DEAR CARRIE: I would love some advice on how to have a conversation with a coworker who smells bad, like musty bad. The conversation about the odor problem would be sensitive and awkward but so necessary, because I sit next to that person. I do not want to hurt her feelings, but something needs to be done. I bought several air fresheners to try to mask the problem. But it persists. And other people are affected. What can I do? — Smelly Situation
DEAR SMELLY: You’re right that you should have that talk. And because such discussions are indeed sensitive, you need to proceed with lots of discretion, a career expert said.
“If you decide you’re going to talk to your coworker, don’t tell anyone you’re going to have that conversation — not even people outside of work who might know someone at your company,” said Glory Borgeson, president of Borgeson Consulting Inc., a Chicago area career-coaching firm. “Keep it private.”
If the co-worker agrees to talk, “go somewhere where others won’t see or hear you,” Borgeson said.
And take a compassionate approach.
“Make sure your demeanor is sisterly, woman-to-woman; not bossy and not lording it over her with information you have that she doesn’t have,” Borgeson said.
Tell her that you want to bring to her attention something she may be unaware of, and that if the tables were turned you would want someone to tell you.
Then you could start the difficult part of the conversation with something like this:
“There seems to be an odor coming from somewhere — perhaps from your clothing? I’m not sure. It’s affecting me during my workday.”
She might ask what kind of odor. And you could respond:
“It’s a musty smell,” Borgeson said. “That’s why I wondered if it’s on your clothing, but I’m not sure. It’s quite strong and I can smell it while I’m working at my desk. Do you have any idea what it might be from?”
Wait to see how she responds. If she asks if other people smell it too, then say “yes.” But “for the time being, keep it about you and what you smell.”
If she reacts poorly to the information, you may have to speak with your boss to describe what happened, Borgeson said.
But the compassionate approach could pay off.
“I hope speaking with her compassionately helps her to become aware and figure out what is causing the odor so that she can make changes and stop smelling badly,” Borgeson said.
To drive home the importance of showing compassion when a co-worker has a hygiene issue, she related a story about a friend named Kim who had to talk to a former co-worker, Jane, who never washed her hands after using the bathroom.
One day everyone brought in treats. Borgeson’s friend heard people say, “Don’t eat Jane’s brownies. She doesn’t wash her hands.”
Kim felt compassion for Jane. She decided to talk with Jane to find out what prevented her from washing her hands.
“Kim took her aside where no one would hear them speaking,” she said. “She actually told Jane other people were saying to not eat the brownies Jane brought because she doesn’t wash her hands.”
Jane opened up and said the soap in the dispensers irritated her skin. Kim asked if she could use just water to rinse her hands or even bring soap from home. Jane was amenable to solving the problem because of her friend’s compassion, Borgeson said.
“Kim was compassionate toward Jane and helped her to solve a problem she didn’t know she had,”
The example also shows how important it is for co-workers to speak to their offending colleagues in the first place.
“Jane couldn’t have made a change without Kim telling her there even was a problem,” Borgeson said.