Dealing with body odour in the office

Body Odour in the workplace

Among the most difficult issues people managers at times need to deal with is the ‘smelly’ person in the office.  Countless times in my HR career I have had managers virtually beg me to deal with it so they don’t have to.  I must confess that among the line up of difficult people issues this is one I have been more willing to take on.  Typically my response to a manager looking to side step their job and handball it to me is “I will help you do it, but I won’t do it for you”.  However understanding how uncomfortable most people feel in these scenarios my empathy for the manager in question but more importantly my desire to see it handled well has inspired me to step in.

As a consequence I have told people they smell on many occasions with of course varying degrees of success.  Largely however I believe these people have benefited from being made aware and have left with their dignity in tact.  Lets face it most people really don’t want to hear that they smell and they especially don’t want to hear that the whole office is talking about it.  Here are the things I have learned about how to tell someone really awkward ‘stuff’ like you smell:

  1. Have courage and deal with it – the longer you leave the issue unaddressed the more likely it is that the person will be made aware in embarrassing and even belittling circumstances.  Keep in mind the discomfort created for others and their need to have the issue addressed.  Once I observed a woman find out that her colleagues thought she stunk via a chain of emails she was eventually copied in on before someone thought to delete the commentary about her personal hygiene.
  2. Have empathy – we are all human beings and can be smelly at times. Much like the full moon, summer can be a challenging time when it comes to managing people. There are lots of reasons someone could have ongoing body odour issues that are difficult to resolve.  On numerous occasions the person concerned has advised me they are indeed aware and have been working with their doctor to find a solution.  Imagine the humiliation and horror these people must feel when finding a complimentary bottle of deodorant sitting on their desk!  Another heartless tactic I have observed far too often.
  3. Get to the point – stammering and stuttering while raising the issue will only exacerbate the discomfort you and the person in question is likely to feel.  Be prepared for what you need to say and then say it in a manner that is direct and yet sensitive.  Have empathy in your tone while speaking with conviction.
  4. Don’t tell them everyone is talking about it – minimize embarrassment by talking about your own observations, not everyone else’s.  “Sandy, this may be difficult for you to hear but I’ve noticed on a number of occasions that your body odour can be quite strong. I’m not sure if you are already aware but I feel its only fair that I let you know in case you aren’t”.
  5. Explain why it matters – “my concern is if I have noticed it is possible that others have also.  I’m sure you can appreciate that working closely with other people it may become an issue for them and impact both their comfort and your own”.
  6. Don’t offer solutions! – it really isn’t a good idea to make suggestions or ask questions like ‘do you shower each day’ or ‘you may need to look at other brands of deodorant’.  Tell them it’s a problem and then leave it to them to resolve it.  Most people will be grateful for your honesty and the courage you have shown by talking to them about it.
  7. Offer support and let them go – “please don’t hesitate to let me know Sandy if there is something I should be aware of or can do to help you.  Otherwise I will leave you to resolve the issue in what ever way you need to”.  At this point the vast majority of people I have spoken to have offered further insight to the problem and expressed sincere desire to resolve it.

In all the years I have been dealing with this and similar issues I have never had someone either not care or not at the very least attempt to resolve the problem.  Most human beings will immediately try to deal with it the best they can.   There has been the odd occasion when it has been ongoing because it is a medical problem.  In these circumstances I have spoken to others either with the person in question or on their behalf because it has become necessary to provide comfort to their colleagues that they are trying to resolve the issue.  In those circumstances I have found people to be compassionate and patient.


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