Something Stinks – and it’s Sitting in Your Office

If someone has bad breath, body odour or severe flatulence, the compassionate thing to do is talk to them about it, especially if their smell is holding them back. However, if you approach the issue in the wrong way, you can flip the lid on a stinky can of worms.

There are those who make it to adulthood without knowing that they are whiffy, or they simply do not know how to stop stinking. Be warned, sometimes the issues can be a sign of other problems that will never be solved in the workplace. Managers are not counsellors, or medical practitioners, and need to be wary of professional boundaries.

What can go wrong?
It can be really hard to work out if it is a medical or hygiene issue, and you have to be careful not to discriminate against your employees. For example:
  1. If males working in a physical environment smell bad and a woman in the same workplace is being held to a different standard, it might be a case for sexual discrimination.
  2. If there are other odorous employees who are not singled out and the person being spoken to has a different race, age, religion, national origin or some other protected status you can be accused of general discrimination.
  3. If the trouble over scents started shortly after an employee announced a disability, need for medical leave, or pregnancy (not that being pregnant is a disease or a disability!) there may be a strong case for a personal grievance or even wrongful dismissal if the situation is poorly handled.

Courageous Conversations

If someone comes into your office to make a complaint, close the door and listen carefully. Most people find this kind of conversation incredibly embarrassing and would rather deal with the smell than say anything. The very fact that they are talking to you indicates that there is either a serious problem or they are an incredibly vindictive individual.
Ask your employee the following questions:
  1. When did the problem start?
  2. Do you know what causes it?
  3. Can you think of any ways that the problem could be solved?
  4. Has anything been said to the person in question?

There may be non-invasive ways of dealing with the problem: a window could be opened, air conditioning turned on, or an automatic air freshener placed in the office. If this is not an option, talk about how to approach the person in question.

From my experience, the person making the complaint will say something like, “I don’t want to hurt person X’s feelings, which is why I’m talking to you.” My usual response is to gently remind them that person X will be far more mortified and maybe even angry, if they find out that their colleagues have been discussing them behind their back.
Coaching around how to have a ‘courageous conversation’ and how to use “statement – result – reflection” phrases normally helps. For example they could try saying, “When it’s a really hot day, sometimes you smell a little ‘high’ and I find it hard to concentrate. Have you thought about any ways that we could stop this happening?”
In a perfect world, the two colleagues will discuss the need for an extra can of deodorant, fresh shirt or clean pair of socks. If you are really lucky, there will be a shower on site and the person who is the focus of the conversation will use it after their lunch time work out, physical exercise or whatever it is that is causing the problem.
In a not so perfect world, the odorous one will say something like, “My bad breath is tied up with my Type 1 Diabetes,” or, “I have irritable bowel syndrome and my doctor has put me on new medication. We are trying to work out the problem but it is making things worse.” The interesting thing is that sometimes knowing the cause of the issue brings on a bout of compassion and people work it out.  Whatever happens, at least there had been some dialogue about the issue.
Dealing with it yourself
If you need to formerly raise the topic yourself, plan what you are going to say and be ready to take notes. Have the meeting in a private setting and do not bring anyone else, or their complaints, into the conversation.
Try saying, “Look, I was walking past before and I noticed that you have some body odour going on. We work in a team environment and we all have to deal with customers, so this is a problem that we need to talk about so we can work out how to fix it.” You can then talk about how some of your friends have solved similar problems.
Once you have had your meeting, as with any Human Resource discussion, you need to have a record of what was said and close the loop on the issue, so there are no loose ends that you can hang yourself on. Send an email to the employee detailing the need for the meeting, the remedies that were discussed and thank the employee for taking the time to talk to you.
Beyond terminating someone’s employment or telling them that a loved one has died, this is one of the most excruciatingly painful people management discussions that can be had. The only thing you can do is keep reminding yourself that in two months’ time, it is unlikely that you will even remember having ’The Talk’. Instead you will be sitting back, smelling the roses and reflecting on what your team has achieved in the meantime.

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