Nothing can turn an afternoon of work into pure torture like the smell of microwaved fish or burnt popcorn that just won’t fade. Now imagine sitting right next to source of the stink. Your eyes water or you gag whenever your coworker shifts positions and a fresh wave wafts your direction. Cultural norms, medical conditions and even mental health may contribute to the problem so you need to tread carefully. We consulted experienced people managers and human resource experts to find the best ways to deal with smelly coworkers.
For occasional problems with a coworker you know well, the best way is to have a private conversation about the smell. Be direct and tactful so they are less embarrassed. In most cases, you are better bringing the issue to HR or your manager to address so you don’t create an awkward situation with your coworker.
Whatever you do, don’t gossip about the situation with other staff and don’t leave passive-aggressive hints around their workstation like breath mints or pamphlets on personal hygiene. In one case in Indiana, a former lead staff was fired after installing air fresheners to address a body odor issue in the office. She is now suing for wrongful termination (Bridges v. City of Indianapolis).
These cases can be complex, and while a single conversation is fine, don’t keep at it if your coworker doesn’t correct the smell. Human resources members are aware of the legal landscape and are trained for these issues. Managers and supervisors are more likely to see your complaint as a non-issue and avoid the uncomfortable situation entirely.
How Do You Tell a Coworker They Smell
There is no getting around it this conversation will not be fun, just like letting a friend know their zipper is down, they have snot dangling from their nose, or they have toilet paper hanging from their pants. If you were in the situation you would want to know and not go about your day while people snicker behind your back.
Pull them aside for a private conversation and let them know you have their best interest in mind.
If it were me I’d want someone to let me know. Has something changed with your laundry? Because there is an unpleasant odor coming from your clothes today, are you aware?
This approach works well for any ‘natural’ odor – everything excepts smells coming from products they are applying themselves like perfume, colognes, and even some deodorants. The whole point is make them aware that something smells in a non-confrontational way.
Most people with poor personal hygiene habits are aware, but they are nose blind and think other people won’t notice. With this gentle prodding, most problems of body odor, bad breath, feminine hygiene, stinky feet, and even flatulence will improve.
The most powerful part of this approach is that it puts the focus on the smell as coming from their clothes and not from them personally – its a small but important distinction that preserves their dignity.
My Coworker Wears Too Much Perfume, Cologne or Body Spray
When it is a temporary issue you are better off just bearing with it for that day. Everyone has been in the situation where they put on more than they intended. After a few minutes you can’t smell it yourself but don’t realize how strong it still is for everyone around you.
When it is an everyday occurrence, you should go to your manager and problem solve the issue by offering suggestions of what you can do, don’t expect change from your coworkers. You can ask for a work location that moves you farther away, you can go to your boss with ‘Jane’s perfume is bothering me and I will be more effective and productive if I can move to the empty cube two rows over‘. If your request is granted you need to accept the improved situation and move on, don’t continue bringing it up after you got what you wanted. Make sure you can live with your proposed solution.
Smells are a personal preference, what one person thinks is refreshing and wonderful another person thinks is overpowering and nauseating. If you are not the only person to raise the issue, your manager may take steps with the person involved but good managers won’t reveal confidential information. The best you can expect is a vague ‘I’m aware of the issue and working on it‘.
My Coworker Has Bad Breath
This is one of the most common situations – whether is morning breath, smoker’s breath, or good old halitosis. One of the most disgusting cases of bad breath I’ve personally encountered was a smoker that drank strong coffee. The coffee breath and smoke combination smelled like a steaming pile of dog feces blowing in my face every morning. Even after quitting, smoker’s breath can linger for months before oral health recovers.
Coffee is one of those interesting materials – it smells great brewing and while it is fresh but stale coffee quickly gets a nasty funk. The good news is that smokers and coffee drinkers know they have bad breath and few will take offense to a quiet comment. You can always pop a breath mint or stick of gum in your mouth and nonchalantly offer one to them – most will accept a friendly offer. Even if these efforts fail simply take a step back and you can avoid the worst of it.
Bad breath is not an issue to bring to your manager unless you receive customer complaints. Most customers won’t bring it up with the person directly, but they may mention it to others in passing or crack a joke about it. Once you know that customers are affected by your coworker’s bad breath you have an obligation to call attention to the problem before it impacts business.
My Coworker Smells Like Smoke
Smoke, and the chemicals in cigarette smoke, coat the surface of anything they come in contact with. The smoking jacket served a purpose even before it was popularized by Hugh Hefner – it absorbed the smelly chemicals so they didn’t seep into your clothes as much. Remove the smoking jacket and most of the smells go with it. It is the same reason that even smokers frequently don’t smoke in their own homes – they don’t want the smoke coating their walls and hurting resale value of their homes so they smoke outside.
With the crush of changes that have happened since 1998 when California was the first to outlaw smoking in bars, many smokers feel like second class citizens so it is important to be respectful. Have a chat with your coworker and mention that the smell is bothering you ‘Hey Joe, the smoke smell is bothering me so I’m going to move over here until it dissipates‘.
Smokers are very aware that they smell like smoke, so most will be accommodating and remove their outer jacket after smoking, at least during the cooler months. Simply ask if there is anything they can do to help reduce the odor. Twenty nine states, and the District of Columbia, have laws that prohibit discrimination based on legal activities outside the workplace, so any actions taken by the workplace will have to address the smell instead of the smoking itself.
My Coworker Has Really Bad Body Odor
First, make sure that its not your own body odor you smell. Our own smells are notoriously difficult to identify and they seem to come and go as we move. Once you know that the smell is certainly coming from a coworker you need to tread carefully. If the person just returned from a lunchtime workout then they may already know about it but may have forgotten deoderant that day.
If you’ve already tried the tactic of suggesting that maybe their clothes have a new smell and it didn’t work, or you don’t have a close relationship with the coworker, then you need to bring the issue to HR and your manager. Personal hygiene is fraught with differences from religious, cultural, and social norms as well as diet, medical conditions and individual employees should not try to tackle them on their own beyond the actions of a friend. With increasing awareness to people’s sensitivities, company policies are increasing setting a fragrance-free workplace and including statements about personal hygiene and offensive odors.
Forum comments are full of posts about people that say ‘deodorant is not allowed under my religion’, which even if it were true, does not mean the workplace needs to stink. The company is required to make reasonable accommodation unless it affects the company operation. A plumber with slight BO is more reasonable than a car salesman with the same level of underarm funk.
Religious Accommodation/Dress & Grooming Policies
Unless it would be an undue hardship on the employer’s operation of its business, an employer must reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs or practices. This applies not only to schedule changes or leave for religious observances, but also to such things as dress or grooming practices that an employee has for religious reasons.
Religious Discrimination & Reasonable Accommodation & Undue Hardship
An employer does not have to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs or practices if doing so would cause undue hardship to the employer. An accommodation may cause undue hardship if it is costly, compromises workplace safety, decreases workplace efficiency, infringes on the rights of other employees, or requires other employees to do more than their share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work.EEOC
My Coworker Has Stinky Feet
Even though the problem always originates with their feet, this is another situation where you can blame the new smell on their shoes so they don’t see it as a personal attack. Smelly shoes are also one of the few cases where some subtle hints may actually work. You can certainly work it into the conversation where you talk about a shoe spray you’ve found that really helped your kids smelly shoes and they might get the hint.
Expert Tip: Most shoe sprays just cover up the odor with another smell, but our favorite shoe spray (buy on Amazon) actually kills the odor causing bacteria and leaves a clean smell.
No, you can’t actually spray their shoes yourself…
My Coworker Brings Smelly Gym Gear to Their Desk
Smelly gear is one of the easiest situations to fix. A simple wash of the bag and contents should address most problems, but if not then the solution is straightforward – ask your coworker to remove the bag to their car after they finish their workout.
Can You Refuse to Work With Someone Who Smells Bad?
When you reach the point of refusing to work with someone because they smell bad, it should be an obvious problem that any reasonable manager or human resources member would take seriously. Bring the smell issue to their attention before it reaches the point you are refusing to work with a colleague.
However, the odor may originate from a protected reason, such as a medical conditions or side effects of medicines, that require reasonable accommodation. Under HIPAA privacy requirements, even your manager probably doesn’t know the specifics, HR just collaborates to determine how to accommodate the disability.
Unfortunately, many of us work with managers or HR that are not reasonable. This leaves you in a sticky situation. If your company leadership does not address the smelly coworker, then your actions reflect on your performance. You can always refuse work, but it comes with consequences. A smelly coworker is not an excuse to miss deliverables or avoid an assignment. You have little recourse if your refusal to work with smelly colleague means that you are viewed as underperforming as a result. Carefully consider the implications for your own career if you stand your ground and push beyond the support of HR or your manager.
My Coworker Farts All the Time
Flatulence is rude and unpleasant and can greatly disrupt a workplace when it happens frequently. Unfortunately this is not an issue you should address yourself employee to employee. Farts are a bodily function and are medical conditions are frequently to blame. Bring your concerns to HR and your management team so they can handle the issue.
You can take charge of your personal space to minimize the discomfort. Keep a bottle of air freshener handy and spray it when the fog reaches you. If you go this route be sure to use a ‘clean’ scent that is not cloying or sweet, Febreze Unstopables Air Freshener (buy on Amazon) is our favorite because it cleans the odor away and doesn’t just mask it with something stronger. The spray is very effective on farts even an hour after spraying. It is fine to acknowledge the fart when you smell it, but don’t call attention to the person themselves even if you heard it and know for sure who dealt it, just go about your business and handle the issue.
Desk fans and air purifiers are another good option to keep the air circulating and fresh, but you need to find a quiet fan that doesn’t cause more disruption.
Here is a link to our favorite desk fan (buy on Amazon) that is whisper quiet and has a sleek design. It does require a 110v power plug so if you only have a computer for power is a great USB fan (buy on Amazon) for a low price.
The characteristic methane smell may not be coming from a fart, other medical conditions can smell similar and most would be embarrassing to be public knowledge with all your coworkers. We’ve all made the juvenile jokes about passing gas but you are a professional in the workforce so please set the example for others to follow. Assume the other person really can’t control it and proceed with a helpful approach.
My Coworkers Say I Smell Bad
First off, be appreciative your coworkers care enough about you to say something rather than just talking behind your back.
Second, identify the source with a trusted friend or family member that is not around you every day. Invite them over and let them know you need their help to identify the bad odor and where it is coming from.
This will be uncomfortable for them and they probably won’t want to embarrass you so pay close attention. A simple comment like ‘yeah, this smells OK‘ might really mean ‘I can be near it for 10 seconds before my eyes water‘.
Now is the right time to call your brutally honest friend that always says ‘don’t ask me a question if you don’t want to hear the truth‘. Here are some of the common sources and what to do about them:
- Stinky Clothes: Most smelly clothes originate from smoking, absorbing pet odors from your home, or laundry problems. Make sure your wet clothes don’t spend time in the washing machine before they are dried, they can quickly get a sour mildew smell. Rewash them with a cup of distilled white vinegar to get rid of the odor. If you have a strong smell in your home, from pets or other sources, you need to attack the source. In the short term you should keep your clothes in closed drawers or shut away in a closed and keep work clothes freshly laundered (within a week before you wear them).
- Body Odor or Stinky Feet: Personal hygiene is important. Make sure to shower at least every-other day and scrub all parts of your body with soapy water. Stinky feed may be due to athletes foot or excessive sweating.
- Bad Breath: If it is more than normal morning breath (are you brushing your tongue before work?) then it may signal an underlying medical condition. Issues with your teeth, gums, and respiratory tract can all have symptoms including halitosis. Get checked by a medical professional.
- Farts: If you fart frequently do not assume that you are automatically protected under the ADA, you still have a burden of proof that you have a qualifying medical condition and provide the necessary paperwork to request reasonable accommodation. You can try over the counter remedies like Gas-X or excuse yourself to the bathroom or outside.
If you are suffering from depression, mental anxiety, or other issues please seek help and fully utilize your health benefits through your employer. There are also solutions for homelessness and living out of your car – showers are available at shelters or even the company gym. If the smell is becoming an issue at work, don’t lose your source of income because you are embarrassed, most managers and HR professionals want to help.