Dear Liz ... how do I deal with my colleague's body odour?

I'm enjoying this current heatwave but my colleague's body odour is making me queasy! How do I handle this situation?

As the temperatures continue to rise and the air con us working overtime, the last thing we need are unwelcome odours in the office. But this is a highly personal and tricky situation. We also need to consider that there could be many reasons as to why this is the case. Some people are allergic to strong deodorant, the boiler may have broken down leaving them without hot water, they may be depressed or have a medical condition that you are unaware of. So don’t jump to conclusions! We may say that we would want to know if our breath smelled or our trainer feet were causing a stink, but some folk may not handle this personal feedback very well. There may also be religious reasons that we need to take into account. Whilst it is easy to advise the school of “just call it out”, this requires careful handling.

Having done some research for inspiration on this question I have taken some wisdom from the Non Violent Communication model developed by Marshall Rosenberg in the 1960s. I think you will find the full four-part model super helpful for many situations and circumstances. Observation is stage one of the model and invites you state what you notice. It is important to make sure that you are dealing with facts free from judgment or evaluation. People often disagree about evaluations because they value things differently, but directly observable facts provide a common ground for communication. For example "it's 2am. and I hear your stereo playing" states an observed fact. While "it's way too late to be making such an awful racket" makes an evaluation.

So coming back to our delicate matter you could start with owning your observation. “I wanted to talk to you about a delicate and personal matter. I am noticing with the current super warm weather that you have some body odour that I was not previously aware of. Are you aware of this situation?”

It is important that you do not to speak on behalf of other people or the team. I say this because you need to own your observation and experience and bringing other people into the conversation makes it open to dispute and could add to any embarrassment.

Your tone is also very important. The conversation needs to be handled with care and kindness and not presented as a topic for laughter or ridicule. Like all conversations, you don’t know what will be revealed until you start it. So start with compassion.

Your pace is important too. Don’t blurt out the difficult message and run away. Handle the conversation with respect and listen to what they have to say. Be open to anger, denial, disbelief, tears and embarrassment and other reactions. Check out with them how they are during the discussion.

The fourth part of the model asks you to make a request. This is not the same as a demand. So in this situation you may say, “can I ask that you resolve this matter by Friday, when we have our next client meeting?” You may also want to check in with them and ask if there is anything they need from you. It may be that they need access to the company showers, time to see their GP, access to the Chemist or to stay home for an engineer to repair their boiler. This approach demonstrates that you are supporting and collaborating to get to the desired outcome and both of you keep your dignity.


Last updated 21 January 2022