Something fishy: How to deal with a smelly worker

Alan Palmer
Pedestrians react to the stench of pollu
Keep the conversation short and sweet – there's no point prolonging the agony for either side (Source: Getty)

I have someone in my team who makes a valuable contribution in every way – except that he comes to work smelling horribly unwashed! I’ve had complaints about it from other people in the team – and they’ve asked me if I can do something about it. This is beyond embarrassing – how can I even broach the subject with him?

Despite the fact that we live in an era of en-suite bathrooms, walk-in showers, male-grooming accessories and 28 unique scents of deodorant, the hygienically-challenged co-worker seems to be one of the problems of the age – at least if the number of times it’s cropped up when I’ve been running a seminar is anything to go by.

Perhaps too much washing has made us over-sensitive to smell. Imagine what things must have been like for our grandparents, when office workers mostly lived in digs, had weekly access to a shared bathroom, washed clothes by hand as rarely as possible, and considered the sweet smell of Sure as only for sissies.

I came across a variant on this theme recently when a senior woman manager at a big consultancy asked for advice on dealing with an otherwise entirely competent subordinate who had the unfortunate habit of scratching his nether regions during client meetings.

The clear temptation when this sort of dilemma arises is to take the yellow path of cowardice by delegating the task to someone else, or by using one of the anonymous email platforms which have sprung up in response to exactly this type of demand.

But taking the cowardly route won’t be good for your self-respect, for the respect you get from others, nor for the self-respect of your malodorous colleague. It’s your job as a manager to tackle this kind of problem yourself and to do so directly.

Straight to the point, politely

I suggest you set up a one-on-one meeting with the team member in question, behind closed doors.

Start by being completely open about your embarrassment and the delicacy of the situation – and seek his permission to continue: “Mark, I’m extremely uncomfortable because I have a very sensitive and delicate subject to discuss with you which you may feel is none of my business. So before I continue, I need your permission to do so.”

Once you’ve got that permission (and who’s going to refuse it and leave your office without discovering what the subject is?) be extremely brief, because neither you nor he will want to prolong the embarrassment and discomfort. In any case, a long conversation isn’t necessary.

You don’t need to offer detailed arguments, explanations or suggestions on this subject to a grown man whose performance in your team suggests at least a minimum level of intelligence. Something like this should suffice:

“Mark, here’s the thing. I’ve had complaints from your colleagues about what I can only call your ‘personal hygiene’. I don’t want to embarrass either of us further by going into any more detail than that. I’d like to assure you that – this subject apart – I’m very happy with your work. And I just want you to promise me that you’ll take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that, for both our sakes, we don’t have to talk about this again. That’s it. That’s all I intend to say on the matter. I just need that promise from you and we’re done.”