we can make about washing so he sees it? What do you think I should do? This person may be mentally unstable too?
Thank you,
Becky H
12-30-13

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