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The Dos and Don’ts to Approaching a Stinky Colleague

The Dos and Don'ts to Approaching a Stinky ColleagueWe’ve all been there. On the bus, in a checkout line, or in a meeting and the person right next to you is letting off an awful stench that makes you want to gag. This terrible situation is compounded when you’re indoors and can’t escape, and it’s worse when you must suffer from it every day because the culprit is your co-worker.

There are multiple reasons a person is smelly and dealing with it is never easy. Poor hygiene jumps to the top of one’s mind as the most common cause, or at least the most perceived-to-be-common, cause. Often, there’s a natural odor or health issue creating your discomfort and the person puts in more effort than you realize to control it. Another case of strong odours that can be a concern in the office are the unnatural, self-inflicted scents from perfume or cologne.

Regardless of why somebody’s stench is unbearable, you need to deal with it professionally if you want it to go away, and the key phrase here is “deal with it”. If you read some stories across social media or talk to friends who’ve dealt with smelly co-workers, you’ve heard of passive hint dropping. For example, some people recommend subtle gestures like practicing good hygiene in front of them, decorating your workspace with pleasant plants and fragrances, or dropping a mysterious “hmmm…. Do you smell something weird?” More harshly, others joke about leaving deodorant on the person’s desk or sending them a random note. All of these suggestions are the easiest cop-outs but are guaranteed not to work. If your colleague does pick up on the hints, your approach is going to offend them, and the work environment just got even worse.

What are the best ways to deal with your stinky co-worker?

Here are some dos and don’ts when you find yourself in this extremely uncomfortable and awkward position:

  1. Don’t be Passive: As the previous paragraph pointed out, no good can come of this.
  2. Do be direct and polite: You’re already about to deliver a tough blow, don’t make it worse with a harsh or awkward delivery.
  3. Don’t Embarrass Them: This conversation is best to be had one-on-one and in a way that they don’t feel the whole world is against them.
  4. Do be sensitive: If this is a regular struggle, then they thought they resolved the problem. Your news is going to hurt even more.
  5. Don’t shift the blame: You’re not fooling anybody when you start with “Other people are saying…” You’re just fueling a more self-conscious feeling.
  6. Do choose your words properly: Language matters! “Strange odour” is a better choice than “stinky” or “terrible smell”.
  7. Don’t Gossip: If there’s a problem, deal with it. Talking to everyone else and snickering behind somebody’s back is childish.
  8. Do talk to a manager or HR: Given the sensitivity, it’s smartest to talk to the manager or your client’s HR department.
  9. Do reassure them that you don’t hate the them: Finally, your colleague may feel alone, especially if the approach went worse than expected. People want to feel accepted even at work, so it’s important to let them know you still respect them.

Dealing with sensitive conversations like this can be even more challenging for the independent contractor who isn’t an employee or always regarded as a true member of the team. How have you handled these scenarios in the past?