Office Pet Peeves: How do you tell a coworker they smell bad? | Ladders

"You've had a noticeable odor lately."
Office Life

How do you tell a coworker he smells bad?

If you work in an open office space, collaborating with your colleagues is as easy as leaning over from your desk and talking to them. But working in close quarters also means getting up close and personal with all of your colleague’s quirks — and their sounds and smells.

Office pet peeves are born from this cramped petri dish of people working closely together: well-meaning co-workers can turn into your frenemies who chomp food with their mouth open, talk loudly on phones, hum along to their music, wear pungent perfumes, carry the medieval body odor of someone who’s never worn deodorant, and will never, ever change their behavior on their own.

If it’s a temporary situation, the best thing to do is remove yourself, bodily, from exposure to the irritating behavior until it’s over. Buy headphones, move work stations, and suffer in silence until your trial is over.

But if it keeps happening, you face a choice: deal with the co-worker directly or get over it. Here are different work environment scenarios we can work through to see what you can do and what you can ask your offending colleague to do.

1. Your co-worker is too loud

Many of us are sensitive to our surrounding noise levels. For some of us, it’s even a condition called misophonia where certain innocuous noises, like sniffing or eating a banana, can trigger a fight-or-flight response in our bodies that makes us see red and want to punch our colleagues.

Before you confront your colleague for loudly eating a banana, however, think what you yourself can do. Can you move desks? Can you get a noise machine? Or noise-cancelling headphones? See if there’s a way to establish quiet zones or a meeting where you can bring up noise etiquette to the entire office before you single anyone out.

If your colleague’s noisy behavior is particularly grating to your ears and is affecting your work, then we can go on to the next step of bringing it up with them.

Be sensitive about how you do this. Asking your colleague to change their personal behavior is where it can get fraught. Recognize that however frustrating their behavior may be to you, the problem is yours, not theirs. Trying to change someone else’s behavior is a huge challenge for even experienced managers; eventually we realize that we can only change our own. When you bring up your problem, be sure to focus on that.

Do the conversation in a neutral space away from prying ears. You can be frank if you’re also polite, but offer to compromise: if you have afternoon deadlines and need peace and quiet, mention that you’re fine with whatever noise rituals they do in the morning. Lifehacker recommends easing the blow by mentioning thin walls and enclosed spaces. And after you do make your request, be polite by reciprocating and asking if there’s any way you can make your colleague’s working environment better.

If your colleague is loud on all fronts—they sniff loudly, wear jangly jewelry, and keep shouting on phones— Fast Company recommends sticking to the one thing that’s really bugging you so that the problem feels fixable, instead of launching a rant about their entire body and personality — which will not go over well.

2. Your co-worker smells

Okay, this one’s trickier. If your co-worker is consistently smelly, no headphones will make that smell go away.

After all your individual attempts to physically get away from your stinky colleague have failed, you can either learn to tune out the odor or go the much dicier route of asking your co-worker about their smell. The people I talked to who have experienced this firsthand chose to stay silent with their smell request. But there are brave people who have attempted to resolve this and have come out the other side in one piece.

The goal, as with all of these requests about your own pet peeves, is to resolve the problem without burning bridges. It can be helpful to bring your concerns to a manager, who’s better-trained in how to handle difficult conversations. (Though we’ve never met the manager who would relish this conversation either).

Halley Bock, CEO of Fierce Inc., told Jezebel that the main thing when bringing up someone’s body odor is to be “clear, concise, and compassionate.”

What does that mean? Don’t be passive aggressive and leave hints about someone’s personal hygiene, and don’t drag out the conversation when you have it in person. Also don’t gossip about it; even if you think you’re being subtle, people can always tell when they’re being gossiped about.

Bock suggested telling them, “I’m sure you’re not aware of it but thought you’d like to know that I’m noticing an odd odor.” Then, briefly state why this is important, why you want to resolve it and then give your smelly colleague a chance to respond.

Granted, this is a highly risky gambit. Tone is key: you don’t want the person to feel like they’re on trial.

If you’re a manager and your direct report’s smell is affecting your clients and work, you’re going to need to have this difficult conversation, no matter how much you don’t want to have it.

Ask a Manager’s Alison Green recommends telling them there’s a problem directly with as much respect as possible. “It’s awkward, and I hope I don’t offend you. You’ve had a noticeable odor lately. It might be a need to wash clothes more frequently or shower more, or it could be a medical problem. This is the kind of thing that people often don’t realize about themselves, so I wanted to bring it to your attention and ask you to see what you can do about it.”

This is all very direct, and it’s understandable if you don’t want to say those words and keep the peace instead.

That said, you’re not a hall monitor for other people’s hygiene. No need to bring up the potential consequences if they don’t follow through. It can be a mortifying conversation for all parties involved and for most employees, it will be a one-time one. If your first attempt doesn’t work, there really is no option to try again.

This conversation is not easy but if you do go to a manager, remember to make a business case. Their job is to make sure that direct reports best represent your company, including appropriate levels of personal hygiene.

Oh, and if this could be you: remember to give yourself a sniff before leaving the house, wear clean clothes to work, and keep a personal hygiene kit in your work bag, including deodorant and mouthwash or toothpaste and a toothbrush.