Q: Dear Workplace Wonda, there is an employee who visits my office a couple of times a week. Each time he comes in, he has this unpleasant smell that stinks up the entire office. The odor is so bad that employees spray Febreze or turn on their scented candles to cover the smell. Some employees even complain of headaches! How do I address such an uncomfortable subject?
Signed, Holding My Breath Until I Get Answers
A: Dear Holding My Breath Until I Get Answers, Wow, you really are in a stinky, I mean, sticky situation! On one hand, you have employees screaming, "foul." On the other hand, you have an employee who is seemingly senseless when it comes to his own Pepé Le Pee-ew!
It kind of reminds me of one of my favorite SpongeBob SquarePants episodes titled, "Something Smells." In the episode, SpongeBob decides to make a sundae, but doesn't have any ice cream. Instead, he uses onions, ketchup, and peanuts. When he goes out to Bikini Bottom, everyone avoids him because of his rancid breath. SpongeBob's good buddy Patrick does not smell the foul odor because he does not have a nose and tells SpongeBob that everyone is avoiding him because he has the "uglies!" Later in the episode, Patrick eats one of SpongeBob's special sundaes, and when everyone runs from him, he thinks he caught the "uglies" from SpongeBob. SpongeBob eventually smells Patrick's breath and has an epiphany. He says, "Patrick, we are not ugly, we just have bad breath from eating the sundaes"! Both SpongeBob and Patrick run around happily announcing, "WE STINK!" "WE STINK!"
The episode clearly shows how oblivious SpongeBob and Patrick are to the funk fermenting from their mouths. Could the same be true of the "little stinker" in your office? If not, we have to presume that the employee is getting a whiff of himself and is wearing his odour parfum de rancid with purposeful pride. Highly unlikely. Think about it. We are with ourselves all day long. We get used to our own scent. Our nose doesn't always know what other's noses know. Nose what I mean?
In all likelihood, the employee is unaware that he is staring in a Febreze smell test commercial and that he is staring as the SMELLY ODOR! Supervisors, this is what you get paid the big bucks to address. Discussing body odor with an employee is considered one of the top "difficult and awkward conversations" a supervisor has to have with an employee. The following are a few tips you can use to end "Smellygate".
1. Meet in private with the employee. If you are a female supervisor talking with a male employee or vice versa, perhaps having a supervisor of the same sex might be less uncomfortable for the employee. It should be a supervisor that works with the employee, not Joe Supervisor from another office. Not that you would be too successful trying to convince a supervisor from another office to help you on this one.
2. You might explain to the employee that you have to discuss a topic that is uncomfortable, but important to address. No need to be apologetic because hygiene problems do reflect poorly on the company. If they become defensive or embarrassed, you could explain that you are not wanting to humiliate them, but their personal hygiene needs to be corrected. Be specific on what needs to be addressed, such as bad breath, body odor, too much perfume or cologne. In reality, you are doing the employee a favor by bringing it to his attention.
3. Be sure to follow-up to ensure that the problem was addressed. I'm not suggesting that you sniff the employee every time he enters the office, but just be aware of how employees are responding (running, fainting, wearing gas masks) to know if further discussions need to occur. Hopefully, this will go smoothly, and you will be able to bathe, I mean, bask in the sweet smell of success.
Signed, Workplace Wonda