How To Tell A Coworker He Stinks, Literally

So, persistent BO from the bloke next to you is infecting your concentration and ruining your crayfish wrap. What do you do?

Move desk.

No! Those armpits need to be tackled head on before they start causing a serious problem.

Asphyxiation, you mean?

No. I mean that small problems can escalate if no one has the courage to tackle them. As occupational therapist Kim Stephenson points out: “No one is willingly going to embarrass themselves by stinking or having their skirt trapped in their knickers. They’ll feel more humiliated if they find out it’s been a known problem for weeks and no one told them.”

Well, I’m not willingly going to embarrass myself by being the one to point it out. The manager’s paid to do that sort of thing.

Again, no. Telling the boss turns a personal issue into an official thing. “If you delegate everything unpleasant to the boss, it blurs the line between professional and social,” says Stephenson. “Managers have to do things by the book, which can mean getting others involved and people start taking sides and it can be blown out of all proportion.”

So you’re saying I have to go up and tell a colleague that he stinks?

You are being obtuse. And the BO was just an example. The sensitive issue might be a habit of inappropriate remarks, or unsuitable dress, or too much lunchtime refreshment.

The trick, according to psychologist Brian Marien, director of Positive Health Strategies, is to decide first whether it’s a matter worth raising. “Is it impacting on the team or just something that bothers you?” he says. “And is it a problem that can be remedied, or is it rooted in a medical condition or cultural differences? Then you tackle it in a supportive and benign, not a point-scoring way. Try to normalise the problem to minimise the embarrassment.”

As in, “When I haven’t washed my shirt for four days my armpits stink too”?

Phrased, perhaps, a little more delicately. Stephenson suggests a “compliment sandwich” in which you start by saying something good about the person, then break the bad news, then end on a rising note.

Like “I’ve always coveted that shirt you’re wearing, but don’t you find polyester plays havoc with the sweat glands? Super hair do, by the way!”?

Along those lines, yes. According to Stephenson, a subtle hint, like a Secret Santa gift of roll-on, is enough to alert most women, whereas men need it socked straight at them. Preferably by a fellow bloke over a beer at the end of the working day, so they don’t have to sit self-consciously reeking all afternoon.

So I ruin a good friendship, but everything comes up smelling of roses.

Pointing out awkward truths is the sign of a good friendship. The person needs to trust you before you start, so that they know you have their best interests at heart, says Marien. Remind them of your good relationship. Stephenson suggests saying something like: “I hope you feel you know me well enough to tell me the same if I am ever inadvertently smelly/offensive/inappropriate.”

Is that it?

Try not to judge or diagnose: just point out the observable problem and keep calm and caring if they take the news badly. It mustn’t seem as if you’re trying to pick a fight.

I think I’ve got it. There’s just one more thing …

What’s that?

All the while we’ve been talking you’ve had this giant bogey on the end of your nose.

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