How to Tell Someone They Smell Bad

smelly coworkersReader R has a question about a smelly coworker that, I think, should spark a lively discussion:

I have asked numerous other people (coworkers and friends) and so far no one has given a polite and appropriate response to my dilemma. I work with a lawyer who smells awful. At first I thought it might have just been a random thing but more often than not he smells awful. Lately, he’s gotten into this habit of talking very close to me and once (I am not exaggerating here) I nearly lost my lunch. It’s much worse in the summer (he has an office with lots of windows and direct sunlight so the smells are intensified). What do I say to politely let him know he is emitting a bad odor? Do I leave anonymous mints on his desk and hope he takes the hint? Please help me. I don’t want to be rude but I need to say something.

This problem comes up surprisingly often, I think, whether it’s a problem with the conspiracy theorist who avoids deodorant, the hippie who doesn’t like to waste water by bathing, people who have undiagnosed medical problems that leave them with strong bodily odors — and more. I’m curious to see what the readers say.  (Pictured: a screenshot from this YouTube clip of the movie Labyrinth.)

For my $.02, there are a few ways to handle it.

1) Pass the Buck. You need to go to this guy’s boss or the HR department and — privately — say that perhaps someone should talk to him because you’ve noticed that he emits a bad odor and that it may be off-putting to clients, as well as other coworkers. This is a legitimate business issue, and one that HR people or managers must have dealt with before.

2) Send an anonymous email. There are entire websites that exist to tell bad news to someone, anonymously. A quick Google brought me to The Stench Informer — but I still think it would be devastating to get an e-mail like that.

3) Do your best to change his behavior. Bring two mint teas with you whenever you have to work with him, for example.  Chewing strong gum yourself may help you deal with him — the primary thing you smell may be the gum rather than him.

There’s a fourth option, of course — telling him directly, which is admittedly a bit more grown-up than my second or third suggestions. But ultimately, this is why the HR department (or the boss) exists — they have to have tough conversations like this, not you. If you’re fond of the guy and worry his career would somehow be harmed if you kick it up the chain, though, then you may have to do the awkward thing and tell him yourself.

Readers, how would you tell a coworker that they smell?

Comments

  1. There is an assistant in my office who smells overwhelmingly of dryer sheets. Normally an acceptable scent but at this strength it is pretty bad. I suspect she may be trying to cover up another scent but dryer sheet is all I can ever smell.

    • Better dryer sheet than BO…

      • This. One of my pet peeves is people who don’t brush their teeth and it’s a widespread problem in Singapore & HongKong, especially the latter. I can barely stand next to colleagues sometimes and I’ve just given up as it’s so widespread.

      • Anonymous :

        True

    • I took one of those community policing courses as part of criminal law in law school, we were told and there are laundry-scented perfumes and spritzes that are specifically used to cover up marijuana scents. It makes me giggle every time I see the Demeter fragrances in Ulta.

      • On the flipside, a company called Fresh makes a perfume called Cannabis that’s supposed to smell like pot. “No, officer, I swear — it’s just my perfume!” ;)

  2. Anonymous :

    If it is a situation where the smell won’t change, you could dab a bit of something nice smelling right under your nose. This is a tip a coroner friend told me about (apparently, it works). Also, it’s advice I’ve heard for airline travel, where you really can’t control the smells around you.

  3. I think going to HR is the only good solution. This saves you the embarrasment of having to have a face to face convo with this person and possibly ruining your working relationship, and save him/her the paranoia and stress that comes from a creepy anonymous note. (I know I would be obsessing for months about who I thought wrote it, and it might ruin my relationships with everyone).

    • Agreed.

    • Alias Terry :

      Also agreed. Directly approaching a person about an issue like this could end up with you facing a harassment complaint. (HR told me that. We have a person who thinks washing their clothes is too much of a chore.)

    • I third this.

    • I agree. HR deals with these issues all the time. You would be shocked to hear the types of things people tell them and that falls on their plates. However, depending on the size of your firm will depend on if this is a viable option. A large firm should have a sizable and experienced HR department. If you are in a small firm, then you may only have one person who handles HR duties (among other things) and who may or may not be capable of handling this.

  4. I vote strongly AGAINST the anonymous note. That would be soul-crushing, and could lead to pretty awful consequences (what if he becomes convinced some other person important in his life wrote it, and ruins that relationship on those grounds?)

    I think the HR route is the only real option. Direct confrontation is unecessary and oculd even be inappropriate. (Are you his senior, is he yours, are you approximately the same? This could affect whether you should and could say anything directly to him.)

    However, as a warning, even though they shouldn’t be, HR can be really gossipy. I had a friend who bought a partner issue up with HR which got out and spread – the fallout was pretty awful for her. Make sure you are prepared to deal with the fallout if it does become known that it was you who talked to HR.

  5. Consider the possibility that this person is aware and just doesn’t care.
    I just spent a CLE with someone with tremendous B.O. and I can guarantee you it was not because the person left their speed stick at home.
    If the person doesn’t care, you may have very limited options other than speaking to HR b/c then it seems that HR implicitly threatening his position is the only thing that could be effective.

    But, on the other hand, lots of people just don’t realize they have an odor — I think this is more true with bad breath or people who have a funky “I don’t believe in bathing too often but I wear deodorant so I must be ok” odor. Speaking to HR might just needlessly embarass them. In such case, I would start with hints — offer them gum or an altoid, etc. Actually, anytime someone offers me gum, I always take it b/c I worry they’re trying to tell me something! If hints don’t work, then consider HR or maybe just limiting your interactions in some way. A quick trick I do that may help, too: I place my fingers under my nose, as if I am thinking, if I have to smell someone awful. It helps.

    • I’ve dabbed perfume or lotion on the underside of my arm, and rested my fingertips on my top lip (like I’m trying to cover a yawn, but more contemplative) so the smell wafts up my hand. My mom always used to do this pose when she was thinking so it feels pretty natural to me. Plus, putting scent on your arm under your jacket or shirt means it’s a little covered up so others don’t get a bombastic smell unless they’re standing on top of you.

  6. Quick threadjack: I’m in “networking,” mode, and received a response from one of my contacts. I addressed the contact as Ms. ____ in my initial outreach (it has been a few years since I worked with her or contacted her and she is a named partner). I received a brief and positive response via e-mail (yay!), which she signed off on using the familiar version of her first name (e.g. “Kat” “Sam” etc). She’s not stuffy, but at the same time, she is ridiculously successful. Do I respond to the e-mail using the familiar version of her first name? Or do I continue w/ the formality? And when we meet in person, how should I address her? TIA!

    • lawyerette :

      My rule since college has been that if someone (including a professor) signs an email with their first name, that is how I start referring to them in emails (though sometimes I still hold back in person). I think it’s perfectly fine for you to refer to her by the name she signed with.

    • AnonInfinity :

      Agreed; call her by whatever name she used to sign the email. I have used that trick to try to avoid the awkward “OMG Please call me by my first name” conversation because it just makes the other person feel weird when he or she was just trying to be polite. I am only 29 and not ridiculously successfull (YET!), but I’ve had a couple of people call me Ms. AnonInfinity, and I always hope that signing my first name to the email will get them to start using my first name instead.

    • How often do you really use her name in emails to her anyway? I find that I don’t usually refer to people by their name to their face. Usually I only use their name when talking about them to someone else. (But I’m one of these people that doesn’t use “dear” in emails. I usually say “Hi Joe -” or “Hello Mr. Smith:” if I don’t know them very well.)

      Unless you’re writing a Victorian novel or something. “And, my dear Lola, I did indeed miss seeing you by the seaside this year.”

      • I agree that first name is probably fine, since she signed her email to you with it. However, you can always use Good morning / Good afternoon / etc. for a time period until you feel more comfortable using her first name.

  7. Georgiana Starlington :

    Does anyone else get paranoid about their own possible odor anytime this subject comes up?

    • PippiLongstocking :

      I do! I spend a lot of time meeting clients and have a couple of things in my armoury for this issue. One is a product called body mint http://www.bodymint.com/ which works really well for me – it also helps with tummy gurgling issues too. I also have sage pastilles on hand for warding off coughs as well as sweetening my breath. It is a softer smell than mint.

    • AnonInfinity :

      YES! I have always been afraid that I am the stinky kid and no one is telling me.

    • Anonymous :

      Yes. i have a cold and didn’t shower this morning, and I’m wondering if I smell either like sickness or like unshoweredness. Yikes.

    • Yes! I keep gum at my desk and also have tracked down roll-on perfumes (in the cheap aisle at the drugstore) to dab in the afternoon. I also found Burt’s Bees Peppermint foot lotion that I put on every morning and keeps the feet from getting damp and fragrant mid-day. So, paranoid here, also..

    • I am totally paranoid about this, especially in summer. I carry around those unscented moist towelettes and always gum.

  8. Here’s what happened at my old job a few years ago. After coworkers in a shared office started keeping oil fragrance reeds and Oust spray on their desks HR received a written complaint–from the woman with the offensive odor.

    She was a temp (she explained that no workplace would hire her full-time or keep her for long and her condition didn’t qualify her for disability so she was a career temp. It turns out that she has a hormone or enzyme disorder that causes her to emit a foul, fishy odor. Somehow, she ended up with an apology and her own office with the company where she stayed on as a temp indefinitely.

    We all got a warning against creating a hostile workplace *from the HR rep who gossiped the above information.

    I would say whatever you do–tread lightly and don’t put anything in writing or chat about it casually. This case may be similar-he may be painfully aware of the undesirable odor and unable to remedy it.

  9. Is it possible it is a clothing issue as opposed to hygiene (or medical)? On a few occasions I have encountered people (typically younger males) that do not know how to properly care for clothes and go WAY too long between laundering or dry cleaning. Not sure that conversation is any easier to have …
    And ditto on comments above, I have known some very gossipy HR Depts.

    • Alias Terry :

      I am getting creeped out that you may work in my office…because you just described a familiar situation too well.

      I haven’t had the heart to say anything and our HR rep is not approachable at all. But one of them quit and the other has recently moved in with his finance and thing have been smelling a lot better lately.

      But the lady who uses too much “personal wash”, that smell makes me sick every time she walks by.

    • My thought as well. I’d bet your associate showers every day, but is putting the same shirt and un-cleaned jacket/pants back on. He probably doesn’t smell it himself.

      If he’s young and you’re senior then you should put your “Mom” hat on and let him know. If he’s superior or at your level then go to his boss.

  10. Is it your business to care?

    If the person represents the firm in real world meetings then yes, you should care & it sounds like an anon note to HR is the way to do that. But otherwise, try to stand upwind. If they move in too close, you can blame your backing off on personal space needs but honestly people, there are worse things to deal with.

    And yes, I have been there— a web designer who even the French woman thought needed to bathe more often (& the whole office knew when he did!) and another professor in my first faculty position who smelled so rank I finally asked the secretaries what the smell was. Cat pee. He left his clothes around the apt and the 6 felines marked their territory. There was no way the scent escaped anyone’s notice, so I didn’t bring it up.

    In other words, MYOBO

    • You can’t MYOBO if their odor is affecting you. I am really scent-sensitive myself and normally I just ignore or arm myself against strong office smells. But if it’s really rank and totally distracts, it’s basically causing a hostile work environment to me. Sorry, I would have to bring this up to the supervisor or HR if the there’s no rapport w/the offender. When I’ve gotten honest feedback about something personal, it stings but then it helps me improve. That assumes the offender would want to not offend but you can’t tiptoe around everyone.

  11. It IS possible that the person cannot smell his own odor- just as you get acclimated to your own fragrance and stop noticing it. I went to elementary school with some one who had very disagreeable body odor…one day his mom and his sister picked a number of us up at a school event- guess what? Mom, Sis, car, whole family, had the exact same odor. I am sure they all thought they were completely normal…

    • But it’s also possible that they know & don’t care. I drove dr Catpee to & from the airport for a job interview–no stink whatsoever. Next day at the mailboxes, I could tell he’d reunited with the kitties. Once I knew how little he cared about offending anyone else with his stench, I was much less worried about hurting his feelings by moving away when the smell was just too nasty.

  12. The worst smell in the world for me are ladies who use Bath and Body Works bodywash in some horrible jasmine scent, then layer on the body lotion, and spritz themselves with “body spray” throughout the day. When they walk by, you get overwhelmed with the scent.

    These cheap products smell cheap, and overwhelming others with your flowery (or in some cases, gingerbread-y) scents seems high-schoolish.

    Yuck!

  13. Re: gossipy HR departments – so true! I once received a mass “OMG can you believe this ridiculous resume, what a loser” email from a legal recruiter. Needless to say, I made a mental note to not work with that recruiter, EVER.

  14. Marie-Christine :

    I had the consultant from hell in my office. I went to our common manager and apologized for dumping this on him, but told him that 1) stuff like that was why he was paid more than me and 2) it’s better if a boy handles another boy. Stinky smirked at me after their talk, but did take a shower that night. Then he skipped his usual Sunday shower. So by the Tuesday of the following week, what with lovely Indian summer weather and West-facing office, I nearly lost my lunch when I came back to work after a walk in the fresh air. I walked right into the office of the VP, and told her one of us was moving THAT MINUTE, and it better not be me. He ended up in the corridor, but I didn’t feel one whiff of guilt. In fact, I made him take his chair, which stank even without him by then. People in nearby offices then complained too.
    If stinky lawyer is your boss, I’d definitely go through human resources, and be prepared with a sharpened resume in case you lost out. But don’t worry, human resources is aware of it too, they’d just rather not say anything either unless you ask. I think this kind of thing is best dealt with by a third party of the same sex in any case (unless they’re gay), and I think the anonymous email is just incredibly cowardly and cruel (not to mention easy to dismiss as cowardly and cruel).

  15. On a similar note, how do you talk to someone who constantly sweats through the armpits of their clothes? A friend approached me with this problem, but could swears he could never say anything to her directly:
    The coworker is a rather round woman who wears nice work clothes that are all about a size too small. Her favorite are silky shirts- not only does she sweat through the arms, but also around her.. well.. stomach rolls. There’s no problem with smell, but it’s very obvious and it lasts all afternoon. It’s a large corporation, but the HR department is (reportedly) unfriendly/useless. This woman is a hard worker and respected, but my friend is concerned that this personal issue is holding her back from well deserved advancement. Any suggestions?

    • Sweaty person :

      Hi Juno,

      It sounds like her clothes might be contributing, but as someone who inherited fairly overactive sweat (but odorless) glands from both sides of the family, can I offer a possible explanation?

      I sweat through all clothes and have since puberty. I was interviewing this year with two suits and a busy schedule and was mortified to learn that by the end of each interview there was a white deodorant ring under the armpits of my black suit. This was not a tight-fitting suit. In order to avoid this I had to buy stick-on sweat shields and wear 2 sets: one on the shell, one on the jacket. I also use the “clinical strength” OTC deodorant as the prescription deodorants give my sensitive skin hives and make the lymph nodes under my arm swell.

      The end result was that my suit was pretty uncomfortable and I was thankful it was the middle of winter. I don’t wear close-fitting khaki pants in summer because I sweat through the leg creases and the back creases. Short of Botox (ow, $$$) or radical surgery, there is no solution.

      So while her clothes might be exacerbating the issue, the problem is that clothes that would totally disguise the issue are really only available in the winter. Underarm shields are bulky, the strong deodorants may not be an option, and to be honest, on a hot day I have just resigned myself to the sweating.

      So, IMO as someone who has a similar issue, I’d let it go unless there really is an issue or a smell. Some of us lost the genetic lottery. I envy all of you who don’t sweat buckets at the drop of a hat.

      • I worked for a client in SW Florida for a summer where I spent all day driving around to various outpost offices.

        100+ degrees, horridly humid, etc.

        Back sweat isn’t that bad, as no one can generally see it when you’re sitting in a chair. For the pits, I would safety pin or double-stick-tape ultra thin unscented pantyliners in my shirt (long sleeve buttonups). If you want some smell cover up, you can lightly spritz with your perfume (I wear d&g blue, which is very light/citruisy/neutral). Change as necessary.

        This method works better with a substantial “thickness” shirt; I only wear brooks brothers wrinkle-free shirts which are a bit on the thicker side. Also, the shirt shouldn’t be super fitted and you should be able to wear a white bra underneath without worrying about it showing.

      • Prescription deodorant has vastly improved the quality of my life :)

    • There used to be things back in the old days called “armpit shields” that were for just this sort of thing. They look like reverse shoulder pads. Google “armpit shields” or “perspiration shields” and you’ll get results.

  16. Thank you for this. You may curse your genetics, but it sounds to me like you were blessed with an enviable amount of poise.

  17. Kat totally up to you what to recommend but I have to offer that the HR rec could get ladies in big trouble. I have worked in HR in the past, and has my husband, and for some reason it attracts people who love to share the very info they are trusted to keep. If one reports it to HR, then it gets out that you are complaining about this person, you will be far worse off and have a bad reputation. Have seen ‘leakers’ at almost all places I’ve worked and been amazed at how not-seriously they take their duties. Also there is no rule against being stinky- HR is not going to fix this as there is no basis in their handbook or policies.

    My two cents: do nothing outward. This is not your purview. Put it yourself. I like to move away from the person when I can, and carry Pacifica solid perfume with me to dab on myself to overcome it. I work in a global setting and ladies, people out there are stinky. Especially when traveling long hours and in hot places. Get over it. I don’t like it either, but this idea that it is a thing for you to solve feels misplaced to me and bordering on quite inappropriate. That other person may not like something about you- your voice, you could remind him of an ex, who knows. Not for him/her to share and insult you. The professional thing to do here is deal with it yourself.

  18. Also think about how girly and passive aggressive the suggested approaches could seem. What would a guy do? Probably nothing, or make a joke about it directly to the person. Definitely not squeak to their boss or whine to HR.

  19. Anonymous :

    This is the eighth website I’ve checked for suggestions on this issue, and it’s the first that seems to be distracted by how to dump delicate issues on lousy HR professionals. As one of those, who listens to employees who constantly whine and complain about every little thing, I guess it must be frustrating that we don’t always have enough time to deal with those who have real concerns. Employees who have odours don’t want to be reprimanded by another department. They want their friends to discreetly take them aside and offer well-intended advice. If you publicly talk about your HR department being useless, it’s no wonder they don’t really want to help you.

  20. I worked with an attorney that never bathed either … wonder if it’s the same guy? His initials wouldn’t be HR would they?

    Anyway, Human Resources doesn’t work in law offices unless they’re a MEGA firm. The attorney is the boss, so that whole suggestion and advice is pretty much moot.

    The secretaries tried being discrete … sort of … placing a big can of Brut on his desk. It didn’t phase him and his office reeked! It got to the point that they had a friend of his mention it to him, but he was unflappable. Frankly, he just didn’t seem to care. AND that from a brilliant man who just didn’t concern himself with what other people thought … even his fellow attorneys!

    If you have to tell a boss or friend, I suggest you try to do it as an intervention. Either man up and just say, “I’m not trying to offend you and I hope you take this in the way it’s intended, but you need to know that you’re a bit ripe and that can be a sign of real problems….” AND if you have to have someone hold your hand, then get a few friends, maybe at a nice open ‘outdoor’ bar and just let it go, “We’ve decided that in your best interest and ours to have this little chat….”

    As to someone’s advice to put perfume under your nose…. That’s like spraying feces with Pinesol! It’s just really gross. They often use menthol or eucalyptus oil (sparingly). And as your options are to start looking for another job or tell the man he stinks, this might be your only real choice.

    GOOD LUCK!

  21. I have been on the other end , I showered every day, used deodorants but we had a heatwave and in a van with no air-con , and this person said I smelt to someone in the company I was working for, The reason they did it was because they wanted the other engineer to come… But it really knocked my confidence, and can be soul destroying. It is sometimes not them, but their home, I have worked with people who smell I used the aftershave under the nose trick it does help.

    My other half is bordering on OCD for cleaning , shame her half sister doesn’t have the same, so have just anti bacted the front room and sent the tex to the other half ” you better buy some febreeze as your family have just stunk out the front room !!!!”

  22. Give him or her a good natural deodorant as a birthday/holiday gift. But of course don’t make it seem as if you’re giving it to him/her because they smell bad. Just say you love the product and you get it for everyone as a gift! I’m a Lavilin user, so I stick with that. I’ve given it to 6 or 7 friends and all of them (except one) love the product!

  23. There are comments here about smelly people not knowing they smell, knowing but not caring, or those with some sort of disease. I am a smelly person, and people around me keep hinting at it. It is soul destroying and I wish I had the courage to kill my self because it is a very lonely world.
    I dont have any of the (as yet) known diseases that cause smell. And I have OCD when it comes to cleanliness. But I still smell. One person described the smell as “dog”. Every time I see a doctor they find nothing. They think I am imagining it and keep prescribing anti-psychotic medication. There is a forum for smelly people – and there are a lot there. They are all trying to find answers. I think you non-smelly people out there should consider that it is very likely that the person knows and is powerless to do anything about it, and is tortured greatly.

    • MissDisplaced :

      Helen, I’m sorry. That must indeed be difficult to deal with.
      Is it a variety of different people/situations? I’m asking to rule out possible workplace mobbing/bullying. If this in ONLY coming from people you work with they might be “gaslighting” you.

      You say people tell you about the smell, but the doctors don’t or can’t smell anything unusual during the exam?

      Most “smells” come from poor hygiene or from eating certain foods (like garlic or other spices). In other common cases it can come from dental problems like periodontal disease (it’s good to be checked for that) or in rarer cases other diseases. I do think that most of the comments on here are directed at the more common hygiene/bad breath/food type of odors and not actual medical issues. I used to be fond of these certain veggie burgers… until my husband pointed out they made me reek for hours! Yikes! How. Embarrassing. (but glad SOMEONE told me)

      Again. If it truly was a variety of independent people noticing an odor, I would definitely go back to the doctor and dentist to rule out any possible medical issues such as the periodontal disease, diabetes, fungus, female issues, infections, etc., once again. If you are deemed medically sound, I would perhaps consult with a nutritionist… it could possibly be a food allergy/diet issue, and that may be worth looking into as well. It’s highly possible you’re eating ONE thing that reacts badly for your system (such as wheat or gluten).

      I hope you get some resolution on it. I would NOT accept the anti-psychotic aspect until all other medical/dental and/or diet issues are ruled out.

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