That smell... is it me?
October 27, 2005 4:13 PM   Subscribe

The dude who sits near me at work smells really, really, really bad.

... so bad, in fact, that if I have to be near him for an extended period, I feel like I'm gonna puke. I am not the only one in the office who can smell him.

He's grossly overweight. I have no idea whether he wears clean clothes or not. It's not the smell of farts -- it's body odor.

So... here's the question... what should we do? It's to the point where even the super-ventilated server room needs a good airing out before someone ventures in there after him.

I don't want to be rude or hurt his feelings, but something must be done. We've tried the subtle "What's that smell?" approach to no avail.

What is it that makes a person smell so darn bad? Is it possible that he has no idea how bad he smells?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (29 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I'd talk to your lead, or HR, ASAP. Then, one of them can (hopefully) sit down with him and give him a Hygene Talk. That it's interfering with work is not good.

(And you have my condolences - I have had a few coworkers like that).
posted by spinifex23 at 4:18 PM on October 27, 2005

A similar problem was also discussed here--you might want to check with that poster to see what s/he did with their tormentor.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 4:29 PM on October 27, 2005

If I had a similar problem, I would be eternally grateful to someone who had the guts to tell me, as tactfully and kindly as possible, that I smelled bad. I would be absolutely mortified to hear it from HR or through an anonymous note. I would also hate the "What's that smell?" approach.

For my money, honesty is nearly always the kindest and most effective thing.
posted by LittleMissCranky at 4:33 PM on October 27, 2005

It is possible that he has no idea. It is more likely that he has no idea other people notice, or no idea other people care.

(I mean it. After all, he can't remove his nose from his face and set it down two yards away. He may have no clue that the smell travels that far.)

So yeah, you should help him out by letting him know that you do notice and you do care.
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:35 PM on October 27, 2005

Take it to HR. They're paid to deal with this kind of situation.
posted by I Love Tacos at 4:37 PM on October 27, 2005

Ever wonder how people can douse themselves in perfume and not seem to mind the smell that may choke you? Olfactory fatigue. He may not be aware of his own odor, not because he's clueless but because a person's own odor is like white noise. You just don't notice it.

You mention he's fat, but you don't say anything about his hygiene. Is his hair and skin greasy? Bits of food stuck to clothes? That is, does he look like he hasn't seen soap and water lately?

This is obviously a sensitive topic for you, so I second the suggestion talking to HR. It's not enough to say "proper hygiene is essential"; he needs to be told that 1)bathe every day with soap, 2)wear deodorant, and 3)not to wear the same clothes more than twice (3x?) without laundering.

However, keep in mind that some people just smell bad. I worked with a woman who showered twice a day, used deodorant, but still had pretty rank B.O. She knew it, even if she couldn't smell it.
posted by luneray at 4:37 PM on October 27, 2005

People can get used to their own smell and not realize that it's offensive to others.

Does he have a supervisor who you can inform to break it to him gently?

There's a member of the custodial staff who's absolutely horrendous (I gag whenever he enters the room) but I have no idea who to take this up with...
posted by PurplePorpoise at 4:45 PM on October 27, 2005

I wouldn't go to HR, I would go to the person's manager and explain the situation. I see this more as a manager issue than an HR issue.

True story: I worked with a smelly co-worker and got stuck riding next to him on the way back from lunch. I started to feel like I was going to puke. I figured, maybe that would be for the best--if your smell causes someone to puke, it's hard to just ignore the problem.

So, that's plan B--puke on him.
posted by sexymofo at 6:18 PM on October 27, 2005

This happened where I once worked and it was my best friend in the office who was stinking up the joint. Our boss ended up having to talk to him, opening with: "Look, Sam, I think you might want to look into changing your deodorant." It sounds a bit silly now, but Sam understood straight away what was being insinuated and was then very, very grateful to have his BO problem brought to his attention.
A supervisor, or someone in HR should know how to deal with this sort of thing. It's really not uncommon.
posted by bunglin jones at 6:19 PM on October 27, 2005

This happened at an old job of mine. A few people complained about one girls BO, and the manager delicately explained the situation to her, and while I imagine she was a bit embarassed, she was probably grateful, too, since the BO ceased soon after. She wound up marrying another manager at the same store, FWIW. Of course handling situations like that well is what separates good bosses from bad, ultimately.
posted by jonmc at 6:35 PM on October 27, 2005

Sometimes people need to learn the basics of hygiene. Go to your manager, and to HR. It's their job to talk to this employee. It's not uncommon, and certainly no fun. Just reading this made me want to go brush my teeth, take a shower, and douse myself in Febreeze.

Meanwhile, when I had to work with a bad smelling student, I saturated a hankie with a light cologne, and would tuck it in my sleeve for respite from the bad smell.
posted by theora55 at 6:46 PM on October 27, 2005

Years back, I was the supervisor who had to deal with this problem -- and I couldn't blame the poor guy's coworkers for complaining either. They were stuck with him in an 9x9' room without ventilation.

In that case, the guy knew he had a problem and although he showered a couple of times a day and wore clean clothes, the odor remained to the point where we threw away his chair once he was gone.

It was a medical condition (I have successfully blocked out what kind because the details were just gross) and I felt really bad for the guy but it effected productivity to the point where my supervisor let him go.
posted by jaimystery at 6:51 PM on October 27, 2005

Be honest. If you don't feel like you can do it yourself, ask HR or a manager to.
posted by Count Ziggurat at 7:10 PM on October 27, 2005

What's wrong with an anonymous note?
posted by davy at 7:31 PM on October 27, 2005

Don't be a wimp. Don't go to a boss, don't leave a note, tell him yourself. "Larry, we need to talk. You're a great guy and a good worker, but you have really strong body odor. I assume you are not aware of this, so I thought I should let you know."

*remembers like it was yesterday*
posted by LarryC at 8:19 PM on October 27, 2005

Nothing will change (certainly not him) unless someone has the guts to tell him he has a personal hygiene problem.

That's the bottom line.

Now you have to draw straws with your colleagues.
posted by Decani at 8:28 PM on October 27, 2005

I guess it's being a wimp, but the boss gets paid more to deal with unpleasant problems, so I have no problem foisting them off on him or her.
posted by smackfu at 9:33 PM on October 27, 2005

It'd be better to let a manager or HR handle it, because if you take matters into your own hands, you could be written up or have some sort of harrassment charge against you. Besides, it's HR or the manager's job to handle these sorts of things, not yours.
posted by angry modem at 11:26 PM on October 27, 2005

I think the last thread Admiral Haddock linked to discussed every aspect and strategy for dealing with this problem. But ultimately it's your call as to how you want to go about it.

I've been in your position and at first I tried hinting -- "Something smells in here. Can you smell it too?" -- and when that didn't work I broke it to him as kindly and gently as I could, but our relationship (which was just a coworker relationship, nothing resembling a friendship to start with) did suffer, but at least he did remedy the situation. You just have to decide which is more important, your olfactory comfort or how you get along with stinky.

In some cases, when someone doesn't just smell dank but is truly rancid I think it's a passive aggressive maneuver on their part. If the stench is that bad, others who are close to him/her must have mentioned it and the person is choosing to ignore their suggestion/request/plea and is therefore being passive aggressive.

Oh wait! The solution just came to me. Enlist a child to inform your coworker of his problem. Kids are brutally honest and people seem to handle their criticism better than an adult's. One morning I hadn't brushed my teeth yet, and my gf's niece was sitting next to me on the couch, and I said something to her at close quarters and she scrunched up her face and said "Pew! Uncle Devil your breath stinks!" I laughed, apologized, and went to brush my teeth w/o any hurt feelings.
posted by Devils Slide at 1:09 AM on October 28, 2005

Create a hotmail account with a gibberish name, and send the dude a link to this thread?
posted by slater at 3:11 AM on October 28, 2005

Sit down and talk to him. I had this problem at work, and was mortified when I was told about it, but ultimately touched that I had been approached honestly.

Be gentle and positive with him, saying something like "Look, I know this is going to come as a shock to you because you obviously don't know about it, but I'm afraid people have noticed that you have B.O. It happens, obviously people work hard, they get stressed, that can cause it... and we don't want you to feel rejected, but obviously you'd like it to stop and we would too. So... we just want to make sure that you have everything you need to take care of it. Would it help you if we kept a cloth and towel here so that you could nip into the bathroom to freshen up?"

Keep the first contact at a frankly molly-coddling level like that. He will be shocked at himself and thankful to you.

If it doesn't help, another talk of similar tone where he's told that a towel *is* being kept for his use should solve things. And if it doesn't, gently but firmly asking him to see a doctor about the problem takes it out of your hands in a way and gives him some security. But always, always, remain very smiley and polite with him about it.
posted by paperpete at 3:17 AM on October 28, 2005

I'd probably try and go with the direct route. Something along the lines of, "WOAH! Gary, you reak today! Did a squirrel build a nest in your shirt and die there? Do you have any body appendages rotting off? Is your shower broken, or did all the stores in your area suddenly run out of soap?"
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:20 AM on October 28, 2005

Talk to BOTH his manager and HR. Both need to be aware of what's going on, because this kind of thing often winds up being a sensitive workplace issue.

jaimystery- Hyperhidrosis (excessive sweating) is a medical condition often tied to serious body odor. There are a few isolated cases of very, very bad b.o. not caused by hyperhidrosis- I remember a workplace lawsuit a couple years back dealing with it. I don't think they ever discovered a definite cause.

Please don't follow C_D's advice.
posted by mkultra at 8:20 AM on October 28, 2005

BTW, this question led me to start shaving my pits in warm weather. I don't have severe b.o., but it did make my natural scent significantly better.
posted by mkultra at 8:22 AM on October 28, 2005

Please don't follow C_D's advice.

Forgot to mention that this technique only tends to work well if you're already known as the office clown/caah-razy dude.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:53 AM on October 28, 2005

Think outside the box, people!

If he doesn't have a medical condition, he's probably unaware of his BO because of olfactory fatigue. The obvious solution is to spend enough time with him so that you also don't smell him anymore!
posted by Eamon at 8:59 AM on October 28, 2005

I agree that the best way is to be direct, but not everyone can be that direct. Although if you can, I would suggest -not- being extremely apologetic, and don't mention that the whole office has noticed it, and that it's been going on forever. Best case you say something as soon as possible because to me the real awkwardness comes when the person realizes s/he's been gagging people for weeks or months without realizing. Even if it's a lie you might say that you just noticed it, that way you avoid the "OMG how long has this been going on?" shame.

So if it were me I would not want, "You're a great person, and we respect you, and [...5 more minutes of buttering up...] but you have an odor problem, and we've all been suffering, and we've been trying to decide how to tell you for the last 6 months." Instead I'd rather get, "Hey, you probably don't realise it but you have a real odor thing going on and it would really help if you could try something different in your routine. I just thought you might want to know, no big deal."

Be direct, be straight, be as concise as you can without sounding like a bastard. Most people try to add as much verbal padding as possible when they are trying to tell someone something that's bad news, embarrassing, etc. Just cut to the chase and get to the point, make the moment only as long as it needs to be.
posted by Rhomboid at 10:33 AM on October 28, 2005

I Nth the "let the boss deal with it" for the mentioned reasons of harassment complaints and because IT'S HIR JOB. Get over any feelings of shame or embarassment about wanting to work in a pleasant environment that doesn't smell like a sewer: you have to spend 1/4 of your week there, you're entitled to it being at least marginally pleasant.
posted by phearlez at 11:48 AM on October 28, 2005

Cool mkultra, now I don't feel like such a freak. About that one "hygiene habit" of mine anyway.
posted by davy at 6:51 PM on October 29, 2005

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