Ask the Etiquette Expert: How to Deal With Unpleasant Body Odors in the Office
An enthusiasm for walking briskly to work in the morning has an odiferous consequence.
My cubicle mate loves to walk to work. Unfortunately, there are no showers at our office so when he arrives in the morning he is extremely sweaty and has a strong body odor. I think he doesn’t realize that anyone else can smell him -- or that it’s that bad. It’s become distracting to me and actually has started to make me feel ill. What can I say or do? I want it to stop but I still have to sit next to him so I’d like us to have a good working relationship.
Sincerely, Holding My Nose
This is a sensitive topic, for sure. Some people are nose blind to their own smells -- so it is most likely that your co-worker is unaware of his problem. Since his smell disrupts your work productivity, it is important to address this issue while maintaining proper work etiquette. You need to politely let your co-worker know this bothers you, without hurting his feelings or breaching work etiquette.
Here are several approaches you can consider:
Talk to someone in authority.
If you are the business owner, it is your job to address issues affecting your workplace. However, in some organizations, there is a human resources or management person who handles personnel issues. Talk to them, and express your concerns in a polite and businesslike manner. They will then take the offender aside and speak to him privately, letting you off the hook.
Move your workspace.
If there are other open spaces in the office, relocate to an area away from this person. Don’t make a big deal of it. If your co-worker asks why you are moving, say something like, “I’m going to move to another location where there is better air flow.”
Talk directly to your co-worker
If these methods don’t seem to bear fruit, it may be best to have a face-to-face conversation. Assuming your colleague will most likely be embarrassed, it is important to talk to him in private. Keep the discussion on topic, be straightforward, and assure him that it has nothing to do with his job performance. How your co-worker physically presents himself is related to the company’s dress code policy, which if violated, can affect employee morale and client interactions. (If your company does not have a dress code and you are the business owner, you need to create one and implement it).
Explain in kind words how your co-worker’s body odor is disruptive to you. Here is one suggestion: “I want to discuss something that’s been bothering me and I don’t want to offend you. I know you walk to work, and when it’s extremely hot outside, I notice a slight body odor. I can relate because I get sweaty too when I’m outside for long periods of time. I wanted to bring this to your attention to avoid any future embarrassment.”
Bring in good smells.
If you cannot move to another location, it may be helpful to buy a small, portable fan and put it on your desk to circulate the air or get an air purifier. Other options include an odor-neutralizing air freshener, potpourri and scented candles, as long as their scents are not overpowering or offensive to others. Keep smells to a minimum, and bear in mind that many people may be allergic to scents.
The worst thing you can do is avoid the issue altogether and talk about your co-worker behind his back. This does not help the situation at all. It’s not only cruel, but can also make you look like a rumormonger.
End on a positive note.
For any sensitive conversations, it is always best to end with a positive statement like, “Thank you for understanding and I hope this doesn’t affect our working relationship.”
After your conversation, it's natural for both of you to feel a little awkward. That’s why you want to make sure you end the conversation as gently as possible. Consider how you would like to be approached if you had the problem. Be kind, candid and considerate. After all, you certainly don’t want this awkwardness to create a big stink (no pun intended) in the workplace.
If you have a business etiquette question, email Jacqueline Whitmore at Jackie@EtiquetteExpert.com.
Jacqueline Whitmore is an etiquette expert and founder of the Protocol School of Palm Beach in Palm Beach, Fla. She is the author of Poised for Success: Mastering the Four Qualities That Distinguish Outstanding Professionals (St. Martin's Press, 2011) and Business Class: Etiquette Essentials for Success at Work (St. Martin's Press, 2005).