But there's no quota on your odor - that's right, you smell!
August 17, 2009 2:08 PM   Subscribe

What to do about a smelly coworker when her supervisor's hands are tied?

First off, I work in state government, which may or may not affect what's going on here.

My coworker is stinky. When she first started, she smelled like stale urine. Her odor has now progressed to dirty litterbox. Her clothes are often unwashed and you can see stains from food and god knows what on them.

We share a work area, and sometimes it's so bad I can smell her from my desk. When she walks by I have to hold my breath. I've even resorted to an air freshener next to my keyboard - and I'm not particularly fond of chemical smells. I dread coming to work now because the smell is so nauseating.

I am not the only one who has noticed. My boss, the assistant director, has complained. Her boss, the director, has noticed AND has talked to her about it. I have brought it up with both my boss and her boss. Her boss has discussed it with HR. However, her boss cannot tell me what's happening with HR, just that she's working with them.

But the thing is, the coworker REFUSES TO BELIEVE that she smells! Today, her boss told me that coworker has asked that the people who are "supposedly complaining about her" come to her directly.

Personally, I don't feel that this is appropriate. In addition, coworker is very thin skinned and I feel that even though she's specifically requested this, she'll hold it against me. And I LIKE her as a person, I just wish she'd wash.

So my question is twofold.

1. Is there anything else I can do besides continuing to hound the director to DO SOMETHING? Should I go over her head and complain to HR directly? Does being smelly cause a hostile work environment?

2. If I can ever man up and tell the coworker when she stinks - how do I go about it? I'm scared that one day I'm going to crack when she stands next to my desk and blurt out OMG YOU SMELL GO AWAY!
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (24 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Go to HR directly and discretely ask others to do the same- this is why they're there. Maybe make it a weekly stop on your way out the door Friday afternoon.

I wouldn't ever approach her on your own, there's nothing good that can come from that and she could make your life difficult by reporting YOU to HR for 'harassment'.
posted by T.D. Strange at 2:21 PM on August 17, 2009 [5 favorites]

Today, her boss told me that coworker has asked that the people who are "supposedly complaining about her" come to her directly.

Does this mean that her boss is actually hoping this woman's coworkers will confront her directly so that the boss doesn't have to be involved? Because that's all kinds of unprofessional and inappropriate.

I second going directly to HR, but could you possibly ask the director to move you to another desk/office?
posted by Meg_Murry at 2:25 PM on August 17, 2009

Going to HR directly is not going over anyone's head; they're human resources, and they're there for every employee. This is exactly the kind of thing they are trained to deal with too.

Does your workplace have employee cleanliness standards? It sure sounds like the issue is creating a hostile work environment for you, and probably other people that have to work around/with them, and that should be enough for them to take action. The more people that complain directly the better.
posted by bizwank at 2:25 PM on August 17, 2009

Don't approach her on your own - that may work with some interoffice conflicts, but this isn't a spat over who took the last cup of coffee and didn't refill the carafe. This is definitely an HR issue.

Some offices have a line in the employee handbook about hygiene. Checks yours out and see what it says. Even if there's no specific statement there, it's generally understood that people should be at least relatively clean while working in a confined environment with others.

Why is going to HR yourself "going over" the director's head? HR is for everyone, not just top level people. I suggest paying them a visit and filing a complaint.
posted by caveat at 2:25 PM on August 17, 2009

Federal Government worker here. You have discussed it with your first and second level supervisors. Your second level supervisor is working with HR. In my experience HR is working with second level supervisor, advising him/her how to proceed. S/he will hold a counselling session with smelly. Smelly will protest, or maybe smelly have a medical issue, etc. You going to HR directly won't accomplish much but might make you feel better. I don't see that as going over anyone's head.

Ask to be moved. Are you a good performer? It might just work. You might still have to interact with smelly, but not sit next to them. Good luck. I work with throat-clearing guy, hock-a-loogie sounding guy, crazy cellphone ring woman....
posted by fixedgear at 2:29 PM on August 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

her boss telling you that was not appropriate, but also indicates their frustration. i'd say it's time to go ahead and blurt out 'OMG YOU SMELL GO AWAY'. i'd start doing it every day, and keep nagging this person until they get the message.
posted by lester at 2:36 PM on August 17, 2009

Go to HR. This is exactly the kind of, ahem, stinky situation they are supposed to be there for. Obviously, HR is already aware of the situation, but if you tell them how the odor is hurting you and making it difficult for you to get your work done (I don't think they want you sitting in a cloud of air freshener either), it might help them understand the seriousness of the problem and give them another data point on which to take action. Find out who at HR is dealing with this problem and let them know what's going on. They probably won't be able to tell you what steps they are taking, but they can certainly listen to your concerns, which can only help.
posted by zachlipton at 2:50 PM on August 17, 2009

Perhaps a simply practical approach, simply start wearing a gas-mask-like apparatus in your cubicle so that you don't have to smell her.

I'd agree with the others that you shouldn't be seen as trying to directly influence her behavior, but rather just be dealing with it for yourself in the best way that you can. You can also beg off that you have an unusually heightened sense of smell, that hence it's really all your fault.
posted by XMLicious at 2:53 PM on August 17, 2009

i'd say it's time to go ahead and blurt out 'OMG YOU SMELL GO AWAY'. i'd start doing it every day, and keep nagging this person until they get the message.

er, ah, no. Although I guess loudly insulting your co-worker is one way to get away from her smell, in that you face a very real chance of being fired, especially if it could be couched as some sort of discrimination.

I think asking to be moved is the easiest way out. cit "allergies" or some legit-sounding health concern if necessary.
posted by drjimmy11 at 3:02 PM on August 17, 2009

Can you leave an anonymous letter (written in a courteous way) on her desk?
posted by orme at 3:04 PM on August 17, 2009 [2 favorites]

In the meantime, EMTs and morgue techs swear by a little schmear of Vicks Vaporub under the nostrils.
posted by availablelight at 3:22 PM on August 17, 2009 [4 favorites]

Discrimination? "Smelly" is not a protected class.
posted by sageleaf at 3:25 PM on August 17, 2009 [5 favorites]

"Ugly" is not a protected class either but yelling OMG U R SO UGLY GO AWAY would not be a particularly productive thing to do. Generally, doing something that makes you look like a spoiled teenager is probably not the greatest remedy to any given situation.
posted by XMLicious at 3:30 PM on August 17, 2009

DO not go to this woman directly. You are being setup for at best having her hate you and at worst getting in some sort of HR problem yourself. GO to HR and ask them what to do. You could also anonymously leave laundry soap on her desk.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 4:15 PM on August 17, 2009

A period re-enactor at St. Mary's City, MD, had a small cloth bag on a cord around her neck, and when I asked her about it, she replied (in colonial accent) "that's m' smells bag!" It was filled with a nice sachet that, held up to one's nose, would drown out other odiferous colonials as they passed by.

You might want to get some spicy teabags and brew a couple of cups of tea or even just have the dry teabag or a bar of soap or something ready to sniff if the need is urgent.

She is probably mentally ill, which is a protected class. Hopefully she has a TE counselor to work with her and HR.
posted by jgirl at 4:16 PM on August 17, 2009 [3 favorites]

Wow - this happened in our office. It was horrible. The person was a sweet enough guy but I could tell when he had been in a area because the smell stayed for some time.
We had the benefit of moving desks once in a while "reorganizing" (meaning bosses buddies we getting window seats). The boss instead of addressing it directly moved him to a corner.
Maybe you could get moved??
posted by beccaj at 4:35 PM on August 17, 2009

If you want to convey the idea without directly confronting her, you could spray air freshener in her general direction (but not close enough to actually spray it ON her or in her eyes/face) when she comes near.
posted by Jacqueline at 4:46 PM on August 17, 2009

Oh, y'know what also just occurred to me - my parents have this air freshener that they bought at a normal retail drug store, which has built into it an infrared motion sensor, so that it sprays automatically whenever anyone comes into a room.
posted by XMLicious at 5:03 PM on August 17, 2009

I'm surprised by the consensus that talking to her directly would be unprofessional. Honestly, while your original approach of going to supervisors may be the best, smoothest, least-risk way of addressing the problem, talking to her directly seems to me a close second. If you're sure the first has stalled and won't go anywhere without a nudge, bring it up to her in as nice, gentle, soft a way as possible. Let her know that it's bothering you and ask her if she might do you a favor and try to wear cleaner clothes that may smell less (perhaps saying that it's the clothes, and not her body, might).

In her position I'd prefer that to an anonymous letter. Is it that fraught, that risky for us to just talk to each other?
posted by kprincehouse at 5:09 PM on August 17, 2009

If the OP could have the conversation accepting that the co-worker may not be receptive, and without in any way pressuring the co-worker, that would be okay. But the OP says that she's on the verge of "blurt[ing] out OMG YOU SMELL GO AWAY!", which indicates to me that there may be significant tension built up that's probably just waiting to expel itself in a confrontation.
posted by XMLicious at 5:19 PM on August 17, 2009

go over her head and complain to HR directly?

Yup. Nothing more, nothing less, except to also tell your boss that you respect how they're trying to deal with it even if you don't agree with it, so you want to move to a new location in the office further away. Make sureyou talk to HR first, and that you tell HR you are going to do this, to get their take.
posted by davejay at 5:55 PM on August 17, 2009

I'm pals with the roommates of a woman who smells *terrible* (stale pee, mildew, sweat, dirty clothes, sour damp hair; you name it, she smells like it). I think she has no sense of smell at all; her odours (and general hygiene) are appalling. One time her roommate knocked this woman's only toothbrush into the toilet, so she discarded it, and left her a brand-new one in the package, with a note explaining. That package remained unopened on the kitchen table for TWO WEEKS. The woman just didn't brush her teeth during that time. Etc. So gross. A mutual friend once recognized her by smell alone, while standing in another aisle in the video store.

Anyway, I once posed a hypothetical question to a group of friends including this woman: "I work with a woman I really like but her breath is very very bad and very noticeable, to the point where people talk about her behind her back. She's so nice, I feel bad for her, and she and I get along well. Should I gently, or anonymously, tell her?" The stinky woman said, "No way! If that was me I would NEVER want to know!" Everyone's hearts sank. Nobody ever told her.

That woman has been fired from several jobs since I met her for very tenuous reasons, like "lateness" or "missed a duty" that she claims nobody else ever performed either. I'm pretty sure they were made-up reasons to get her stank outta the workplace.

I'm not that sympathetic to middle-class, regularly-functioning people who can't live up to the norms of performing a hygiene routine at least a few times a week. So yeah, encourage a number of coworkers make consistent complaints to HR, who will pass on the message and eventually start issuing formal warnings. Eventually she'll either get the message or get the boot.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 6:50 PM on August 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Just some (unfortunate) food for thought, the smell of cat urine on a person can be an indicator of proximity to meth production. Your description of the odor with both urine and litterbox made that jump into my mind.
posted by shinynewnick at 6:55 PM on August 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

This is a very, very difficult problem. I'd like to share an anecdote and put a question to the thread that may help you and your supervisors find an answer.

I had to tell a volunteer working under me that she smelled. My boss (director) and I (volunteer manager) had planned to go in and tell her together (customers were complaining) and at the last minute the director chickened out and I had to do it alone. I went in and told her very gently and she seemed to appreciate the news, noting her daughter had used to let her know but moved away some time go. She was very gracious and I told her she was an excellent volunteer and named several specific ways that was true, and then I talked about moving forward on a project she had an idea for. We wrapped up the conversation and I said my goodbyes and left, as it was technically my day off.

A few hours later I called to check in with the volunteer supervising the shift as an indirect way of seeing if she was okay. Evidently she had left crying. Two hours after that, I got a call on my mobile phone from the volunteer's daughter, who hysterically demanded how dare I tell her mother she smelled, and freaking out and all. I explained there had been complaints and I was doing my job and she was an excellent volunteer who we wanted back and that I hoped she was ok. The volunteer, always cheerful and an excellent volunteer at the job, had been crying for hours.

A lot of people in the modern workplace are fragile and probably under more stress than is healthy for them. We, their colleagues and supervisors, are almost never adequately trained in support for these people and liability makes an honest, aware and nonthreatening conversation almost impossible.

The rules and rights of a workplace can't accomodate a few very important tasks that are performed by a community, and that means people and communities are enduring situations that would be unthinkable in earlier generations. What is happening to you is happening in other workplaces as well, and I don't think anyone knows about what solutions may exist.

For all I know, there are specialised and trained therapists that can be hired to manage these difficult conversations and support this woman. Do HR professionals know about this sort of thing? Maybe, but yours don't. It could be time for them to contact a specialised organisation for HR professionals - they should get legal advice every step of the way before they do this of course - and see if they can be referred to an expert or even another company that has successfully managed this problem.

I sure as hell wish I had.

Good luck.
posted by By The Grace of God at 7:39 AM on August 18, 2009 [7 favorites]

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