Telling an employee they smell and it's a problem
August 12, 2016 5:36 PM   Subscribe

I manage a small team in an open plan office (a dozen people or so). One of my people is a guy who, on some days, smells pretty bad. This is obviously a problem when other people need to be close to him, and it is also a problem in that if it weren't for that, he is an engaging and useful person who could be interacting closely with clients. We all like him in every way but olfactory. What is the least worst, humane, decent, but effective way to talk to him about the problem?

Because it is worse some days and non-existent on others, I theorise that this is a hygiene/laundering thing, not a physiological condition. I also know this guy has been under a lot of stress for a while. I have been working hard to accommodate him in various ways, and in fact the immediate causes of that stress in his personal life are receding. This however is not an area where I can cut him slack, because of the effect on everyone else which I can't mitigate meaningfully.

(Note : we are almost certainly not in your jurisdiction and the challenges/constraints of your local employment law are irrelevant. This is just about how best to have a grown-up conversation about a difficult personal problem).
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (16 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
This Ask A Manager post might be useful.
posted by bunderful at 5:47 PM on August 12, 2016 [14 favorites]

This isn't as awkward but I'm super grateful when friends and colleagues let me know that so have something stuck in my teeth. I think the best way to tell this guy is by not making it a super big hush hush appalling shameful secret that you are forced to share but more of a friendly, "Hey, there's no way you could know this but on some days you come in smelling pretty bad. Obviously it's not on purpose and just as obviously it's a problem because we need clients to notice your great work rather than your smell. It's not every day and I don't need to know why it's happening but I do need you to figure it out and return to the fine-smelling guy you used to be. Can you do that?

Or some variation thereof.
posted by Bella Donna at 5:52 PM on August 12, 2016 [7 favorites]

Bunderful's link is great; don't miss the update link at the end of the post.
posted by Bella Donna at 5:56 PM on August 12, 2016 [4 favorites]

I had to do this once as a manager, and it was super awkward, but it worked out okay in the end.

First, I encourage you to speak to your HR so they know you plan to have the conversation. You have noted you aren't worried about that piece, but for anyone else reading these answers there may be things you can or cannot say depending on your country or union rules.

Here's what I said:

"Melvin, I need to have an awkward conversation with you, but I would rather take it directly than keep letting this impact you without being aware. Although you do always look neat and tidy, there have been some complaints about strong body odor from time to time. Although it doesn't impact the quality of your work, it does impact the perception people have of you. Do you recognise this problem?"

I swear to you I practiced saying that in the mirror for days before I actually needed to do so. Sigh.

In the end, even though in his case (like yours) it was not an every day occurence, it still turned out to be a medicine reaction and not a hygiene issue. We worked out a solution where he could use a shower in the office and keep a stash of extra shirts so that he could change on days where the sweating effect from the medicine were really bad. We also worked out what he would say to whom about it so he could mitigate the perception that he didn't care enough to be clean. He'd known it was bad, but because nobody was saying anything, he had vainly hoped no one had noticed. After a few months, he stopped the medicine and everything was resolved.
posted by frumiousb at 6:50 PM on August 12, 2016 [26 favorites]

Although you do always look neat and tidy, there have been some complaints about strong body odor from time to time.

frumiousb's speech is super but I would avoid saying "there have been some complaints." You are the manager; own the problem and do not pass it off onto others. It makes the conversation and the aftermath so much worse than it has to be for the employee. Either "I have noticed a strong body odor from time to time" or just "you have a strong body odor from time to time."
posted by DarlingBri at 7:12 PM on August 12, 2016 [33 favorites]

I generally agree with DarlingBri here, but want to point out the risk that the employee will think it is just you with a sensitive nose. If there have been remarks about it, I think it is better to let them know so they don't think they only need to adjust when you are in the meeting. It's unfortunately really easy for everyone to be in the denial box about this kind of thing.
posted by frumiousb at 7:32 PM on August 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

You can't assume that because it's variable it's not a medical condition. If he acknowledges that there's an issue, it might be worth asking whether it's a long-term problem for him, and if so, whether he's spoken to a doctor about it. Getting a medical diagnosis can be life-changing for people who have blamed themselves for decades.
posted by superfish at 8:39 PM on August 12, 2016

What about saying, "Others have expressed concern" which sounds like "We care about you," as opposed to saying, "There have been complaints" which sounds like "We're blaming you"?
posted by Autumnheart at 8:40 PM on August 12, 2016 [14 favorites]

Mod note: One comment deleted; if you have a meta-concern to raise please bring it to the contact form, don't put it in the thread.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 9:28 PM on August 12, 2016

I had this happen at my first job. I I was the smelly one. My supervisor took me aside and said I was a good worker, etc, but I smelled sometimes.
I started bringing deodorant into work and an extra shirt.
I didn't take offense and in fact still consider the supervisor a friend.
posted by signal at 9:55 PM on August 12, 2016 [12 favorites]

I live in Austin Texas. It was 103F here today. I ride my bike every day; when I left the condo tonight for my ten mile ride it was 99F. I shower right before the ride. I shower right after the ride.

I lost my sense of smell 12 years ago. Long story. But it's gone.

I shower twice every day, often more. I swim, too. (Austin!)

I pretty much *beg* everyone in my life to LET ME KNOW IF / WHEN I'M EVER RIPE. PLEASE TELL ME! NO KIDDING!

Two friends have come through. Turns out that it was my bike bag that was grody. It's a big bag -- I carry a lot of shit around, tools, first aid, I can fix anything I come across -- a big bag, a lot of material to get stenched out. Now it gets washed. A lot.

I am very, very grateful to these friends. No one else ever called me on it, then again these two friends are the ones around me most right after a ride. They helped me.
posted by dancestoblue at 10:35 PM on August 12, 2016 [4 favorites]

I would avoid the phrase "strong body odor". Just telling him he kind of smells sometimes will probably be quite enough to get the point across. You could ask him if he has a pet, and say he kind of has a lingering doggy smell. That takes the source of the stink off his own body, but alerts him to a problem. If it's kind of a musty smell you could go into a lie about how you used to have problems with a musty closet and you fixed it with baking soda. You make it something that sounds like it's not directly the fault of his own hygiene, something fixable, something you can even relate to. Then he knows he has a pong, and hopefully he'll go right home for a good scrub.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 10:55 PM on August 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

When left wet or sweaty for a few hours, laundry, towels, and even people can develop a smell that for many folks is unpleasant and very noticeable. However, it turns out due to genetics, some people can't smell this particular odor.* Consequently, some are unaware that, for instance, leaving wet laundry in the washer for a few hours can be a smelly problem. Your employee might have this difficulty.

From that point of view, if I couldn't smell the odor myself, being told that it was there wouldn't be enough. To be free of the smell, I'd need to know the cause. If I couldn't detect the odor, but I'd been told about it, I would want to know to do the following:

To begin, get rid of the existing smell:

1. Wash your bath, hand, and kitchen towels in hot water with bleach. Gym clothes too.
2. Much clothing can't be treated this way, so just run that through two wash cycles back-to-back.
3. If you're unsure a just-washed load is smell free, ask someone: "Does this smell funny to you?"
4. Every time the washer finishes a load, move the wet laundry to the dryer within 15 minutes!
5. For each load, run the dryer continuously until everything is thoroughly dry.

Now, to keep the smell from coming back:

A. Never let wet or sweaty laundry, clothes, or towels sit in a pile for more than 15-25 minutes. If you're not going to wash it right away, dry it by spreading it out on a horizontal towel rod.
B. As in step 5, get your washed laundry bone dry as quickly as possible. Don't leave it damp in the dryer. Drip drying? Do it outside on a dry, sunny day.
C. Since you can't smell this particular odor, it's safest if you don't reuse bath, hand, or kitchen towels, gym clothes, or underwear. See step A.
D. When you wash yourself, dry thoroughly all your nooks and crannies.

It should be said: there is nothing shameful about not being able to smell this or any other smell! (Nor is there anything shameful about being able to detect it.) Not all odors are detectable by all people, just as not all flavors are detectable by all people.

* See this article by a biochemist about isovaleric acid (what locker room odor is made of) and some people's inability to smell it. Tangentially related is this thread about super-tasters.
posted by a sock of sheep at 11:11 PM on August 12, 2016 [5 favorites]

A quick add to the points above -- sometimes the odor-causing culprit is the washing machine itself. Front and top load models both can develop mustiness and mold issues, and there are online tutorials for cleaning the washer. (I've used white vinegar with great success.) After that, leaving the door open to let the interior air-dry after wash loads can help keep those issues at bay.
posted by Iris Gambol at 9:18 AM on August 13, 2016

From that point of view, if I couldn't smell the odor myself, being told that it was there wouldn't be enough. To be free of the smell, I'd need to know the cause. If I couldn't detect the odor, but I'd been told about it, I would want to know to do the following:

No. Telling your employee how to be hygienic because they might have a genetic condition they don't know about and you read about somewhere is invasive and inappropriate. Report the problem and trust them to take care of it, unless they are a teenager.
posted by listen, lady at 11:41 AM on August 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

I didn't mean to suggest anyone should tell an employee "how to be hygienic because they might have a genetic condition they don't know about and you read about somewhere."

So far we've covered
He doesn't know other people can smell him
He doesn't know what to do about the smell
He can't smell anything at all
He's thinks it's just your sensitive nose

and I was adding: He thinks he has an okay sense of smell, and may generally, but in fact, he can't smell this particular smell.

Although, in this AskMe thread it seems useful to share the hard fact that olfactory perceptions vary widely between people, I could have made it clearer that the many details in my previous comment were not a script, but more general information and public service announcement.

Remember -- if your laundry always smells fresh after sitting in the washer for four hours -- there might be something your nose isn't telling you.
posted by a sock of sheep at 4:48 PM on August 13, 2016

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