How do you tell someone they smell bad?

Dear Liz,
I work in sales and am often in and out of the office as are most of my colleagues. We have a few staff personnel who work at the office to answer phones and do clerical type things. There is one person who has pretty horrible BO and I find it borderline sickening to be near, which I know sounds mean, but it’s true. Even though we don’t have clients come to our offices very often, I still think it is pretty unprofessional to go to work stinking. How do I tell this person to take care of the problem?
– Anonymous

Dear Anonymous,

This is one of those tricky social situations in which tact and compassion should lead the way. The person may not know or realize others are smelling BO. For example, I once had a professor who was beloved by all, but oh, man, did he have the absolute worst breath. It was like smelling rotting roadkill every time he spoke, but no one really knew how to bring it up with him, as a student, I certainly never did.

I asked a colleague who works in human resources and she had a few smart tips to try. First, be kind, gentle, and discreet but direct. If you don’t have an HR person or boss and this really does fall to you then try using a simple script like, “I am so sorry to bring this up, and I mean absolutely no disrespect, but I have to bring it to your attention that you have a rather strong smell of body odor (or perfume, cologne, smoke, etc.) and I’m finding it distracting.”

If you do have an HR person or someone who is generally really great at dealing with tricky personnel stuff like this then discreetly bring it up with that person and ask them to please intervene.

Above all, though, be kind. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and imagine how it will feel to hear that your smell is making people feel uncomfortable and go from there. You never know, you might have an incredibly grating and irritating habit that you’re not aware of. Empathy and kindness rule here.

Good luck!

~ Liz

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