Dear Claudia,

I feel silly writing about this, but it’s come to the point that if I don’t get some advice soon, I’m gonna kill someone and plant sweet smelling flowers on his grave. Our company recently downsized and moved into a smaller office space; I now sit in a cubicle next to one of the engineers. Nice guy, very friendly (and curious about my job, which is annoying), but the real problem is that he has the worst body odor imaginable. No matter what I try, I can’t get away from the smell; it even lingers on my clothes when I go home some days. I’ve talked with my boss about it several times, and she’s had conversations with his boss, but this guy doesn’t seem to get the message. There’s no other space in the office for me to move; what should I do?

Migraine in Maine


Dear Migraine,

Can I just say this for all of the girls in the room? Ewwwwwwwwwwwwww. Sorry guys, I know there are some equally sensitive male noses out there.

It may not help to know this, but Fish4jobs did a survey in the UK last year about bad behaviors in office environments (there’s a great top 10 list to be found here); the number one complaint was poor personal hygiene, and 59% agreed that this was the worst sin an office mate could commit. Now I haven’t seen a similar poll on this side of the pond recently, but I’m going to guess that noses are pretty much the same everywhere. This situation stinks, and no pun intended.

Let’s look at your options. First, note that body odor can be attributed to factors other than poor hygiene. Do you know if that’s the case here? Consider starting with HR to confirm or rule out that possibility; would it change your perspective if you knew this engineer was trying to manage a medical condition? Understanding the truth of the situation is helpful, but at some point you really need to speak directly to him about the problem. You say he is friendly, and friendly people are generally approachable; how about a little direct, respectful conversation about the impact that the situation is having on you? Accommodation goes both ways, and you may get more out of the deal than you expected.

Knowledge is powerful, but it can’t overcome bad smells. Speak your truth – say what you need – respectfully, and give others the chance to do the same. And if that doesn’t help, I’ve been told by people responsible for cadaver removal that Vicks VapoRub, when it strategically fills the entire nose cavity, prevents even the worst smells from making you sick.

**

In my day job, I’m the Head of Products for Improved Experience, where we help employers use feedback to measure and manage competitive advantage in hiring and retention. Learn more about us here.

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Claudia, this reminds me of the things I'd love to say out loud at work...

1. I can see your point, but I still think you're full of shit.
2. I don't know what your problem is, but I'll bet it's hard to pronounce.
3. How about never? Is never good for you?
4. I see you've set aside this special time to humiliate yourself in public.
5. I'm really easy to get along with once you people learn to see it my way.
6. I'll try being nicer if you'll try being smarter.
7. I'm out of my mind, but feel free to leave a message.
8. I don't work here. I'm a consultant.
9. It sounds like English, but I can't understand a word you're saying.
10. Ahhh...I see the screw-up fairy has visited us again.
11. I like you. You remind me of myself when I was young and stupid.
12. You are validating my inherent mistrust of strangers.
13. I have plenty of talent and vision; I just don't give a damn.
14. I'm already visualizing the duct tape over your mouth.
15. I will always cherish the initial misconceptions I had about you.
16. Thank you. We're all refreshed and challenged by your unique point of view.
17. The fact that no one understands you doesn't mean you're an artist.
18. Any connection between your reality and mine is purely coincidental.
19. What am I? Flypaper for freaks!?
20. I'm not being rude. You're just insignificant.
21. It's a thankless job, but I've got a lot of Karma to burn off.
22. Yes, I am an agent of Satan, but my duties are largely ceremonial.
23. And your cry baby whiney-assed opinion would be...?
24. Do I look like a people person?
25. This isn't an office. It's Hell with fluorescent lighting.
26. I started out with nothing & still have most of it left.
27. Sarcasm is just one more service we offer.
28. If I throw a stick, will you leave?
29. Errors have been made. Others will be blamed.
30. Whatever kind of look you were going for, you missed.
31. I'm trying to imagine you with a personality.
32. A cubicle is just a padded cell without a door.
33. Can I trade this job for what's behind door #1?
34. Too many freaks, not enough circuses.
35. Nice perfume. Must you marinate in it?
36. Chaos, panic, & disorder...my work here is done.
37. How do I set a laser printer to stun?
38. I thought I wanted a career; turns out I just wanted a salary.
Steve, the only thing that scares me more than what comes out of your mouth sometimes is what I'm sure is still floating around in your head!! LOL...

Steve Levy said:
Claudia, this reminds me of the things I'd love to say out loud at work...
Honesty is essential in personal relationships - why not in professional ones?

When you slather on as much cologne/perfume as you do, if causes anaphylaxis in me; I believe me living is more important than you smelling like a French whorehouse.



Claudia Faust said:
Steve, the only thing that scares me more than what comes out of your mouth sometimes is what I'm sure is still floating around in your head!! LOL...

Steve Levy said:
Claudia, this reminds me of the things I'd love to say out loud at work...
Ask him his B'day and present him with colonge whishing him in advance.
I think the important thing to remember is that no one wants to be smelly and antisocial. Most people who smell bad generally smell bad for a reason. If they are unaware that they pong it takes a special kind of kindness to bring the problem to their attention. If they are aware of it it is critical to realize that the the real problem is probably being masked by the funk.

Mrs. G's Godfather was famous for saying: "Sometimes you have to go beyond a person's stink to find their soul." I think that's about right.
In all seriousness, JAN has an article about this issue. Click here for the DOC.

Sandra McCartt said:
We had a situation like this with a candidate we placed as CFO of an exclusive private club. The girls in the office finally took a can of air freshner and started to spray it all the time. When he asked why, they replied that there was a strange odor in the office that was bothering them and thought it could be sewer gas but smelled like BO. He finally got the message because he did have a medical problem so fessed up. They made arrangements for him to see a physician and suggested that he might pay particular attention to getting suits cleaned more often and perhaps bringing a fresh shirt to the office if needed durning the day. the other alternative is to ask him if he has a problem and mention that you have a close friend with the same problem who was able to get it under control with doctor recommended deordant. You would be willing to ask him what it was so he could get some.
Sandra, these are great examples of being direct. And if one searches for a more subtle option to bring the subject up, HR can do a brilliant job of facilitating the conversation in private.

I remember working at a manufacturing company many years ago when a European company bought a majority share of stock, and sent an emissary to watch over operations more closely. Bathing customs differ from one part of the world to another we discovered, and it didn't take long for HR to field an arm-load of complaints. Due to the delicacy of his role and proximity to the new corporate owner, she arranged for him to have a one-on-one with the company President who outlined many of the social niceties of America, including bathing frequency and deodorant. Turned out he really had no clue that others could smell him rooms away, or that the rest of us didn't smell just like him. Go figure.

Sandra McCartt said:
We had a situation like this with a candidate we placed as CFO of an exclusive private club. The girls in the office finally took a can of air freshner and started to spray it all the time. When he asked why, they replied that there was a strange odor in the office that was bothering them and thought it could be sewer gas but smelled like BO. He finally got the message because he did have a medical problem so fessed up. They made arrangements for him to see a physician and suggested that he might pay particular attention to getting suits cleaned more often and perhaps bringing a fresh shirt to the office if needed durning the day. the other alternative is to ask him if he has a problem and mention that you have a close friend with the same problem who was able to get it under control with doctor recommended deordant. You would be willing to ask him what it was so he could get some.
What a lovely idea. And if he thinks the cologne comes with a date later, what then?

Kay said:
Ask him his B'day and present him with colonge whishing him in advance.
Oh, the SHRM members among us will thank you for providing a great reference document filled with good advice Steve! So do I for that matter...


Steve Levy said:
In all seriousness, JAN has an article about this issue. Click here for the DOC.
This is philosophami (philosophy + ami) at it's best, my friends. Could not have said it any better:

Amitai Givertz said:
Mrs. G's Godfather was famous for saying: "Sometimes you have to go beyond a person's stink to find their soul." I think that's about right.
The scarey thing is.. having "that" conversation actually gets easier with experience... I've had them (with other people may I add, not concerning me :) ) 4 times in my career now... the first one was really awkward.. but got easier.

I promise people in our Induction process that I am going to be blunt and honest with them in regards to feedback... and then give the news to them straight (tactfully of course) but with no ambiguities.. I feel like a (insert term here) for doing it, but it is for their own good. I'd like to think no-one comes into a social or professional environment with the idea that they stink and that their odour will offend others... and if they aren't told or don't know anything about it, they cannot fix it. You are doing a disservice to the person but not saying anything.
Wait... did I just use "SHRM" and "Steve Levy" in the same sentence???

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