Hello, and welcome to one of the most difficult jobs you might ever be unfortunate enough to face – telling somebody they smell bad. I’ll be honest, I’m amazed and saddened by how often someone has asked me how to do this. Apparently there are millions of people blindingly unaware of their own foulness. Why take a daily shower when a weekly one will do? Why bother using mouthwash when you’ll just have to go out and buy more? And one of the best perks that comes with working alongside others is the thankless chore of occasionally telling somebody that their odor is beginning to constitute an existential threat to life on this planet.
I hope you never have to follow any of this advice. But if you’ve been a mildly bad person and karma decides to repay you for it by forcing you to do this, here are some ideas that will help you survive intact the next time you need to tell someone that their body odor is becoming a public health issue.
Pretend You Had No Idea!
Pull Mr. Picklebreath aside and say that somebody recently submitted a complaint and you are obligated by company policy to follow up on it. This way you can position yourself as a mere messenger of something that may or may not even be true, but at least Mr. Picklebreath will be alerted to the issue and hopefully address it on his own.
Suggest It Was Probably an Isolated Incident!
If Ms. Chickencurry acknowledges that the anonymous complaint may have some validity, you can defuse the situation easily by suggesting that it was probably a single instance and hardly indicative of her colleagues’ collective impression of her. Again the issue will be addressed, but Ms. Chickencurry can leave your office with her dignity mostly intact.
Use Departmental Surveys to Your Advantage!
If you’d like to bring the issue up without singling anyone out, send out an all-staff follow-up email after your next survey. Then, when discussing the results, you can mention that somebody said something about somebody maybe possibly smelling bad. It won’t address the issue right away, but it will make subsequent conversations with specific individuals less of an unpleasant surprise.
Post a List of Unacceptable Smells!
No reason not to have a little fun with this. “The following is a list of smells that we’ve decided are detrimental to workplace morale: deer musk, anything remotely resembling a hyena, more than five drops of any perfume, wet cardboard, going without a shower for more than two days, raccoon-scented undergarments, and any food in the breakroom fridge that can no longer be identified for what it originally was. Also, please don’t keep rotten eggs in your desks anymore – you know who you are!!!! Sincerely, HR.” Notice how I peppered this mostly ridiculous list with a few that some of your people might be guilty of? That’s basically the point.
Leave a Note!
If you want to avoid a conversation entirely, it’s possible that a note might do the trick. This will also allow you to take the time to phrase things as best as you’re able. I recommend telling the recipient that you’ve chosen this approach specifically to address the issue in as discrete a manner as possible; otherwise you risk coming off as passive-aggressive. Also, wait until as close to the end of the day as possible. That way, Mr. Showerhater won’t have to feel awkward and uncomfortable all day long.
This is a tricky subject to tackle, so I hope at least one of these ideas make it a little easier for you. And seriously, if you can think of any more difficult situations than this one, let me know and I’ll write an article for you next time.