Office odours; dealing sensitively with smells

In order to function as part of a cohesive team, it is often necessary for individual workers to accept the differences of their colleagues, particularly when it comes to lifestyle choices.

However, sometimes the life habits of one worker can impact on the productivity and wellbeing of other employees and may affect a worker’s relationships with colleagues and clients. When this happens, it is necessary to take appropriate action in order to rectify the situation.

The problem of bad smells in the office is one example. This can be an extremely awkward situation to handle, and delicacy is required in order to ensure no one feels unduly offended or discriminated against.

Fortunately, there are a few basic things that office workers can do to address bad smells in the workplace without hurting anyone’s feelings too severely.


If the bad smell is coming from someone’s food

In today’s fast-paced working world, many employees are choosing to eat lunch at their desks in order to remain productive throughout the day. This can create strife if the foods being consumed are particularly odorous.

When addressing this problem, make sure to keep cultural sensitivity in mind. You do not want to make any comments that might be interpreted as discriminatory based on an individual’s race or country of origin.

Encouraging an individual to get away from their desk at lunch time could help, perhaps even citing research about how unhealthy it is to eat at your desk.

If the problem is serious and persists it may be time for management or HR to step in.


If the bad smell is related to body odour

A slightly more difficult problem to tackle – and one that can easily be the catalyst for conflict or even allegations of workplace bullying- is employees with body odour.

It is important that employees are aware this is a problem for HR or management to address. Co-workers should not try and address the problem themselves, as they may lack the skills and insight required to handle it delicately and appropriately.

The best approach for managers or HR staff is to take the individual aside and have a quiet word about the problem. Some important points to remember when discussing sensitive issues such as these are:

  • Keep it confidential – do not address the issue in front of others or where others can overhear or see the conversation taking place.
  • Try to put the employee at ease but clearly articulate what the problem is. Where possible, attach the feedback to a business issue, such as customer interaction.
  • Do not assume you know what the underlying issue is – for example, the problem may be related to a medical condition.
  • Be empathic and prepared to offer any practical advice if asked.
  • Be straightforward and get to the point quickly.
  • Let the employee know that this is not a performance issue and that you are happy with their work.
  • Use neutral language referring to professionalism and the impact on the office.
  • Stay calm, the more uncomfortable you seem, the more difficult it will be for the employee.
  • Be sure to follow up with the employee if the problem continues.