Personal Odors in a Diverse Workplace – by Terry Howard

“Hey, Terry, how about a mint?” my wife offered. I paused for a second before declining. But back to that further down. First here’s a challenge, old and new, that put her mint offer into context.

Years ago, I managed a group of 120 support staff personnel. One of them, Alice, stopped by one day to warn me about a person in the group who allegedly had an offensive body odor and everyone expected me to deal with it. “No problem,” I responded.

Suddenly a scary reality set in as I thought about what I’d just been presented with.

I procrastinated for days hoping that somehow this would just go away. Well, it didn’t. After further news that the situation was worsening, I could no longer put it off. I mustered up the courage to talk to the “offender.” But since this was definitely new terrain for me, I typed a script I intended to follow, word for word, during what would, undoubtedly, be a very uncomfortable meeting. After three day of practice in front of a mirror and listening to myself reading the script on a tape recorder, I was finally ready to go.

“Good morning, Beth,” I said pointing her to the chair in front of my desk. After a minute of aimless chatter – which included her telling me how nice she liked the air fresher I sprayed before she stopped by – I got right to the point. “Beth, I’ve heard that some who work with you have concerns.”

“About what?” she asked. Fingers trembling, I clumsily retreated to my script.

“Well, uh, the truth is that there’s an olfactory inhibiting smell– no, whiff, uh, no, fragrance – that seems to consistently emanate from your bodily direction on a job-interfering basis.” It was hard to believe that I could utter something so idiotic.

“What does that mean?” Beth asked.

Eyes glued to the script I muttered, “Well, the concern, uh, I don’t know how to say it, is that your, uh, fragrance, no, your whiffs, don’t meet minimally acceptable standards for active participation in a contemporary organization.” I’m squirming big time at this point feeling silly and incompetent as ever.

“Are you saying that I stink, Terry?” she asked, suddenly rising from the chair. Silence. Then she turned to walk out of the room.

“Now wait. I didn’t know how else to say it,” I tried to explain. Her icy stare made me slink into my chair (or the nearest rock). “Well, I don’t know. I really didn’t mean to…” I meekly tried continue.

“Hey, don’t worry about this, Terry. I’ll take care of it. This has to be difficult for you.” At that she left the office. I heard from Alice later that Beth took care of the problem.

This example represent an issue that does in fact lurk in the workplace: personal odor. Increasing cultural diversity brings with it odor differences related to foods, hygiene and mixed reactions to those differences. Thus, odors, particularly body odors, (and excessive perfumes and colognes too) can be a problem.

So why should this matter? Well, the truth is that this can have a negative impact on productivity and be viewed as an intrusion on people’s personal work space.

So what do we do?

“Be aware that many people are unaware of their own body odor,” Dr. Alan Hirsch wrote in a New York Times article a few years ago. “Just because you can smell someone doesn’t mean that he can smell himself.” Odors perceived by others as unpleasant can result from poor hygiene or smoking. Diet and medical conditions may be causes. Cultural background may be a reason as some cultures put more emphasis on grooming and bathing than others. Hirsch noted that everyone has a distinct personal scent, some less pleasant than others. So what’s the solution?

The obvious answer is to take special care in managing personal odors and understand, like many other aspects of relations at work, it’s necessary to consider how your presence affects those around you.

If you’re the one feeling as though your ability to work is affected by an odor coming from someone else, it’s necessary to be considerate of others. The cowardly strategy of anonymously leaving deodorant, an air freshener or mouthwash on the person’s desk is not the right way to go. That’s hurtful and may seriously damage that person’s relationship with everyone in the group. As uncomfortable as it may be, being honest and direct is probably the best approach even though this is a difficult topic to discuss.

Now certainly you’d want to do this privately and would want to soften the impact with a statement of the person’s value to the organization. And if you just cannot do it yourself, like Alice, bring it to the attention of your boss.

These situations are complicated and delicate. There’s probably no way to handle them without personal embarrassment. The key is to choose your words thoughtfully and with extra care. Your role is to be truthful yet offer empathy, support and resources. Below is a sample “script.” Feel free to modify if to fit your unique situation or personal style. Good luck.
“Carl [or Carla], I need to talk with you about something that’s really difficult for me. But first, I want you to know that if this situation was reversed, I’d really want you to bring it to my attention right away. This is personal, and you may not be aware of it, Carl, but you have a body odor problem. Did you know that?”

Long story short, diversity issues will continue to show up looking, acting and, uh, “smelling” differently. The test of the mettle is how we manage them.

Now back to that mint my wife offered me. I decided to take it after all. “Yes, Karen, can I have one?”

“Have a couple,” she said. Her emphasis on the word “couple” did not go unnoticed.

So in parting, a word of advice: Keep mints on hand and never turn down one if offered.

Terry Howard

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