When A Co-Worker Has Bad Body Odor

by admin on November 12, 2012

I was approached today at work as a senior female in our area to talk to the female trainee about her smell.   The male staff senior to me would not handle this situation very well.

I am not sure how to approach this with sensitivity.  I had thought about just putting deodorant in her draw and hoping she would take the hint? The trainee shares an office with another worker, who has not complained, but the rest of the office can smell the body odor up the hall way.  She always has clean cloths and her hair looks washed.

We do live in a very warm climate, however our offices are air conditioned.

Any Advice please? 1029-12

First, this is a private matter about a person’s body odor and hygiene which is unfortunately become a workplace problem impacting the work environment for others.   Your discussion with her needs to be in private.   The only thing your fellow employees need to know is that the problem has been addressed.  They do not need the gory details of what you said, what the exact problem is or how you resolved it.    By being tactful and discreet, you build trust not only in her but other workers as well.

Two, keep the discussion on topic, be straightforward and assure her that it has nothing to do with her job performance but how she physically presents herself is  related to the company dress/appearance code which violations of can affect employee morale and client interactions.   (If your company does not have a dress code, you need to create one and implement it).

Three, offer possible solutions.   There are deodorants on the market such as Secret Clinical Strength and Degree Clinical Strength that are targeted to heavy sweaters with unusually strong odors.   If I remember correctly, there are even prescription strength deodorants a doctor can proscribe.  Be open to the idea that it may not be her underarms that are the source of the odors.   Yeast or bacterial infections in private areas, behind the knees, the mouth and the top of the butt crack can give off an unpleasant odor and can be remedied with over the counter product such as Gold Bond Medicated Powder or mycostatin creams or powders from the doctor.   If she seems amendable to finding solutions, perhaps have a few samples of the aforementioned items ready in a pretty basket or bag.   It might even be her laundry detergent!   I once used a particular brand and scent of liquid detergent that made the clothes have this smell that reminded everyone in the family of stale urine with a slightly sweet yet ammonia scent.  Our clothes smelled like rancid, old pee!   Ditched that bottle of detergent!

Four, treat this like any other infringement of the dress code and set a time limit for correction of the problem.   If your company has a disciplinary policy for continued infringements, you need to follow those procedures up to and including termination if necessary.

{ 68 comments… read them below or add one }

Elle November 13, 2012 at 12:25 am

I had the same experience at my previous work place, but unfortunately it was not due to a medical condition, I believe that my co-worker just didn’t care. Some days she would come in smelling like she hadn’t washed in a few days & when it was hot she was prone to excessive sweating. Our office was quite small and she sat several feet from me so it could get quite unpleasant. On top of that she would wear tank style tops that were very loose fitting, and some days people swore that they could see the sweat rolling down under her armpits. Sometimes are clients would comment about the “strange smell” and she would blame it on the ones that had just left, one time she turned around pointed at me and said “she sometimes comes in without showering for days”. I was quite upset, but luckily the next time I ran into that client, she assured me that she knew it was my co-worker with the hygiene issues and not me. The management company that our office space was rented had to ask their manager to speak to my co-worker as people from other business’ started to complain since she frequented the lunch room and would sit with a lot of them. Eventually I left that company, but I still talk to others that work on the same floor as her, and from what I gather, she still hasn’t changed and unfortunately her coworkers have to put up with it.

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StephM November 13, 2012 at 12:51 am

“…gets upset that people think she’s “dirty” then the manger says, “you are not dirty, it could be your washing machine or the detergent you use on your clothes or the soap you use, it could be a health condition. None of these are your fault but you can resolve them.”” -Enna
This is my favorite bit of advice. Please remember this line when talking to the employee. I think reassuring her that no one is upset with her could really help.

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Cat Whisperer November 13, 2012 at 1:10 am

Oh, boy, the workplace bad smell follies.

We had one lady I worked with who got on this “garlic is good for you” fad. This was before the health supplement places started selling “de-scented” garlic supplements; she was eating the real thing, and by her own account, she was eating pounds of garlic.

She STANK of garlic, and that isn’t an exaggeration. It was so bad that nobody wanted to talk to her. Her supervisor finally had to speak to her about it. I don’t know what was said, but she voluntarily left the company not long after that and there were a lot of people who were very relieved.

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Mogwai November 13, 2012 at 2:26 am

I agree with Shaindy. I’m in the same situation as she is. My husband also has a problem with overactive sweating and he is allergic to many deodorants. And some of those he might be able to use, he can’t because I’m allergic to many things, including strong smells such as perfumes. I can handle normal body odor very well, even strong ones. But perfumes, deodrants with fragrances are really bad for me. I work in customer service and there is nothing worse than when a customer, who has used a lot of perfume, approches. My eyes directly start to water and if the smell is really strong enough I may start to hyperventilate and have to get my astma-inhalator. So, keep in mind that the problem might be health related, but also that there are people out there who can’t be around “clean” people because they smell to strongly of perfume and other scented products.

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koolchicken November 13, 2012 at 4:55 am

I totally agree with other posters about not leaving deodorant in her desk. Imagine how hurt you would feel if you found something like that in your desk.

Years ago I worked in a store where one of my co-workers had some hygiene issues. No one knew how to handle it. People had tried giving him gifts of soap and new clothes but they failed as he didn’t use them. We could have called HR, or had our manager speak to him but he was a bit slow and we were worried he might think we were picking on him. I was nominated to speak to him as it just so happened I’d known him since I was little. I took him to a coffee shop next door and explained the problem (lack of bathing, cutting nails, brushing hair, etc.) he was sad, but understood. His Mum used to remind him to do that stuff but after she died he had no one to help him. So after that I told him I would help remind him, it made a huge difference. He truly didn’t realize he was offending anyone, he just needed help and didn’t know enough to ask for it.

So to the OP. You’ve been put in an awkward position, but with kindness and compassion I’m sure you can find a solution. Just don’t try to rely on “presents” as they can backfire. A gift of expensive soaps is nice, but if the person doesn’t know why you’re giving them they aren’t likely to help. Just be open and honest and it’ll all work out.

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Cerys November 13, 2012 at 9:30 am

It is always possible that the lady in question is anosmic (has no sense of smell) and that no-one has mentioned this to her before. My husband is anosmic, and luckily is receptive to me telling him when he’s a little ripe. If the lady doesn’t have any close friend or family member who feels comfortable telling her that there’s a problem, then it’s never going to be resolved – at least not until some less-than-polite person throws it in her face as an insult. Imagine how she’d feel if that happened and not one of her friends or colleagues had discovered the strength to let her know, discreetly, that people were finding her smell offensive. Just be kind, considerate, and let her know that you feel for her. That way she’ll feel more comfortable conferring with you in the future should things not improve.

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MaryFran November 13, 2012 at 9:57 am

When you have an ulcer, it makes you smell TERRIBLE but the person with the ulcer cannot smell it. This happened to my brother. He walked around like this for weeks until his girlfriend-at-the-time’s mom noticed him walk out of the bathroom after taking a shower still smelling very very bad. He marveled later that none of his classmates or friends ever said anything to him. It helped get him to a doctor and finally get the ulcer diagnosed.

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Anonymous November 13, 2012 at 2:48 pm

Let me join the chorus of posters who advise against giving soap/deodorant/whatever as an “anonymous gift” for the hygienically-challenged person. When I was in high school, I played in the school band, and we had a Secret Santa event (among other things) every year, and soap was sort of a “running joke” kind of gift for Secret Santa–not the expensive kind, but obnoxious, obviously cheap soap from the dollar store. However, this was funny, because we knew each other well, most of us were friends with each other on at least some level, and I don’t remember anyone in the band having a problem with personal hygiene.

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mpk November 13, 2012 at 3:39 pm

Elle – since the smelly person in your previous workplace didn’t have the slightest compunction about throwing the blame on you in front of clients, i wouldn’t have hesitated to let her know that it was her that reeked. Unlike her, I would have done it privately but, I would have warned her that if she did that again in front of anybody, then I’d call her on it. In front of whoever was there. Some people are unbelievable.

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Ergala November 13, 2012 at 4:43 pm

I had a friend who had horrific odors. She seemed washed but had a bad habit of not wearing a bra. Don’t ask how I got a glimpse of this but one day I noticed she had a RAGING yeast infection under her breasts. I was shocked and asked if she was itchy or burning under there (I’ve had them there before, especially while pregnant. They are very hard to miss). She claimed she had no idea what I was talking about and I made her go check it out in a mirror. The odor went on for weeks after and I don’t think she did anything to cure it. Yeast infections can smell particularly foul, especially when it’s somewhere exposed that can have the odor circulated. I had to pull the car over once and vomit when we were driving to a store. It was that bad. I lied and said I get car sick sometimes. There is no tactful way to say “You REEK!”

I’ve also been approached about an odor. My problem was hormonal and I had absolutely no control over it and I had to explain that. Perfumes and scented lotions made it ten times worse. Not everyone who smells bad is due to bad hygiene. I make our laundry soap to help battle it and I had a surgical procedure done to remove the organ in question. My odor is gone, but I still make our laundry soap to cancel it out if it ever came back.

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penguintummy November 15, 2012 at 6:02 am

Some medications can make you sweat excessively and smell strange, particularly some anti depressants. I think admin’s response sounds great! No gory stories, no gossip, just honest conversation. The idea of setting a time limit is also good.

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Enna November 15, 2012 at 11:45 am

Thanks StephM I’ll try to remember that if I ever am in that situation!

@ Admin, with regards to buying items you are right that it would be a case by case situation.

@ Elle -how could your colleague say it was you? Evil Enna would have have said “Lying is unprofessional, sinful and immoral.”

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Cat Whisperer November 15, 2012 at 11:34 pm

Cat said: “…I’d drop the word “smell” in favor of “odor” …”

This reminds me of the famous anecdote about lexicographer Samuel Johnson, the distinguished English author (1709-1784). Johnson was a man very precise about the use of the English language; he was also not noteworthy for his personal hygiene, which was bad even for a time when most people bathed only once a week or so.

A lady got into a coach with Johnson. “Sir, you SMELL!” she told him.

“No, madam, YOU smell. I stink!” Johnson corrected her.

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GleanerGirl November 16, 2012 at 9:05 pm

In olden days, people often could not bathe more than once a week, or month. Sometimes it was limited to once or twice a year! Still, they had their tricks.

Lemon or other citrus juices, applied under the arms was often the deodorant of choice. Vinegar is also frequently effective. The nice thing about these is that you can keep a little bottle and a washcloth at your desk, and make a quick trip to the bathroom to re-apply during the day, as needed.

There are any number of reasons why b.o. might be a problem. And there are any number of reasons why even the best store-bought deodorant might not work. For instance, I am allergic to the main ingredient in all anti-perspirants, and many deodorants. And those crystal salt things, that are all natural, give me hives. Fortunately, washing under the arms and keeping clean is enough for me. But many people have more needs.

Don’t threaten termination on the basis of a grooming/dress code. If it’s a medical issue, it is not a violation of the code, and the OP already stated the woman looks clean.

Do, however, take her aside and privately state that she has an odor issue, and she needs to take steps to resolve it. You might state that there are any number of reasons, including medical or even a bad reaction to the detergent she uses. You do not know the cause and are NOT going to pry into it. However, if she cannot tell that she smells, and she needs someone to quietly work with her on it, as she tries different solutions, you can be her confidante.

For instance, she may come in and tell you she changed her laundry detergent. Can you tell? If you can tell a difference, say so! If not, shake your head, and she’ll keep trying other things until she finds the cause.

And if she is one of those unhappy people who truly have an insurmountable odor issue, due to a medical condition, and nothing they try works, then try rearranging the office so that there is better air flow, and air purification (NOT PERFUMES!) to help. If people still complain, as HER to educate them. You do not have the right to share her medical information, however she does have the right and responsibility to do so, where her condition adversely affects others.

In such a case, a bit of knowledge and understanding would go a long way in getting the co-workers to tolerate it.

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Nom De Guerre April 3, 2013 at 5:53 pm

You can have my coworker thank you very much. He smells like an old coffee filter. Oh, wait…he basically IS an old, over-sized coffee filter! Makes me wanna retch.

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j September 18, 2013 at 3:36 am

I have a touchy situation too. My co worker doesn’t just smell like sweat and funk. He smells like crap too. I think he has problems wiping because of his size. To make matters worse , his car broke down three months ago so he depends on me for a ride. I don’t chargehim for gas , hoping he will use the money to get his car fixed. He smells my car seat up like crap, and I have to use clorox wipes on the seats everytime he gets out of my car. He complains that I spray the office with deodorant spray , but doesn’t realize he is the reason. I want to tell him so bad he smells like a damn farm animal. Please help me god!!!

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help me November 14, 2013 at 10:17 am

My coworker has been here 15 years and spoken to over 8 times.

She runs a cat shelter out of her house and admits she
Washes the cat and dog bedding with her own clothing.

The stench is unbearable some days. The office manager says there
Is nothing they can do short if firing her which they say us not
Something they wish to do. She currently sits right next to me and
Before thus she sat in the cubicle in front of me.

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