Etiquette: The nose knows

What to do when co-workers cause a stink.

People will put up with a lot at work—crappy pay, pointless paperwork, moronic colleagues. But one thing many have trouble tolerating is a smelly co-worker. Someone who reeks, spews bad breath or brings in stinky deli meat for lunch. The flip side, of course, are those who seemingly bathe in perfume or cologne before coming to the office, or rip open a bag of microwave popcorn after lunch—which doesn’t exactly convey the most professional image. And let’s not forget people with flatulence.

Typically, co-workers respond to the aromatically challenged by avoiding them or making mean comments behind their backs. But the situation can get much uglier. “Some employees will start leaving deodorant or soap on the person’s desk,” says Susan Heathfield, a Williamston, Mich., management consultant specializing in human resources. “This creates a hostile work environment.”

It’s a delicate situation for managers to deal with. But it’s one that should be addressed as soon as they catch a whiff of it, because that prevents others from taking matters into their own hands. Heathfield recommends managers take the stinky employee aside and say something such as, “You’re emitting an odour that is not acceptable in the workplace.” Although managers should be direct, they should also be sensitive about a few factors. For starters, people don’t often realize they’re creating a problem. A medical condition could be behind a person’s odour, which may require a visit to the doctor. Also, keep in mind that different cultures have different attitudes toward personal hygiene. “In North America, you’re supposed to shower twice a day and be squeaky clean,” says Heathfield, “but not every society believes that or even finds it attractive.”

A company’s human-resource department can come in handy in these situations. An official dress code that includes a section on hygiene can make the process easier, since it gives a manager the ability to discipline an employee.

Heathfield says that dealing with the smelly employee can be one of the toughest challenges a manager may ever face. But that’s not too surprising. After all, clearing the air is never easy.