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3 Polite (and Effective) Ways to Address a Smelly Coworker
Adobe Stock / contrastwerkstatt
Abby Lee
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Writing Fellow
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Summer is here, which means hotter temperatures, lighter clothing and more sweating. If you have to bike through 90 degree weather to get to work with no showers or your office building doesn’t have optimal air conditioning, you might find it more challenging to maintain good hygiene. We’ve all been in conditions where we’ve smelled less than our ideal selves, but how do we make sure it doesn’t happen in the workplace? 

We can buy all the perfume we want for ourselves, but we can’t give our coworkers a new deodorant stick each week as a subtle nudge to upkeep hygiene. There are nice and effective ways to let your coworker know that their odor is adversely affecting themselves and those around them. 

3 ways to address a smelly coworker

When deciding how to approach the situation, Barbara Pachter, owner of business communications training company Pachter & Associates and author of "The Power of Positive Confrontation: The Skills You Need to Handle Conflicts at Work, at Home, Online, and in Life",  states to determine whether the issue is a regular occurrence. If the smell is temporary, you could let it go and not mention anything, because it could cause more harm than good. However, if the smell is consistent, it’s important to mention something to the employee as bad body odor will affect the way the employee is perceived by management, coworkers and potential clients.

If you have determined that the odor is a regular occurrence, it’s important to not assume the cause of the odor. Hygiene problems may be caused for a variety of reasons, such as medical issues, cultural differences, mental health issues and personal problems. Employees should never assume anything about a person’s condition, out of personal courtesy and to ensure they’re not violating non-discrimination laws. With that in mind, here are ways to approach a smelly coworker. 

1. Develop a policy.

This is more of a preventative measure. According to Automatic Data Processing, Inc. (ADP), setting clear expectations concerning personal hygiene and grooming habits can help minimize issues later on. Employers may want to consider developing a separate workplace hygiene policy and/or incorporate expectations concerning personal hygiene into their dress code or personal appearance policies. Specificity is key and providing clear examples of a company’s expectations will leave little room for doubt. 

2. Carve out time to speak in private.

Talking to someone about her personal hygiene is a sensitive subject, so it’s important to find the right time and space to do so. This subject matter is not necessary for others to hear and you want the participant to feel that she’s in a safe environment. Schedule a private time at the end of the day, so that she doesn’t need to work feeling self-conscious for the entire day.  

3. Be direct, but tactful.

If no one says anything, chances are nothing will change. It’s important to not beat around the bush and be tactful as you don’t want the employee to feel like this conversation is a personal attack. Who delivers the news will depend on company policy and work relationships. If you have a good relationship with the coworker, you could bring it up directly. However, you also don’t want to put yourself in an awkward working relationship so usually, it will be the responsibility of the employee’s manager to deliver the news. 

As a manager, start by mentioning that she has done good work. According to Inc. Magazine, you could say something like, "I want to discuss something that's awkward, and I hope I don't offend you. I have noticed you have had a noticeable odor lately. It might be a need to wash clothes more frequently or shower more, or it could be a medical problem. This is the kind of thing that people often don't realize about themselves, so I wanted to bring it to your attention and ask you to see what you can do about it." 

By saying “I have noticed” the manager isolates the experience to herself, instead of mentioning various peoples’ complaints and embarrassing the employee. Give the employee time to voice her opinions. If she is combative, explain that smelling fresh and clean makes a large impact on the office. 

How to tolerate a smelly coworker

It takes time to resolve this issue, so in the meantime, you’ll have to find a way to either tolerate the smell or take action. If you don’t enjoy confrontation or aren’t sure of the repercussions of addressing the issue, avoiding the smelly colleague can lessen or remedy the issue. Check if your office has extra empty workstations and then speak to your manager to request a move. It’s not necessary to go into every detail about why you want to relocate. You can frame the request as a benefit to your productivity since the area has less distractions. 

However, if relocation is not possible, refer to the employee handbook. Some businesses have policies that request employees abstain from wearing fragrances or exercise moderation with scents. Ultimately, the employee’s supervisor can address the issue. Explain to the supervisor that the colleague's perfume bothers you in specific ways, such as leading to headaches or triggering your allergies. Managers can speak to the employee directly or get assistance from HR. If the odor is due to a medical issue, there’s no point in pushing further and the coworker has assurance that the company will accommodate her. 

How not to approach a smelly coworker

While it seems important to let the coworker know as soon as possible about her body odor, it’s equally as important to do so with tact. Approaching the issue in a passive aggressive or blaming manner, will make the situation more difficult than it needs to be. Below are some tips on what not to do when approaching a smelly worker. 

1. Don’t leave passive-aggressive hints.

You might assume that by leaving small clues, such as strategically placed cans of deodorant near a person’s desk, an employee will take the bait and begin using the products. However, this is not ideal because employees rarely understand the purpose and they don’t find it funny when they find out the true reason. 

2. Don’t be “The Messenger.” 

One of the main fears when approaching a person about a sensitive issue such as personal hygiene, is that the employee will think you are making a personal attack. So, it’s natural to want to shift the responsibility of the feedback unto someone else. However, this can backfire. 

Tom Preston, the founder of one of UK’s leading executive coaching companies, tells the story of a line manager who told an employee that the rest of the office had been complaining about their smell. Imagine finding out from a manager that the rest of the office had been discussing your issue behind your back. It was enough embarrassment that the employee quit. 

It’s difficult to have a discussion about an employee’s personal hygiene, because, well it’s personal. However, it’s important to address the issue before it begins to negatively affect the workplace. Make sure to keep it professional and be aware that there might be cultural or medical reasons for the smell. 

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