Work Advice: Co-worker’s smells have everyone’s nose out of joint

bad smell stock

Q: Remember the “Seinfeld” episode where the valet leaves Jerry’s car so stinky that it’s rendered unusable? George exclaims: “Oh, this isn’t even B.O.! This is beyond B.O.! It’s B.B.O.!”

Well, that valet has apparently taken a job in my office.

You can’t get in the elevator with him. You can’t use the bathroom after he has been in there. And forget about going into or near his cubicle.

How do I nicely let him know that it’s time for a serious shower? What can I do without resorting to Jerry’s idea of sending in the “Smell Gestapo?”

A: Two things made “Seinfeld” entertaining TV. First, despite being “a show about nothing,” it somehow had a relatable episode about every petty, provoking peeve of modern American life. Second, its tactless characters provided a useful moral compass. While you might fantasize about following Jerry’s example and locking the olfactory offender’s boss in an enclosed space with his stench, you also know that’s not a good solution. (Right?)

I agree someone should talk to your colleague about the effect he’s having on your work environment. But that someone probably shouldn’t be you. These conversations are best left to either an individual close enough to the offender to speak frankly about personal hygiene or an objective third party with authority to address problematic behaviors, such as your HR department.

Seasoned HR professionals have the expertise to investigate complaints; initiate discussions; navigate legal concerns around medical, behavioral or cultural issues; and set and enforce expectations. And, like “Seinfeld,” they have dealt with every unpleasant, awkward and unmentionable human encounter you can imagine.


If your employer doesn’t have an HR department, your next best bet is to speak to your manager - privately and respectfully, no George Costanza impressions - about the situation. Your manager can then bring it up with the colleague’s manager, or help you find ways to get some distance from your B.B.O. buddy.

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Q: I work for a small company with fewer than 50 employees. One of them, who works on a different floor from me, has environmental sensitivities. As a result, all employees have been told not to wear perfumes or aftershave or anything scented.

The other day, the environmentally sensitive employee came up to our floor, went into a co-worker’s office and criticized her for wearing deodorant. Afterward, the folks on my floor commiserated that not wearing deodorant could result in other types of odors.

I wondered if I now have to buy body care products according to the dictates of someone I hardly ever interact with. I broached the issue with my boss in what I thought was a sensitive way. He issued a companywide memo telling us all not to wear scented products, including deodorant, and added that he didn’t want to hear any complaints about it. I usually get along so well with my boss that I was taken aback by his strong response. Who’s right?

A: From where I sit, everyone’s partly right but handling it all wrong. When you don’t have trained professionals handling sensitive discussions, you end up with vigilante enforcers and zero-tolerance policies that leave everyone’s nose a bit out of joint.

An employee whose well-being is affected by scent or other environmental conditions is right to ask for some kind of consideration. The employer is right to try to grant that request and may even set policies requiring others’ cooperation in doing so.

But even if the affected employee’s condition requires accommodation under the Americans With Disabilities Act, the accommodation can’t impose an undue burden on everyone else. If good-faith efforts to accommodate the worker aren’t enough, then the employer needs to consider alternatives, such as granting the sensitive employee a private, ventilated workspace or the option to work remotely. Shutting down feedback from others affected by the accommodation fosters resentment, which isn’t doing the sensitive employee any favors.

All that said, scent-free body products are increasingly available and affordable. But I’m catching a whiff of something bigger going on. It doesn’t seem logical for someone that scent-averse to knowingly corner the source of their discomfort in an enclosed space for a confrontation. If, as your wording suggests, the sensitive employee deliberately entered your colleague’s office to call her out, that suggests either extreme frustration or an attempt to assert power - either of which, again, a seasoned HR professional should be well equipped to resolve.