Skunk in the office? My co-worker smells bad… What do I do?

Recently a manager emailed me the question, “Sam, I am getting a lot of complaints about a certain employee that smells really bad. It is disturbing other employees to the point that it’s hard to focus and work. I am now forced to deal with this. I don’t want to say the wrong thing as this is a sensitive matter. I am not sure what is causing the smell, but have a few ideas. I have tried to dodge this for as long as I can, but I smelled the bad odor today and it’s not good. Any advice?”

Normally, I am asked about addressing a stinky attitude, but this is a good question. One of my first jobs I ever had, I experienced this. I avoided that guy as much as possible and staff meetings were torture.

Some people omit some odors that can make it hard to focus. Some people take a bath in cologne and it can make you dizzy—especially if you have allergies.

Here some solid but simple ideas to addressing “the bad smell.”

  1. Try first to avoid the problem, by setting policies for dress code, hygiene, etc. You can also send out a mass email at the first whiff of a problem, stating something like, “Now that it’s summer, we may all be sweating more than usual. Let’s try to keep our office smelling good, by showering every day, not wearing too much cologne, etc.” This ensures they won’t feel singled out, and gives people a chance to address the issue without having to hear “the talk.”
  2. If you must address the smelly one directly, be compassionate and sensitive. You don’t want this person to feel uncomfortable, and he or she may not be getting the same smell that you are.  So be sensitive as there could be a medical reason behind what is going on.
  3. It’s best to address same sex addressing same sex.
  4. Address it with the same respect as you might show to your mom or your grandma.
  5. Praise first. Tell the person they are doing a great job at work, look sharp, or whatever you can that’s positive.
  6. Be honest, and be willing to help. You don’t need to beat around the bush, just address the situation and be clear so they understand: “Hey, I don’t want to make a big deal of it, but we’re addressing the issue of office smells, and are talking to anyone who seems to struggle with this. I’ve noticed you sometimes have issue with this, and wanted to mention it so that we can fix it.” Provide them with the policies again about showering, etc.
  7. Keep any conversation about it brief; this doesn’t need to be a long conversation.
  8. Ask them, “Is there a situation that we are not aware that might be causing this odor, and if so, what can we do to help you with it?” Maybe they have a new baby, and don’t have time to shower as often. Maybe they are trying to lose weight on some fad diet, and it’s causing their body to go into ketosis and stink. Be willing to listen and be flexible. Maybe they need to work some flex time for a bit so that they can work in that bath.

Okay, now it’s time for you to weigh in… Do you think these points get the job done or how would you handle this? Have you ever had to deal with this?

3 thoughts on “Skunk in the office? My co-worker smells bad… What do I do?”

  1. I had to deal with someone who had very bad breath. We were in a community play and when you’re on stage under the hot lights, odors are exagerated. I gave him a box of Altoids and asked him to Please use them (with a smile). He got the message.

  2. I have an employee who tends to smoke too much. So we have installed one of those Glade automatic air freshners in the area where she sits. We have told her to only take two smoke breaks. So with the air freshner and cutting down on the bad habit things seem to be much better!

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