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📫 How do I tell a colleague they smell?

📫 How do I tell a colleague they smell?
By Mike Pearce • Issue #9 • View online
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Mike, one of my staff has complained that one of their colleagues has some significant body odour issues - how do I broach this subject? - Steve
Sheesh, this is a tough one. I’ve had to deal with this twice in my career and neither time was a particularly enjoyable experience.
Look, some people have different standards to you, others come from different cultures, some are just blissfully unaware of how their actions (or, inactions) can affect others. Whatever the cause, tact and being mindful of folks’ feelings is tantamount here. No one likes to hear that their very existence is causing other people suffering. You might find that they don’t know, this is the best case. The worst case is they do know, and they don’t care - hopefully this isn’t the case for you.
Usually, this is the kind of thing you can bring to the attention of your boss, and let them handle it, but I get the impression that maybe you are the boss, or at least the person who has to deal with it.
First step is to talk to the person alone and make every effort not to be confrontational. I’d start with a clarification “I’d like to discuss an issue with you, it’s not about your performance, that has been great.” I know it sounds a bit like a shit sandwich, but asking anyone for a chat will get their defences up.
Next, lay it out how it is “This is going to be an awkward conversation for both us and by no means do I intend any offence, I just want to bring something to your attention that you may not know” this let’s them know to be prepared for something that is clearly going to be awkward, but makes it crystal clear that it’s not personal. You can also give them an opportunity not to have the conversation “If this is going to be a problem, we can not have this conversation.” - this gives them the choice, a powerful way of giving them control of an unpleasant situation. It’s unlikely they’ll choose not to have it.
You want to be able to describe the situation without using inflammatory words. DO NOT SAY “You smell.”, try and describe it differently and look to open a conversation about it, you could try:
  • “You seem to have a somewhat disagreeable odour about you.” - the solidly British way of saying it.
  • “I’ve noticed that sometimes there’s an unpleasant odour.” - less soft, but still not confrontational.
  • “On particularly hot days, there’s often a certain smell.” - this tells them it’s not all the time (even if it is).
(Be aware there might be a medical reason for this and so I’d seek some support from HR first (they might even assume the burden of dealing with it - but how will you grow is someone else solves all your problems?) and find out if they know anything that might contribute to problem.)
After that, it depends on the reaction to the bomb you just dropped. I’ve experienced both ends of the spectrum and the reaction you’re looking for is “Shit, really? I didn’t know, thanks for being honest with me.”.
You might get a response that the person knows but doesn’t know what to do - you could offer some suggestions. They might get angry, or insulted and you’ll need to use your full-bore EQ and Sensitivity Training to navigate out of that one.
Finally, it’s important you re-confirm that you’re still their friend, still respect them and are only informing them because you’re not sure if they know and you’d rather they heard it from you than someone else, or direct from HR - which is usually too formal and quite terrifying for an employee.
The key here though is that you’ve got to deal with this - don’t ignore it.
End #post
Thanks for reading. Any feedback is warmly received. However, this might be the last of the regular emails. Some life changes mean that sending this email (which I enjoy doing!) will have to take a back seat for a while. I know I promised a regular email and it was regular, for a while.
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Mike Pearce

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