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You Stink: How To Tell An Employee That They’re Smelly

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This is easily one the most common and yet difficult problems most people face in the workplace—stench. But for some people, this is an ongoing and unavoidably significant issue.

Listen, everyone enjoys some garlic and onion from time to time. No problem, right? Just avoid them like the plague for the rest of the day. We’re talking about those special few who either don’t own deodorant or seem to visit the shower only once a week.

Lancashire Business View, based out of the UK, published an interesting article by Metis HR about this issue with some surprising stats to back up their information.

The stats from the research by the University of Bristol into body odour helps us work out that 0.5% of the working population of the UK smell and that 109,500 UK employees should use deodorants but don’t.

That doesn’t sound too bad, right? 109,500 people seems pretty low. But try to imagine each and every one of those numbers spread out across different companies and the issue becomes more than a nuisance but a real problem.

One in every 200 British employees has a body odour problem which means that 6% of UK employers are likely to have an employee who smells. That’s 1 in every 17 workplaces!


© Flickr user Raelene G

This is a nightmare. I can tell you from experience that working with someone who stinks is the utmost sort of unpleasant way to spend your workday. It’s not just passing by their cubicle, it’s the trail of smell they leave behind them as they traverse the office, like some sort of nauseating maze you have to get through just to make it to the kitchen. So why do some people stink so bad? You may be surprised to find that men sweat twice as much as women. Also, Fish Odor Syndrome is a legit genetic problem some people face in which their sweat smells fishy. And the biggest smelly sweat of them all comes from stress, so it’s not so surprising to find that stinky problem in the workplace. What’s the solution, then? The article went on to give some great tips on how to broach this touchy subject:

  • Talk to the employee in private.
  • Start with a soft>
  • Do not say that people are talking about the smell or that people are complaining. Own the problem yourself and say that you’ve noticed the problem.
  • Tell the employee what the problem is as you see it.
  • Try to attach the problem to a business issue eg the impact on customers or colleagues.
  • Ask the employee if they have any medical problem that you need to be aware of; there are medical conditions which can affect how much a person sweats (hyperhidrosis) and what their sweat smells like (Fish Odour Syndrome).
  • Ask the employee if there is anything in their personal life which could be causing the problem (finding out an employee has lost their home or is living somewhere with no washing facilities is likely to provoke a different reaction from most employers than someone just not bothering to shower).
  • Set out your expectations for improvement and a date when you will meet again to review the situation.
  • Ask if there is anything you can do to help the employee achieve the improvements.
  • Reassure the employee that this informal conversation with them will remain a private matter between the two of you.
  • Make a diary note of the conversation.
  • Monitor the situation discreetly and hold your review meeting.

Basically, what it comes down to is handling this problem with care. Your employees are people with feelings and insecurities all their own, so take into account that this is something that could be out of their control or maybe an issue they need help with. Discretion and compassion are key!

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Alyssa Shea

Alyssa Shea

Alyssa Shea transplanted from Illinois to South Carolina. She loves to write, read, and spend time with her dog and her family. Alyssa is very active on social media. She has been part of the AccelaWork team since 2013.
Alyssa Shea

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