how to talk to an employee about body odor

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A reader writes:

One of my direct reports is a woman who is absolutely kick-ass at what she does, but I don’t think she bathes frequently and I suspect she’s wearing dirty clothes to work sometimes. She often has a pungent aroma about her. It isn’t body odor exactly, but there is a definite funky smell that lingers even after she walks away. Someone mentioned that he hates having her come see him in the morning because he’ll be smelling her in his office all day. And he LIKES her. I can only imagine what those who don’t are saying.

People are also commenting on her unkempt and/or torn clothes (and not fashionably torn). Our office culture is pretty laid-back. Jeans and t-shirts are okay here. You really have to be working at it for your slovenly appearance to be noted and commented on. She did not dress this way when her previous manager hired her; she seemed more pulled together then, and I don’t remember her smelling, either.

I believe she is being treated for depression. If this lack of self-care is part of a bigger mental health problem, is it right for me to meddle? I think her self-esteem is shaky and I’m terrified of saying something that would make that worse. If it were me, I would hope someone would have the guts to say something. But the fact that she does not seem to be taking care of herself generally—hair, makeup, clothes, hygiene—makes me think maybe she just doesn’t care, or does not have the emotional strength to do so at the moment. Scary.

I sought help from HR but got only links to articles (one of which said pointedly that HR people should refuse to handle these issues and kick them back to managers). Meet with the employee, one said, and allow the worker a chance to offer an explanation. Good so far—but then it went on to say the manager should suggest action steps (get a physical, see a dentist) and explain there will be “consequences” if the employee does not make headway. And how do we measure that? By critiquing their appearance or smell every day, or grilling them about whether they went to the doctor? This does not seem to be an area where a manager should be butting in, even if people are holding their noses.

Yes, it really is an area where a manager should speak up. You should speak up because it’s affecting the way she’s perceived (and it will potentially affect the way your company is perceived if she deals with clients in-person or even just with other visitors to the office). You should also speak up because it’s affecting her coworkers and her relationships with them.

It’s reasonable for an employer to to set clear expectations for dress and hygiene at work, and to enforce those standards when people are falling short of them. And while I understand that you’re hesitant to interfere if it’s related to her depression, it’s really quite reasonable to expect people to adhere to office dress codes and hygiene standards even when depression might be in play.

And at this point, the issue is harming her at work; people are talking about it, and even dreading her visits to their offices. Please do her a favor and talk to her about it.

Now, this is going to be an awkward conversation; there’s no way around that. But you have plenty of awkward conversations as a manager; it’s part of the job. This one is more awkward than most, because most of us have very little practice at this kind of thing — but it has to be done.

The best thing you can do is to simply be honest, direct, and as kind as possible. I’d meet privately with her at the end of the day (rather than doing it earlier on, since she’d then probably feel self-conscious the whole rest of the day). Get the clothing part out of the way first because it’s the easier piece, and then address the odor. Start by saying something like, “I’ve noticed that lately you’ve been wearing clothes that fall outside of our dress code — things that are ripped or unkempt. As you know, jeans and t-shirts are fine here, but they do need to look put-together – no holes or (fill in here with specifics about what she’s been wearing that’s a problem).”

At this point, most people will say something indicating that they’ll comply with the dress code moving forward. (But if she doesn’t, then explain that while the dress code is informal, it’s not anything-goes, and you do need to require her to adhere to it, just like any other office policy.)

From there, say something like, “I want to mention something else as well. It’s awkward, and I hope I don’t offend you. You’ve had a noticeable odor lately. It might be a need to wash clothes more frequently or shower more, or it could be a medical problem. This is the kind of thing that people often don’t realize about themselves, so I wanted to bring it to your attention and ask you to see what you can do about it.”

Note that there’s nothing here about telling her there will be “consequences,” despite what that article that you read recommended. That’s overly harsh at this stage, when there’s no indication that it’s warranted. Let her know it’s a problem and ask her to take care of it. If she doesn’t and you continue to notice the problem, then yes, you would need to talk to her again and let her know that she’s expected to come to work showered and with her clothes laundered, and that you’re concerned that the problem has continued after your earlier conversation. But in most cases, a one-time conversation is going to take care of the problem and you won’t need to get into consequences or warnings or so forth.

If she does indicate to you that it’s related to depression —  for instance, that it’s hard to get out of bed in the morning and so she’s been skipping showers — you can certainly be empathetic (and refer her to your EAP, if you have one), but explain that you do need employees to come to work smelling clean.

However, keep in mind that it’s possible that there is a medical reason for the problem (meaning a physical condition that causes an odor, not as in not showering because of depression). If she tells you that’s the case, then at that point there’s not much further you should do, other than thanking her for telling you. But whether she volunteers that or not is entirely her call; you should not be asking her whether she’s seen a doctor or what might be wrong with her. Your job is simply to require her to come to work with appropriate dress and hygiene until/unless she tells you there’s a medical issue preventing that — just like you require people to come to work on time, not fall sleep at their desks, and other basic requirements of showing up ready to work.

Needless to say, this is not going to be an easy conversation. But you can’t let that be a reason not to do it — your HR department is right that as her manager, this is your responsibility to handle.

{ 293 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. OliviaNOPE

    As an employee who had to deal with a stinky co-worker, please do something about it. The place where I worked refused to deal with the issue and it was pretty bad. I can remember a work potluck where no one would touch this person’s food (understandably) and some people’s dishes went untouched after this person served himself out of them. That’s how grossed out we were by him. It just makes the work environment terrible and it will probably get worse before it gets better.

    Reply
    1. Anony1234

      The OP already acknowledged in their letter to Alison that s/he would want to know if the situation was reversed.

      Reply
  2. ExceptionToTheRule

    Please, please, please deal with it. We’ve had an on-going situation for 10+ years because nobody wants to deal with it. We work in close quarters some times and this person’s odor was so bad another employee had to go throw up.

    Please don’t be the manager that ignores this.

    Reply
    1. Lillie Lane

      We have a situation where I work where it’s the boss who reeks. One day it was so bad that we entered our lab where he had been working (and already left) and it was like hitting a wall of old musty B.O. My coworker ran into the bathroom and immediately started retching. We still don’t know how to talk to him about it — he is an ogre with a massive ego who will not take any criticism.

      Reply
  3. Anonymous

    She might be doing this as a frugality measure. I remember seeing a discussion on some other blog (perhaps Simple Dollar? I cannot remember!) about washing hair once a month, bathing with water only, and etc. As a manager, I’d be prepared in case she counters your talk with this argument.

    Reply
    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      And if she does, don’t get flustered. Just say, “I need you to show up ready to work, which means smelling clean and freshly bathed with clean clothes.”

      Reply
      1. businesslady

        that’s not going to result in someone being stinky, though–people who eschew shampoo still clean their hair, they just do it with apple cider vinegar & baking soda (…I think). maybe you won’t smell like Pantene, but you won’t smell unwashed either.

        Reply
          1. km

            I did the baking soda and vinegar method for about five years, using it once a week. Your hair actually comes out smelling like nothing, I think because the goal of baking soda and vinegar is to balance your hair’s pH.

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            1. KayDay

              I’ve done it too, but I gave it up because I really like the extra scented shampoos (I’m sensitive to a lot of fragrances, but shampoo I’m fine with, so I tend to go all out in that area). But my hair smelled fine when I used it.

              “No-poo” is completely different from not washing your hair–it’s about using gentle products on your hair, so your hair doesn’t get all frizzy and damaged. The baking soda, which replaces shampoo, removes the oil very well (I actually dried out my hair before I got the ratio right), and the vinegar, which is the “conditioner” corrects the ph. Once it’s rinsed, you hair smells like hair–not flowers, but definitely clean.

              Another option people use is castile soap, instead of shampoo.

              Reply
              1. Natalie

                Yeah, I use a bottled “no-poo” – in that case it just means there’s so sodium laureth sulfate or other agents to make it lather. It cleans my hair/scalp just fine and smells really nice, IMO.

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          2. EB

            You don’t use them at the same time so you don’t have to worry about the reaction.

            I did it for a while and it was fine but its part of a larger regime in which you don’t use other hair care products (like hairspray) that would add gunk to your hair and require shampoo to get out.

            Reply
      2. Laura

        Also, “no-poo” can refer to using conditioner only to clean your hair, but not shampoo due to how much harsher they can be (depending on your hair and scalp type) on the hair.

        There are other ways to clean your hair without using shampoo specifically. =)

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    2. Jamie

      I’ve heard that about the hair thing and that baffles me. I know there are different hair types but as someone with fine hair if I were to go more than 24 hours it would be gross and obviously greasy.

      Then again I don’t know how the people on Survivor have clean looking hair – so maybe it’s just me.

      I am assuming that the ripped clothes is an on-going thing and not a one off? Because I’ve been at work and noticed a hole in the sleeve of a sweater and have had to staple a fallen hem once. So I’m assuming this is a pattern – because if not sometimes stuff happens on the way to work. Like when you spill coffee on your pink top in the car and have to cover it all day with the cardigan you keep in your office because you’re a klumsy and chronic spiller.

      Just me?

      Reply
      1. I wish I could say

        I had a coworker who stapled the hem of his pants one day, then wore them every day, for weeks! How could I tell? Because the staples were still there!

        Reply
          1. Jess

            I’m glad to know I’m not the only person wandering around with duct taped pants. I discovered they make fabric tape, and some kinds you can even iron to create a hem- I’ve since switched to that.

            Reply
            1. Lindsay

              I might have to try the duct tape. I’ve tried the fabric tape before (the ironing type) and it never stays as well as I would like.

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      2. ExceptionToTheRule

        No, not just you. I can go 48 hours without shampooing tops before I look like Prince Valium from Spaceballs.

        Minus the poofy sleeves.

        Reply
      3. ThatFormerHRGirl

        The hair thing is a new phenomenon (I blame Pinterest) called the No-Poo method where you cleanse & condition your hair with a combination of baking soda and vinegar (how pleasantly fragrant that must be!)
        Apparently you have to suffer through 4-6 weeks of horrible greasy frizzy mess hair until your scalp’s natural oils magically adjust and you have forever-awesome hair.
        I wouldn’t make it through day 2.

        Reply
        1. Anon

          No-poo has no lasting scent as opposed to commercial shampoo which is intended to perfume the hair. Yes, apple cider vinegar smells weird but the smell dissipates as soon as you rinse the hair.

          I didn’t have the ling period of grease that some women do but my hair is super dry and I didn’t wash it daily anyway.

          I love it. I don’t use any hair products at all and my hair looks better, healthier, and way more styled than ever.

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        2. Diane

          I have baby fine hair, but not oily. In college, I could only go every other day without shampooing, but as I’ve hit my 40′s, I seem to do fine with twice a week. My oily sister probably cannot do this for another decade or two, so I think body chemistry is a factor as much as any other theory.

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        3. Serena

          It’s not a new phenomenon – actually using chemical shampoos is new phenomenon, I promise our ancestors didn’t have L’Oreal! As for your hair being greasy, it’s because you use too much shampoo. Using shampoo on a daily basis strips your hair of natural oils, making your hair oilier, basically your hair is addicted to shampoo. I use shampoo once a week and my hair is never oily.

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      4. mas

        The “no poo” hair thing is supposed to prevent your hair from drying out – it is specifically recommended for curly and kinky hair, and African-Americans who want “natural” hair. I don’t think it has anything to do with being thrifty because you are still supposed to use conditioner every day, just not shampoo. I read a book on it and tried it for a few days but it didn’t work for me. The book is called “Curly Girl” and it is written by a salon owner who specializes in curly hair. If I won the lotto, I’d fly to NYC just to go to that salon once!

        Reply
        1. Another Jamie

          My cousin has gorgeous thick curly hair, and she only washes it once a week. She told me it takes half a day to get it blow dried and styled and it’s just not practical to do that every day. I was surprised when she told me, because she’s always so done up and cute.

          I have fairly thick, but very straight hair. It feels too greasy to me about 36 hours after my last shower. I’ve gone on weeklong camps without showers, and MAN does my hair get funky.

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          1. Jamie

            This reminds of a recent Hot in Cleveland that I didn’t understand. They made a big thing of David Spade’s character giving a blow out which lasted 14-16 days. My daughter and I sat there all befuddled because how could a blow out last longer than your next shampoo…

            Yes, I’m aware of what it says about me that I am not able to follow along with a plot from Hot in Cleveland…

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            1. ThatFormerHRGirl

              I know some people rave about dry shampoo – I’ve never been successful with it, but I have reeeeally thick hair that gets greasy really easily. But that’s supposedly how people make blow outs last and last.

              My “official” method is to wash my hair every other day, and on the off-days I either french braid my bangs or do the “yorkie” where I bobby pin them back, so I look somewhat kempt. Tuesdays and Thursdays are usually the no-wash days… I wonder if my coworkers have ever noticed?

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              1. Nichole

                I have thick, coarse hair that takes forever to blow out and tends to be dry, so I only wash once a week. If I go a day too long, a small amount of baby powder seems to have the same effect as dry shampoo. Also works well when I realize right before the bus comes that my son (whose hair needs to be washed more often than mine) decided to “wash his hair” by putting the back of his head under the showerhead for three seconds the night before.

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            2. Elizabeth

              Keratin blowout. Yes, it lasts, but you have to use dry shampoo instead of wet.

              I’ve done it once, and I’ll never do it again. I have wavy/curly hair, and the keratin treatment left me with a Prince Valiant-straight pageboy. The next day, as I was scrubbing the bleeping stuff out of my hair, I discovered that she’d also cut my hair almost 2 inches shorter than I’d requested. My husband & I were late to work, because I had a big sobbing emotional meltdown over This Is Not MY HAIR and it took quite a while to get calmed down enough to pull myself back together, re-do my makeup and be able to face the world.

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        2. EnnVeeEl

          I have natural hair. No-poo can also mean using a cleanser without the typical “soap” culprits you find in regular shampoos. I use a “no-poo” hair cleanser and then a conditioner. I can’t just co-wash with conditioner. My scalp would not like that.

          I also use a regular shampoo at least once a month – because something in me needs to see some suds once in a while.

          Reply
        3. The Snarky B

          Actually I think we’re all talking about two different no-poo fads here – the no poo for frugality/all naturalness isn’t really about “Black hair” from what I understand. I’ve kinda always gotten a vegan/PETA vibe from that camp, more about using natural ingredients supplied by the earth to save money, the planet, and your hair (since the PH balances out and it doesn’t end up needing all that junk).
          In my understanding, the no poo for Af Am/Black hair and other kinky/curly hair is a matter of using natural shampoo, no shampoo, or sulfate-free shampoo because sulfates can be particularly damaging and drying to those of us with the kinky kurly locks on the headz. Not so much about mother earth or saving money (cuz conditioner is still very much required and LORD it is easy to waste all your money on styling products on top of that).

          Reply
          1. Kelly L.

            Yeah, I once tried the conditioner-style of no-poo for my naturally dry hair, and then one day wandered into a forum about the green/mother nature method, and was totally confused! :D

            Reply
        4. Natalie

          That author eventually created a product line (Deva Curl) and I think she trains hairstylists from around the country. If you are in the US you may be able to find someone trained by her.

          I use her product line and I really like it. It sounds cheesy as hell, but I actually had no idea that I would like having curly hair. I’m growing it out for the first time in 15 years.

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        5. Anonymous

          My friend (who has curly hair) is a regular at that salon, and booked them to do her wedding. The poor hairdresser I got was at a complete loss when she saw my straight as an arrow, thin hair that can’t hold a curl to save its life, lmao. :)

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      5. kristinyc

        I’ve read about “No-Poo,” and it involves washing hair with certain products (I think it’s vinegar and baking soda), but not daily. The idea behind it is that most commercial shampoos strip out the natural oils in your hair, which is why most people feel the need to use conditioner every day. In return, your body produces more natural oil to compensate for the missing oil, which is why most peoples’ hair looks super greasy the day after showering. It’s all a big scam with shampoo companies, because it’s a pretty effective way to make sure most people use their products every day.

        But, someone who is using the No-Poo method correctly shouldn’t have an odor. I don’t think this person is doing that.

        Reply
        1. Anonymous

          Then the woman in my office wasn’t doing it right. Her head smelled…um, extremely natural. I bought an air freshener for my cubie. And she had the nerve to tell me dogs stink. Hmmph!

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        2. Not So NewReader

          Kristinyc- you explained something to me. I never thought of that. I use organic bath wash. I ran out of shampoo and had to use it to wash my hair one day. Well, a few days went by before I could get to the store and I realized I did not need shampoo. Matter of fact, using the organic bath wash, I don’t need hair spray, condition, and mousse either. So it looks like I am spending a lot on this bath wash but it has worked out to be very cheap because of all the products I don’t buy any more.

          I get more compliments on my hair than I ever did before I converted, too. My hair is now more consistent, more predictable, I am not guessing “will it be oily tomorrow or no?”

          Reply
      6. km

        Chiming in on the “no poo” thing because it seems like no one who’s commented actually uses the method — I’ve done this now for 7-8 years, first using conditioner only, then a couple years later switching to vinegar and baking soda and in the last year switching to, uh, nothing. Everyone’s hair is different, obviously, but I was pretty self-conscious when I first started and asked EVERYONE if my hair smelled and I never got any takers. So going shampoo-free is probably not the source of this issue. And I know it sounds weird, but if it works for you, it’s awesome. My hair was a frizzy mess my whole life, and now I get perfect spiral curls without even using any styling produce.

        Uh, anyway, thread hijack over.

        Reply
        1. ThatFormerHRGirl

          I’m fascinated by this because I debated trying it out while I was on Mat leave (and could endure the initial rough period), but balked.
          Do you use any styling product in your hair at all?

          Reply
          1. km

            It’s weird — I was one of the first people I know to stop using shampoo, and years later my other friends mentioned trying it but being unable to get through the rough greasy period and I was like, “Um, what do you mean?” My hair took to it really well and pretty much instantly, but obviously YMMV.

            I sometimes use a really light mist of DevaCurl moisturizing spray, but that’s it. DevaCurl is, I believe, associated with the Curly Girl book mentioned above. Their products are all free of sulfates and parabens, which are supposed to be the biggest offenders in shampoo. They actually have a “no-poo” shampoo and conditioner line if you’re thinking about breaking up with regular shampoo but dubious about not washing your hair at all: http://www.mydevacurl.com/3_step

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            1. Elizabeth West

              Hmm, thanks for the link. I wonder if that would work for me? My mother has curly hair, and I got the texture but not the curl (arrghh! No fair!). My hair frizzes at the drop of a hat and since I color it, it’s even worse.

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        2. Anonymous

          If you asked me that question, the very last thing I would ever say would be, girl, heck yeah your hair smells. Can you imagine saying that to someone? I cannot.

          It’s like the folks who have that workplace uniform meme thing going on. They say no one ever comments on them wearing the same thing, therefore no one has noticed. I don’t think not-commenting equals not-noticing.

          Not that I am horribly observant, but I do have a good sense of smell. Eyesight’s going though.

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          1. km

            Yeah, fair enough. At the time, I was asking my friends and roommates, who were all pretty dubious of the shampoo-free method and were willing to come up and literally smell my head, so I think they would have told me the truth. I definitely would not have expected an honest answer if I had gone around asking co-workers.

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            1. Jamie

              I think that’s a fair control sample. I would be freaked out if a co-worker asked me to smell their head but a friend or someone I love? Sure – and I’d definitely tell you.

              Heck – I might even say something unasked if I was close enough to the person…as nicely as possible of course.

              This fascinates me – but as I come from a long line of straight haired people we’ll stick with the shampoo addiction in our house. Although I have been dying to try that Wen stuff advertised on infomercials…I just don’t know if I could psychologically get past the lack of lather.

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              1. km

                One of my friends creates the sensation of lather by washing only with conditioner but watering the conditioner down so it’s a little foamy. Theoretically what actually gets your hair clean is friction against your scalp, and the lathering process just promotes that? I say theoretically because I’m dubious about most of the infomercial pseudo-science stuff, I just know it works for me and I don’t really care why!

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              2. ThatFormerHRGirl

                If you want a cheap version of the WEN, I think Sally’s Beauty Supply sells a knock-off for a couple bucks. I don’t think I could get past the lather either.
                Shoot, I think even my 8 month old’s head starts to smell funky when he goes an extra day without a bath.

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                1. Jamie

                  Cool – thanks for the tip – we have one of those right by me!

                  And I think for some of us the smell of “clean” isn’t the absence of funk, but it’s the smell of a cleaning product. My house can be odor free, but I don’t think it smells clean unless I’m getting hit with Pine-Sol or Murphy’s Oil Soap right in the face.

                  I’m wearing a sweater now which wasn’t washed with fabric softener (my son is allergic and I tossed it in with a load of his stuff). It’s perfectly clean – but just smells like Tide and not Downy so it feels off. It’s not logical – I think some of us just have certain triggers which scream “clean” to us. When my kids were babies it was No More Tears baby shampoo.

                2. ThatFormerHRGirl

                  Yep. I love the pink Johnson’s baby wash/lotion – whatever it’s called. It smells so powdery and fresh. And Dreft… oh Dreft. I would wash my clothes in it if it wasn’t so damn expensive.

                3. Ash

                  This is a reply to Jamie but you comment about not believing something was clean unless you smelled a specific scent reminded me of something. A study was done within the last 5-6 years that said Americans don’t trust cleaning products that don’t smell of strong chemicals or don’t have certain colors on the label. The researchers also looked into the popular European methods of using a microfiber cloth and elbow grease to clean, which is just as effective as all of the chemicals we use, but much less harmful to us and the environment, and Americans hated that as well.

                  We are programed by our media to think we need caustic chemicals to keep ourselves and our homes clean, and it clearly works judging by a lot of the comments here.

                4. Jamie

                  I believe 100% that I’m brainwashed and have being indoctrinated by advertising. I know it’s not logical – it’s just a weird visceral reaction.

                  They say smell is the most powerful sense when it comes to evoking emotion or memory. The smell of certain cleansers evoke happiness and a sense of home for me – comfort smells…like how some people really love the smell of fresh baked bread or whatever.

                  But I’d be happy if the whole world smelled like Noxzema, Vicks Vap-O-Rub, Murphy’s Oil Soap, Pine-Sol, and cedar wood all the time. Those smells make me ridiculously happy and will kill a bad mood almost always.

                  For a logical person I’m easily hoodwinked by my olfactory sense.

                5. Rana

                  The “smell of clean” is part of why Febreeze is marketed (and smells) like it does. The original Febreeze – which I loved – was a genuine de-odorizer. You sprayed it, and the result was… nothing. It was great.

                  But it didn’t sell as well as they hoped, so they added a light fragrance and started marketing it as a way to signal that something was “clean” – like a final freshening up after you’ve done the vacuuming, etc.

                6. the gold digger

                  I don’t think it smells clean unless I’m getting hit with Pine-Sol

                  Which is why all you need to do before company comes is sprinkle Pine Sol around.

                  (I love that smell – that plus mild BO reminds me of the cleaning lady we had when I was a kid in Spain and Spain was so poor that my parents could afford once a week help, even on an air force captain’s pay. My brother and I loved Rosario.)

              3. Trixie

                “No-poo” really does work! I have fairly fine wavy/curly hair, and it has reacted well to just scrubbing with conditioner (copious amounts of Suave Naturals Coconut).

                I did modify it, and normally shampoo every other day with a no-sulfate shampoo, as it keeps my scalp happier. Lots of people claim that no-poo actually makes their hair less greasy, but I’m not sure about that. Mine seems about the same; maybe slightly less greasy than before, and certainly healthier.

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      7. Another Jamie

        I’m always in awe at the Survivor women and their ability to stay beautiful after all the weeks on the island. They do get occasional reward showers, but still. They have white teeth and usually no pit/leg hair (though that’s probably waxing or laser). And in my opinion, they almost always look so much prettier on the island with no make-up than they do at the reunion show all “done up.”

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      8. Lora

        No, it’s a hair type thing. I only wash mine once a week. More than that and it gets super-dry and frizzy. The rest of the week it gets leave-in conditioner. I comb it out really well, put the leave-in conditioner on the ends only (long hair), and pin it up in a bun. I’ve actually had people compliment me on how good I smell 6 days post-shampooing, ask if it’s a particular kind of lotion or perfume–just the leave-in stuff (Lush R&B).

        I just noticed a button missing on my blouse, thank you. I am a chronic spiller, but I solved this with a travel mug from Teavana that has a screw-top instead of those silicone topper things. The other thing that helped, apart from the Office Emergency Clothes, was dressing in layers. Jacket, sweater, pashmina, blouse, camisole. Doesn’t work so great in summer, but fall/winter/spring it’s pretty good. I do leggings under the pants, too. Plus, all my clothes are black, grey or brown.

        I am THE WORST when it comes to looking nice at work.

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      9. Andy Lester

        Then again I don’t know how the people on Survivor have clean looking hair

        Because Survivor is a “reality” show.

        Andrea on The Walking Dead had a beautiful pedicure in the last few episodes. If you can have a pedicure during a zombie apocalypse, Vanuatu or Samoa are nothin’.

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        1. ThatFormerHRGirl

          Ooh, did Woodbury have a nail salon? That might have made it worth the Governor’s a-hole-ness. ;)

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        2. JR

          I think it’s because they are ususally set up by the ocean, and just take sea baths daily. The fan-boy in my refuses to believe the crew gives them beauty products!

          Reply
        3. Bess

          Personally, what annoys me the most wrt beauty and unreality on television is all the various crime/detective procedurals where the women are wearing four-inch heels and have their hair down ALL THE TIME. Having spent most of my working life working in a lab/hospital, I can assure you that (a) long, loose hair gets in the way and is really annoying; which is why (b) it’s against the rules; and (c) high heels and open-toed shoes are also safety violations, nevermind uncomfortable as $#*! when you’re on your feet all day.

          Reply
          1. Jamie

            I can’t stand this on cooking shows. I just cook for my family and I put my hair up before I begin – I cannot stand to see someone in a kitchen with hair flying everywhere.

            I would not eat anything produced on Cupcake Wars.

            Reply
      10. Jessa

        When I had surgery and could not wash my hair (one arm was useless and you can’t wash long hair one handed,) even though it did get a little greasy I combed it back neatly and put a barrette in which just made it look a little pomaded back.

        You can style hair so it looks “neat” even if you haven’t washed it. And it really doesn’t intersect with the smell thing. Even though I couldn’t get into the shower (taping bags up the arm was really difficult) I washed in the sink with a washcloth and made sure I was clean and not smelly.

        The hardest part will be if it’s a medical condition causing the smell. There are ways around that but the employee would have to work really close with their doctor to help with it.

        If they’re wearing bad clothes because they can’t afford new ones, or can’t afford to have them washed regularly, there’s help for that. There are agencies that give clothes to people. I know our St. Vincent de Paul Society that if someone needed to launder their stuff and couldn’t afford they would give them quarters to go to the launderette and use a machine. I know the Salvation Army (even though I have issues with their policies, some people may be willing to go to them) has shelters with washers.

        It’s possible that something bad happened in your employee’s life and they could even be homeless. But I agree with everyone that you have to talk to them and if necessary point them toward help (United Way has a clearing house.) I know that at a lot of jobs I’ve had, HR has a list they give out for people who need help. It has a bunch of local places, help for people who need elder care, child care, charity, mental health, whatever. It’s usually put out by the United Way locally. And it’s a general “here’s help for all kinds of stuff people might need some day,” not an obvious “see you need charity thing” which can put a lot of people off.

        Reply
        1. Not So NewReader

          Really thoughtful comments here, Jessa. Sometimes the uncleanliness is a symptom of a much bigger problem. One person I worked with did not shower… because if she tried her male family members would molest her.
          OP, I am hoping that your employee has a much simpler answer. But sometimes body odor problems are just the tip of the iceberg.

          Reply
          1. Jessa

            Yes and sometimes being the one to go talk to the employee you can help them. Sometimes companies have resources. Even if it means letting the employee lie and say they have to stay late and letting them use the company phones to round up a restraining order or call the cops or find a shelter.

            Or if the company is big enough using the shower at the company gym.

            Reply
      11. Rana

        Believe it or not, the hair thing does work… but it takes a lot of gross time in between to get there. I found this out by accident during a two-month canoeing expedition, where soap was limited and bathing was mostly with water. There wasn’t much to do but comb my hair back into a ponytail and cover it with a bandana and a hat for most of the time and do my best to not think about it, because, yes, fine greasy hair is disgusting.

        But here’s the weird thing: by the end of the trip, my hair ceased to be lank, greasy, and ratty. It became soft and fluffy and looked clean (I can’t swear as to how it smelled, since we were all acclimated to funk by that time). It was the weirdest damn thing – but I’m not about to go through another two months pretending I don’t have hair to replicate the experience.

        Reply
      12. Chloe

        I’m the same – I’ve washed my hair every day since I was about 17, it seriously does not cope with anything less. People who can get away with washing their hair once or twice a week are so lucky. Imagine how much less shampoo they’d use…

        I’ve also stapled a hem, actually a think I sellotaped it so I didn’t leave holes. But anyway, it sounds like this person is doing more than the odd running repair.

        Reply
      13. Kou

        Your hair gets used to it is the thing. For most people, your hair produces as much oil as it thinks it needs to. So when it “learns” (I guess) that you need less oil, it starts producing less.

        That’s what they say, and I supposed I can vouch for it. Though I grew up being taught to wash your hair periodically, so I’m not starting from every day and going back. I have really fine hair and the times I’ve had to spend a period of over a week washing it every day (from sports or the type of job I had or whathaveyou) it suddenly starts to get greasy every day, it starts NEEDING to be washed that often and looking stringy. When I go back to my normal schedule it’ll be ick for a few days and then is fine again.

        Reply
      14. Anonymous

        It depends on hair type, but if you’re used to washing your hair every day, your scalp will produce more sebum because it’s used to it being stripped away. There’s a 1-2 month adjustment period (in which you wear your hair up in a bun a lot) and then your sebum production slows down.

        I wash my hair once every week or two, and my hair looks fine and is not greasy until just before I wash it. I don’t get “second day hair” until it’s been about 10 days. I use the tiniest bit of shampoo (for my very long hair) and a bit of conditioner on the ends and that’s it. I never put any other products in my hair (unless bobby pins count!).

        I wear it up a lot to minimise tangles, which prolongs the period before it starts to look bad.

        I think the important thing is that it looks clean and doesn’t smell.

        Reply
  4. ThatFormerHRGirl

    AAM, You always have the right thing to say in these cases. I’ve been in this situation before, and have not been able to be as succinct or direct as I wanted to.

    I also wanted to say to OP – You’ll be doing her a favor if you address it calmly and privately, giving her the opportunity to fix it. Trust me – if anyone on your team gets overly frustrated and has an off-day or is a bit of a loose cannon, they could decide to say something to her in a very hurtful way that causes much more damage – and then you’ll be addressing that employee as well. I know from experience :-/

    Reply
  5. I wish I could say

    I worked with a woman who felt it was her right to go “au naturel” and not use deo for the B.O.
    We worked in an attic office without central air . . .
    By noon, she smelled like a sack of rotten onions.
    Dis. Gusting.
    It IS destructive to the work environment, not only because it’s a distraction, but because our manager wouldn’t address the situation, it made us all feel frustrated and as though since our concerns weren’t important, neither were we.

    Reply
        1. -X-

          I’m disappointed that the normal smell of a clean person (washes with soap and water each morning) who doesn’t use deodorant is considered too much to deal with, even in close quarters.

          I expect that this bad-smelling person had more issues than not using deodorant.

          Reply
          1. Ask a Manager Post author

            While some people can certainly get by without using deodorant, many can’t — at least not in a culture where the social norm is a lack of noticeable body odor.

            Reply
            1. -X-

              Yeah. And I think our social norms (in the US) have gone too far in thinking people shouldn’t smell at all.

              I suspect we’ve been taught this by marketing from consumer products companies.

              BTW I wash with soap each mornning, use deodorant each day, and generally a little cologne (which I hope doesn’t set off too much outrage here…) as I’ve been brought up in the US context. But I think it’s too much.

              The OP is talking about something far more extreme than that of course.

              Reply
              1. Sarai

                I see where you’re coming from, but as someone who rides Chicago buses twice each work day, I have to maintain that there is simply NOT enough deodorant in the world, rather than too little!

                Reply
                1. I wish I could say

                  I learned the hard way to (try to) always carry the magazine or catalog perfume ad inserts w/me so that my nose can catch a break when needed.

              2. Jazzy Red

                X, you’re completely right! I have 2 dogs, and the smellier I am, the more they love me. Of course, after yard work/house work/exercising, I love myself after I shower.

                Reply
          2. Jamie

            I think it depends on body chemistry. I have known fastidiously clean people who shower like it’s their job and without deodorant you wouldn’t want to sit too close. I’ve known people who rarely used it and you wouldn’t know because they always smelled fresh.

            Reply
            1. ThatFormerHRGirl

              Definitely. That’s why they make the clinical strength anti-perspirant/deodorant – there’s obviously a need for it out there.

              Reply
            2. cncx

              this is so true. some people just do not stink, ever. my stepfather is like that. I don’t understand. Other people need two showers a day. regardless of soap, laundry soap or detergent.

              Reply
          3. Jane Doe

            While I think that we have become more sensitive to natural body odor than is sometimes necessary (i.e., when everyone stank it wasn’t a big deal), it’s also a matter of being aware of what’s considered appropriate for your situation.

            Also, I think the types of fabrics commonly worn in most offices contribute to enhanced BO. A lot of shirts (especially women’s shirts) for work are polyester or some other “unnatural” fabric that isn’t very breathable.

            Reply
            1. Anonymous

              I shall begin carrying a handkerchief with orange peel concealed in it and hold it to my nose when it all gets to be too much for my delicate senses. :)

              Reply
                1. OneoftheMichelles

                  Hey if we’re breaking out the fancy stuff, what about a flea-fur (with solid gold paws and jeweled eyes of coarse)–stuffed with potpourri?

          4. Ellie H.

            I feel the same way. My impression is that with very few exceptions of people who have an extremely strong body odor or produce an unusual amount of sweat (and some people do), a normally clean person who bathes frequently does not necessarily need to use deodorant.

            My guess is that some among us just don’t use deodorant and we don’t notice or realize because they are clean and don’t smell. I switched to all-natural and minimal deodorant a little while ago and my body actually adapted to it. I barely sweat anymore, and there’s very little odor. I previously had been the kind of person who sweats through everything, immediately, and that changed really quickly. The previous excessive sweating that made all my shirts smell after wearing once was actually a reaction to applying too much deodorant in a vicious cycle, and the smell was actually mostly deodorant which I had confused with my actual body odor due to having worn it for like fifteen years, as absurd as that sounds.

            Reply
            1. Rana

              Deodorants are weird things. I’ve generally avoided brand-name commercial ones, because they smell weird and artificial to me, and too strong. Unfortunately, most of the natural brands are… unpredictable… in their reliability. My usual experience is that they would work just fine for a while, and then one day undergo catastrophic fail. I don’t know if it was my body chemistry, or the bacteria that cause BO getting used to it or what, but it was awful. I used to keep several different kinds around so I could rotate between them to stave off that moment.

              Now, I use one of those crystal things: no smell, but it actually works. Thank god.

              Reply
          5. EnnVeeEl

            X, I see what you are saying, but when you are living and working and trying to conduct business in a place where using deodorant is a social norm, you have to adapt to that to be successful.

            It would be bad for someone to be held back from being successful at work simply because they didn’t wear deodorant.

            The OP’s letter is a totally different situation though.

            Reply
            1. -X-

              I wish we lived in a society where it would be bad to hold someone back from being successful simply because they didn’t wear deodorant.

              Reply
              1. Elizabeth

                But it isn’t that they are being held back because they don’t wear deodorant. They are being held back because they don’t meet societal standards of hygiene. If no one wants to work with you because you smell bad, it is going to have a negative impact on your overall performance.

                I know a couple people I work with don’t wear deodorant, and they are progressing in their careers. They also have other personal hygiene programs that stop the bacterial growth that causes the foul odor. I also know a couple people who have had to have The Talk about how their personal hygiene program isn’t sufficient. One of my cousins had to have the Botox injections to inhibit sweat production, as well as bathing in a prescription antimicrobial wash to deal with his odor issues. Personally, I keep anti-perpersant (not deodorant) in my desk drawer and reapply if I’m aware that I’ve got a problem because I’ve had an extra stressful day, or the HVAC got screwed up again.

                Many sci-fi conventions have had to make rules about “at least one shower, every day of the con, with warm water and soap”, because they have serious problems with attendees not meeting that standard of hygiene if they don’t state the expectation up front.

                Reply
    1. AnotherAlison

      Allegedly, all the sugar processed food we eat in the U.S. makes us stinky. I’ve read on the Paleo-type websites that we wouldn’t need deodorant if we were eating natural food.

      This makes sense to me at a higher level, but I don’t know enough biology to really get it. If we’re eating fats & proteins vs. lots of carbs, we use different pathways & create different cellular waste products, plus the food additives and chemicals that we have to process.

      If that’s true, I guess I can see how some people wouldn’t smell as bad as others, sans deodorant.

      Reply
      1. Not So NewReader

        There are definitely some foods that make it worse- such as junk foods. OP, if you run out of things to say or have an awkward moment this would be a great point to bring up- “sometimes a change in diet brings about problems.”
        If she is battling depression she could be eating a lot of comfort foods- which could be high carb/high sugar and lots of refinements.

        Reply
        1. Anonymous

          It would not be a great point to bring up, actually. The OP is in a difficult spot because she has to address the employee’s appearance and odor, but at least it’s part of her job to make sure everyone shows up looking presentable. It is not her business to try and diagnose the OP with depression, a poor diet, speculate that she might be homeless or in an abusive situation, etc. Not to mention that if any of that were true, the one way guaranteed NOT to help is to sit there with a patronizing smile and tell the employee “You know, I’ve found that a simple change in diet is sometimes the simplest answer!”

          Reply
          1. Jessa

            It is their job to speculate, but to not actually SAY so, unless the employee comes out with an excuse that they can help with. As in, “there is an issue with your wardrobe and I’m sorry to say that at the moment you have an odour…this needs to be addressed, is there anything I or the company can do to HELP you address it.” Having already thought through some possible reasons so that aid is at hand. (IE numbers for places that can help, the EAP number for the company, etc.)

            But no you don’t go up to an employee “wow your clothes are tatty are you homeless?” Or something stupid like that.

            Reply
      2. Anonymous

        There’s a podcast out there– I think it’s on “How Stuff Works” but maybe “Stuff You Should Know” on sweat and body odor. I thought it was fascinating. Something about how it isn’t the sweat itself that stinks, but the bacteria that feeds on it–it’s the waste product of the bacteria that makes the smell.

        Ick ick ick ick ick gross but still…. huh. A little fascinating.

        Reply
        1. Zahra

          Yes, “How Stuff Works” produces a bunch of podcasts and “Stuff you should know” is probably the one with an episode about body odor and sweat. Personally, I can’t stand one of the two hosts, so I’m giving it a pass, but I love “Tech Stuff”, “Stuff you missed in history class” and “Stuff mom never told you”.

          Reply
      3. Katie the Fed

        no – there are definitely natural foods that will make you smell to high heaven.

        My boyfriend and I once ate so much garlic on our dinner that in the morning we couldn’t figure out what was smelling like garlic under the sheets – until we realized it was us.

        And I ate some durian once in Indonesia (note: NEVER eat durian). Not only is it the worst thing in the entire world, the smell lingers for a day or two. Blerrghhh.

        Reply
        1. Jessa

          Durian falls under the cilantro and cyanide rule. To some people it just does not smell terrible. And to some people cilantro tastes like soap. Not everyone can smell cyanide either. It’s genetic.

          Reply
    2. Hooptie

      Sack of rotten onions – at first I snorted with laughter, then almost threw up at the thought because you described the smell perfectly.

      Reply
    3. Lindsay

      My job had a lot of international workers here on temporary visas for work exchange. Many of them were from countries where using deodorant is not common, so in our orientations it was always specifically outlined that one of the rules was that you had to shower daily, and another was that you had to use deodorant.

      Otherwise, with lots of people out in the hot sun for hours a day without deodorant or showering the smell would be unbearable.

      Reply
      1. RLS

        I’ve also worked (and currently work) with that type of seasonal workforce. There have been times when I have to remind some of them (and not always the international students, quite often the locals as well) that we have showers, soap, and towels all available for free to use.

        Reply
  6. Jane

    This is a tricky one. I agree that it makes sense to talk to her. Hopefully it is something that she can control by showering and washing her clothes. I say this because I have read that some people have body odor due to certain medical conditions and it is beyond their control and cannot be fixed simply by showering. It doesn’t sound like that is the case with her, but just thought I’d throw that out there.

    Reply
    1. Jamie

      Back in college I was on a migraine med which made my skin smell like metal. And my mouth taste like burnt pennies…but it was all I could smell even though no one else admitted that I smelled weird I was sure I did.

      I don’t know what the answer is if it’s something medical.

      Reply
      1. T

        Yeah, my brother had kidney problems a couple of years ago which caused him to have weird/artificial fruity smelling breath.

        If it’s medical, there’s nothing to do but say it’s medical. People tend to be more accommodating if there’s a legitimate reason, I guess.

        Reply
      2. Marmite

        There are potential solutions to some medical issues, for example, special deodorants. When my sister was undergoing treatment for a chronic illness she got a side effect of excessive sweating, she found it particularly difficult because it meant her hands were always dripping. She got prescribed a special deodorant to use on her hands and feet as well as underarms and it put a stop to the sweating (although it then had the side effective of very dry skin – vicious cycle!)

        If it is a medical issue for this employee, though, it’s her doctor that needs to suggest solutions. All the OP can do is recommend she sees a doctor.

        Reply
        1. ThatFormerHRGirl

          I know someone that was actually prescribed botox injections in their underarms for excessive sweating, and it definitely worked.

          Reply
          1. Marmite

            Yup, I’ve heard of that too. Over here it’s hit and miss whether or not you can get it on the NHS (i.e. free), though. I actually know someone who had surgery to treat excessive sweating, which worked great for him, but apparently isn’t always successful.

            Reply
    2. EnnVeeEl

      This is why I think it is imperative that someone talk to the employee. What if she isn’t aware? And it is a medical issue? This may prompt her to seek help from a doctor.

      Reply
    3. Anon

      God I feel for her so badly if it is– I was on a prescription for a month earlier this year that made me smell like hot death. I wasn’t even sweating, I just stunk to high heaven and nothing I did stopped it. The scrip was hormone-related so I guess it makes sense. I got a new prescription and went back to normal smell as soon as possible, but for a little while I was rank and I was so terrified that the people I worked with could smell me and thought I was gross and unhygienic. Luckily it was winter so I could put on many layers of clothing and pray that they buffered it out.

      Then I had the dilemma of– do I mention it first? Tell them I’m sorry I smell but it’s a new prescription and I’m getting a new one to replace it already? What if they hadn’t noticed and now they know I smell bad enough to feel the need to explain it??

      Reply
  7. CollegeCareerServicesThatDoNotSuck

    I hate this convo twice with EEs before moving to Higher Ed. I also asked, “Is there a medical condition or other circumstances that could be contributing to this problem?” In both cases, the answer was yes. One, we were able to relocate them to a space in the office no one else liked because it was often too cold, which reduced the sweating and the smell. They also got some additional tools from the doc. In the 2nd, we found community resources for her, as she was living out of her car due to domestic abuse. Framing it this way, along with a how can I help you solve this attitude kept the conversation compassionate–although no less awkward. Good advice from AAM.

    Reply
    1. Marmite

      I’ve had to have this conversation with students on long-ish residential programs. With most students it’s turned out to be pure laziness from a student a bit too excited about not having a parent around to enforce things like basic hygiene. However, a few times it’s been down to cultural issues, Indian students, for example, come with very different ideas of normal hygiene practices.

      Reply
      1. CollegeCareerServicesThatDoNotSuck

        Marmite, we have a large international population and do a few special workshops on expectations of the job hunt/employment expectations in the US for them. Despite our best efforts, our employers at job fairs and on-campus recruiting trips complain about the same group of students you mentioned. I have tried several approaches (from subtle to slap your face honest), but never seem to get through. I want to be sensitive to cultural differences, but it just isn’t acceptable in our context. Frustrating.

        Reply
        1. Marmite

          It’s difficult isn’t it? It was definitely hit or miss for me, sometimes a student would take a subtle hint, sometimes I’d have to threaten consequences for not washing (as in, you cannot join in with x activity if you do not shower afterwards). On the one hand I felt bad forcing our cultural expectations on them, but on the other hand they were sharing bedrooms and other confined spaces with other students and it wasn’t fair to ask them to put up with the smells.

          Reply
          1. Lindsay

            I think that’s basically the balance it comes down to. At my job we had international workers come every year, and in their orientations we always made sure to make clear that showering daily and wearing deodorant were expectations of the job even if they were not part of their culture.

            If they wanted to not wear it on days that they were not working, that was fine. But when they had to work in close contact with other employees and guests for hours on end they needed to assimilate into what was expected so that everyone could have a pleasant and productive working environment.

            I tried to look at it as if I was visiting their countries I would try to follow their cultural norms as well. If I go into a church – even though I am not religious – I try and make sure my shoulders are covered and otherwise dress respectfully. If I were to enter a Japanese person’s home, I would not wear my shoes. If I were in a country where it was expected that women cover up I would not wear shorts.

            Reply
    2. E

      I really like the way you phrased that question – it feels like a fair, kind way to have a non-accusatory and compassionate conversation.

      Reply
      1. Tax Nerd

        +1.

        I really like phrasing it “Is there a medical condition or other circumstances that could be contributing to this problem?”

        Reply
  8. AnotherAlison

    I too have had to endure this, with a former coworker from a different cultural background. He would wear the same outfit all week and liked to speak to coworkers at a much closer distance than is common in the U.S. One coworker resorted to bringing a scented candle to work to use after he left her cube. I think the OP is dealing with a much easier issue, as it’s only a personal hygiene matter, with no cultural implications.

    Reply
    1. Jamie

      I was just putting away my winter stuff this weekend (although it’s still freezing here so why…I think I’m trying to force Spring’s hand to get here already) and in reorganizing my closet I realized that I have 8 pairs of black pants all pretty indistinguishable from each other. Same goes for navy, dark gray, and beige (between 5-10 each color). It’s weird but I tend to buy the same style and cut and it’s pretty basic and non-nondescript..so I could actually go almost 2 weeks wearing different pants but looking as if they were the same.

      Different tops and shoes, though.

      I worry about that sometimes and make sure I mix it up color wise even when I don’t want to – just in case the people who pay attention notice. Am I the only stick in the mud who sticks to basic pants and worries about this kind of thing?

      Reply
      1. T

        I do the same thing! I’m a fan of minimalist fashion, dark pants, flats and solid colored tops with funky scarves and jewelry. I make sure to mix the scarves/jewelry up because otherwise it looks like I own 2 outfits :p

        Reply
      2. AnotherAlison

        No, I know what you mean. I currently have two gray pairs that both get worn every week. They’re different & both clean! I swear!

        The guy in question in my original comment wore the same shirt, too. It was pretty obvious that everything was the same. No one would have only 5 short-sleeved brown shirts and 5 short-sleeved yellow shirts and chose to wear all the brown ones 5 days in a row.

        Reply
        1. Cat

          I do actually have a co-worker who has identical charcoal slacks; identical light blue shirts; and various ties to wear each day. (He has identical copies of each outfit; he’s not wearing the same item and his hygiene is fine.) It’s neutral enough that it’s fine and he looks perfectly presentable, though nobody would accuse him of being stylish.

          Reply
          1. Jamie

            I envy men the tie thing. I love ties on men and you can afford to keep the wardrobe super simple and then jazz it up with ties.

            If I were a man I’d wear ties every day.

            Reply
      3. Marmite

        In college I had a Chemistry professor who always seemed to be wearing the exact same outfit. We later worked out that she just wore the same outfit on the same day of each day of the week, we just only saw her the one day of the week so we never saw her in anything other than Tuesday’s outfit!

        Reply
        1. ggg

          I had a three-day-a-week class with an Eastern European prof that appeared to own two shirts, one vest, a skirt and a pair of pants. Weird, but she was always clean and neat.

          Reply
          1. -X-

            I lived in a place that was relatively poor and am pretty sure many of my colleagues and other people I worked with rotated through at most three shirts. They’d wash each shirt (by hand) in the evening and hang it up to dry.

            Reply
        2. ThatGirl

          Lol. I totally do this. I call them my [insert day of the week here] uniform.

          I always chalk it up to being in the military during my formative working years.

          Reply
      4. Ann O'Nemity

        Jamie, I have three pairs of the same trousers, two in black and one in charcoal. I call them my “uniform” pants. (Shout out for Ann Taylor ponte knit; I pray they never stop selling ‘em!)

        And T, you perfectly described my look. I’ll add a jacket for important meetings, or a cardigan if I’m chilly.

        Reply
          1. Elizabeth West

            That’s exactly why I bought three Chadwick’s tall size blazers when I had the chance: black, gray, and brown. They were at an outlet store and only $12 each. I already had a black pair of pants that matched the black one (though not the same brand) and ended up with a suit. :)

            I had just about figured I would never find any jackets that would fit me, ever. Then they showed up at the outlet and it was like the Hallelujah Chorus broke out.

            Reply
      5. Kelly L.

        I just realized I recently bought a pair of black pants that are functionally identical to my other favorite pair of black pants, right down to the little flare at the ankle. Apparently I just like what I like.

        Reply
      6. TychaBrahe

        I have five black skirts that are identical, except that three of them have little pink tags that the others don’t, because one run came that way.

        Really, they’re all I wear to work.

        Reply
    2. Anonymous Pants

      So, uh, am I the only reader who will wear pants/jeans more than once before washing them? I don’t wear them multiple days in a row or wear them until they stink, but in most cases, I think pants (worn over clean underpants) can be worn two or three times without needing to be washed. So pants I wore on Monday may show up again on Thursday. Am I disgusting and do I probably stink? :)

      Reply
      1. Semi-Anon

        I wear my dry clean pants multiple times. I rather wash the other ones because they stretch out and/or get wrinkles from sitting. I also think it depends on the style choice for you underwear & how much, ahem, coverage your getting.

        In general, I think 2x is fairly normal and acceptable. 3x probably fine if they’re a good fabric. Wool is like magically self-cleaning or something right, so you just keep on wearing those forever! : )

        Reply
      2. JamieG

        Nah, I do the same thing. I only own two pairs of work pants, so I usually end up wearing them each twice between washings. If they get dirty I wash them earlier, of course (if it’s really hot or if I spill something for instance), but otherwise I consider them fine.

        Reply
      3. The Other Meg

        Nope, I definitely do that too. I tend to do it more in the winter, when I’m sweating less, but it’s not unusual at all for me to wear a pair of pants two or three times before I wash them, assuming they’re clean.

        Reply
        1. Jamie

          I’ve used the freezer and ziplock bags to get data off of failing hard drives – but this is incredible.

          Reply
        2. EM

          I might try that, but sometimes I get called out to the field unexpectedly and end up getting my nicer jeans muddy, so I have to throw them in the washer, even if they were just washed. :/

          Reply
        3. AP

          omg! As someone who has to take things to the laundromat to clean them, I am trying this IMMEDIATELY.

          Not in lieu of washing…but more as an add-on in between laundry trips? Could work right?

          Reply
        4. ThatFormerHRGirl

          Yep. My husband is obsessed with ridiculously expensive jeans (ugh) and “washes” them this way in the freezer. He has a conniption when I put my Old Navy jeans through the drier, until I remind him that my jeans cost me (at most) $29.50.

          Reply
      4. Jamie

        One of the biggest culture clashes between my husband and I is that he thinks you can reuse bath towels before washing.

        I think a lot of this stuff comes down to habits formed growing up. Tbh he thinks my habit is anal and OCD – I think his is kind of icky.

        I think there is a lot of truth to the old sentiment that it’s not the big stuff, like religion and politics, that separate people. It’s the the personal stuff like how often you wash towels and whether or not you put butter on vegetables (me no, him yes, I’m right!).

        Reply
        1. Ellie H.

          Wait, you mean, you only use a towel once before washing it? I feel like you and I have a lot in common, Jamie, but I have seriously never heard of that practice! I’m pretty laundry-happy, but I wash my towels about once a week (at the very most, two weeks if I go that long without doing laundry). I feel like, they only ever touch me when I am at my absolute cleanest, so they don’t get dirty in the same way that clothes you rewear do.

          I have a roommate who seems not to have known you had to wash towels ever. I finally broke down and washed his towels for him after a couple months because they made the bathroom smell so terrible.

          Reply
          1. Jamie

            Hand towels will last the day – but bath towels? Shower then hamper. I’ve since looked into it and realized there is nothing technically wrong with multiple uses and it’s safe and all…that’s why I’m saying I think a lot of it just goes back to childhood habits.

            And some of us – our childhood habits irritate other people like how my husband is annoyed that I do so much laundry and that we own so many towels.

            Reply
            1. ThursdaysGeek

              My childhood habits included the once a week Saturday bath. I bet our towels were washed after every use too, since my mum did laundry once a week too. (Don’t worry: I’ve grown out of that childhood habit!)

              Reply
            2. Malissa

              Have you read the Bloggess and her post on Beyonce, the five-foot metal chicken? The chicken was bought because her husband told her not to buy any more towels.

              Reply
            3. bearing

              Did you maybe grow up in a place where things tended to mildew easily, and he in a place where they didn’t? Just guessing.

              Reply
              1. Jamie

                No – I grew up in a suburb of Chicago and he grew up on the north side (shout out to Edison Park – whooo – sorry, I’m very tired.)

                I really think the main difference is that he had to do his own laundry from and early age and I didn’t get to experience that until I left for college.

                Reply
          2. Lore

            In my small urban apartment with no laundry in the building , I’m not sure I have space for that many towels, clean or dirty!

            Reply
          3. The gold digger

            My college roommate my freshman year didn’t wash her sheets until halfway through the first semester, when I realized that the big stink in the room was coming from her bed. When she returned to the room, I casually mentioned that something smelled bad and had maybe a piece of fruit rolled under her bed and rotted? Then I left the room.

            When I returned an hour later, the bed was stripped and the sheets were in the laundry in the basement.

            Reply
        2. Lexy

          I rotate bath towels between body & head, so days 1 they dry me, day 2 they dry my hair, then laundry.

          My husband will reuse towels all week which grosses me out. ESPECIALLY because he hangs them on the back of the door so they don’t really get fully dry. *shudder*

          I tried hanging them over the shower rod so they would actually dry but he didn’t like it because it “looked messy”. I finally gave up and decided to just let him manage his own towel use… but ugh… gross.

          Reply
          1. The gold digger

            When I lived in Chile, my roommate used her towel to wipe the water off the floor. (Maladjusted shower head, beyond repair.) Then she would hang the towel to dry inside the bathroom, which was an interior room with no ventilation.

            Not surprisingly, her towel stank to high heaven. It got to where I would hang it up outside myself, holding it between the tips of my fingers, just so I wouldn’t have to see it.

            Reply
        3. K...

          Wait, so you wash bath towels after each use? I can’t imagine doing that… I tend to shower 2x per day (in the morning and after evening gym visit) so that would be 14 towels per week! I figure I’m clean when I dry off with the towel, so they can be used multiple times. Now I’m curious how often other people wash bath towels (and bed sheets for that matter)

          Reply
          1. Zahra

            Check out the Stuff Mom Never Told You podcast! They had an episode on that recently (“Are women cleaner than men?”) that was really interesting, with surveys and everything on how often people washed bed linens, among other things.

            Reply
          2. Rana

            I usually change them out when we do the other laundry (which is about every two weeks) unless for some reason they start to smell funky earlier than that. It helps that they hang right near a radiator, so they dry out pretty quickly; if things were more humid, they’d probably need to be washed more often.

            What I think some people forget, when they think about whether the towels get dirty or not, is that it’s not a matter of them touching dirty things per se. It’s that they collect skin cells and oil and hair (sheets too) and can develop mold or mildew if they don’t dry out properly. So they’ll stay cleaner longer than a towel used to wipe counters, for example, but there’s still stuff that needs to be washed away eventually.

            Actually, this goes for clothing, too. You can get away with rewearing some things for a while, especially if they’re on parts of your body that don’t get too dirty (like hats), but eventually they’re going to collect enough human detritus that you just have to wash them, even if there’s no surface staining or obvious BO.

            Reply
            1. Rana

              Oh, also, I’m pretty obsessive about separating out clothes I wear around the house from clothes I wear out in public. We live in a dense urban area, and I just don’t want other people’s germs and viruses hanging out in my bedroom, so whatever touches the bus seats doesn’t get further into the house than the front rooms. (Ditto with shoes; shucking the outdoor ones at the door has made a huge difference in terms of keeping the place clean.)

              Reply
            2. Ellie H.

              I have exactly the same attitude – it’s not that they don’t ever need to be washed, but I feel like the towel stays cleaner longer than, say, a T-shirt would the same. My towels really never smell and they do dry completely between washings. I also feel the same way re. house clothes and public clothes.

              Reply
              1. Ellie H.

                I mean, between uses of the towel, not washing (I would hope everything dries completely after being washed, ha).

                Reply
          3. Jamie

            Bath towels after each use…there are 5 of us so that’s min 35 per week + times when someone showers 2x per day. I do laundry everyday.

            Sheets once a week, Sunday night. I just love fresh sheets…I know people who iron sheets and swear they feel much better to sleep in but I will never go to that kind of trouble to find out. Ironing is a lot of effort.

            I love linen spray, but my husband hates it so I live without. It’s very sad, I miss it.

            Reply
          4. Windchime

            I will use towels twice before they go in the hamper. I need two towels per shower; one for hair, one for me. I hang them up on the towel bar and they’re dry before the next day. I usually only shampoo every other day, so sometimes the “hair” towel stays in rotation longer than the “shower” towel.

            It’s just me, so I can get away with doing laundry once a week or so. Oh, and sheets — usually once per week.

            Reply
          5. crookedfinger

            I have a really sensitive nose, so I apply it to sniff-testing everything. If I catch a whiff of anything untoward, it goes in the hamper (if it fits, anyway; I haven’t yet found a way to get my couch in there yet).

            I usually use towels for between 5 – 7 days. Pants I wear for at least 2 days, unless I spill something on them. Sheets get washed every 2 weeks, though I’d do it every week if I didn’t hate doing laundry so much. Pillowcases every 4 – 5 days (depending on how much I drool on them) because I get face zits otherwise. Blankets once a month.

            Reply
      5. Lynn

        I do that too. My husband is a very fastidious guy who would tell me if I smelled bad, and he says I smell fine. Cut your laundry in half by wearing stuff twice!

        Reply
      6. Elizabeth

        I wash or clean all of my dress slacks after one wearing. Those that are dry clean only get run through a cycle with the in-dryer dry cleaning replacement. They smell … whiffy otherwise. I’ve used the original Febreze (that they don’t make any more) to great success to get an extra wearing out of the dry-clean only before I had to take it to the cleaners.

        Jeans, I will wear multiple days if I just changed into them after work, and I don’t get stuff on them while I’m cooking dinner. On the weekends, if I’ve been cooking up stuff for the week, digging the garden or working on the pool? They go straight into the wash.

        Reply
      7. tcookson

        I do this . . . my job is just sitting at a desk all day long (mostly), so when I get home and take my clothes off, I’ll rehang them in the closet and wear them another time or two before washing them. Now, if it’s a workday where I’m running all over campus, the clothes go into the dirty clothes hamper at the end of the day.

        I also have two pair of identical denim trouser pants that are my favorite pants EVER, so with wearing each pair twice a week, I’m pretty much exclusively in (dark-dyed) denim trousers all week long. They’re the dressier kind, out of thinner, finer denim than normal jeans.

        Reply
        1. kristinyc

          Wow, this is making me feel gross. I wear jeans and sweaters multiple times before washing. I only switch out my towels once a week or so, and I change the sheets once every 1 -2 weeks. But then again, I live in a tiny NYC apartment with no storage space, and I have to pay someone to do my laundry.

          Reply
          1. Windchime

            I do the same thing, Kristin. I wear jeans multiple times, and the same with cardigans. I have an office job where I sit in a chair most of the day, so unless I get crazy and spill my iced tea, my slacks can be hung up after one wearing and worn again. Most of my work tops are worn twice before washing, also (unless they’re white or some kind of food-related accident has happened).

            Reply
          2. Rana

            Yeah, having to pay to do laundry is a big factor in our schedule. When we had our own washer and dryer – right in the bathroom! – I did laundry a lot more frequently.

            Reply
      8. Rachel

        I work in grocery, and there it is very, very common to go 5-6 days on one pair of jeans. The truth is, we all end up smelling like food/a grocery store after one shift, anyway, so as long as you didn’t spill spaghetti sauce on your knees or something totally obvious, and you shower regularly, it’s considered the norm. Unless you own tons of pairs of jeans, washing them every 2-3 uses would just get too expensive (I live in NYC, only for four more weeks thank God, and need to do my laundry in a laundromat).

        Our T-shirts, however, I will only use twice, maaaaaybe 3 times if it was over another longer shirt and I’m really desperate, before chucking it in the hamper. And only if it still smells ok.

        That said, I am moving to Washington State next month and will be in a big house with a washer and dryer, so I might be able to get stricter about it than I’ve been. We shall see!

        Reply
  9. Norah

    I wonder if she’s dealing with a bad mold infestation in her living quarters. Certain types of mold are pretty smelly, and the smell can permeate everything for quite a radius. Mold remediation is also very expensive, and maybe she just can’t afford to deal with it right now.

    Reply
  10. AnotherHRGirl

    I had to have this conversation many years ago with a gentlemen with similar issues. He was very suprised and embarrassed to hear that others found his odor offensive, and his unwashed hair bothersome. We had a nice talk about it, and from then on he came to work freshly showered, and even with a touch of aftershave on top of it. I was happy that it went as well as it did.

    Reply
      1. Malissa

        I took an 8-hour class on this subject.
        The conversation should start with an acknowledgement of the awkwardness.
        The basics boil down to the manager saying, “I have noticed…” This puts the conversation firmly in the room and leaves the coworkers out of it to avoid further awkwardness.
        This is followed by an explanation of the policy, in a very calm and rational manor.
        Then a solution is asked of the employee and/or offered by the manager.
        It was suggested that the manager follow up in a week or two.
        The conversation should always be at the end of the day so the employee can go straight home afterwards.

        Anyway that’s what I learned.

        Reply
        1. AnotherHRGirl

          Good tips!! I wish I could have left the co-workers out of it, but I didn’t see him all that often, so it wouldn’t have fit in this situation. That definitely would have taken away his feelings of being ganged up on, and the awkwardness he felt having to face his co-workers.

          Reply
        2. Anonymous

          It’s kind of vague, though…someone could do just that and come across as cold or even mean.

          I had this one supervisor years ago who had the empathy thing down pat. I even imitate her voice (I call it Sweet n Low) if I’m in a situation where I don’t think the other person had any malintent. I was also in an abusive relationship once which affected my work, and having my supervisor rag on me for not being perky enough was horrible. So I think back to that and test out various sentences, seeing which one doesn’t make me want to cry if it had been directed at me in that situation. I also stress that if there’s anything going on in the employee’s life (without making random speculations, of course), they can tell me in confidence and I’ll do everything in my power to help. But I actually was willing to help, so I wouldn’t advise anyone to say that unless they really want to.

          Reply
          1. Jamie

            I also stress that if there’s anything going on in the employee’s life (without making random speculations, of course), they can tell me in confidence and I’ll do everything in my power to help. But I actually was willing to help, so I wouldn’t advise anyone to say that unless they really want to.

            This is a very important point. Not everyone will be willing or have the emotional tools to provide actual help and you shouldn’t open that door, beyond what the company can provide, unless you are willing and able to help no matter how horrific.

            Not everyone is equipped to deal with a fellow employee telling them they are homeless, or being abused, etc. You can’t very well say, “Gee, I meant I could help you google better deoderants…but that serious stuff? Can’t help ya.” Because that’s worse than not offering any hope at all.

            Reply
      2. AnotherHRGirl

        It was about 15 years ago…but I remember that I just came out with it — that his co-workers had some issues with his personal hygiene. He was very upset at first, but I quickly turned the conversation to what he could actively do to change it. I also remember that I reassured him that he was very well liked (he was), because at that point he felt that people were ganging up on him and just didn’t like him. He thought a couple of showers a week were enough, and truly didn’t know that he smelled bad. We had a good rapport prior to that, so I think that definitely helped the situation. And I made a point to compliment him on his nice appearance the next I saw him in private. He seemed to have a new bearing about him as well.

        Reply
    1. Rebecca

      I also had a successful conversation with a subordinate. I was just honest and I do remember prefacing it with, “This is awkward for me to even bring up.” And I practiced what I planned to say (with another manager who knew about the problem).

      I fully expected her to be upset and maybe cry, but she took it very well. I didn’t ask her what she thought was causing it, but the next day she told me, “I got new deodorant!” and even smiled about it. I worked with her for another couple of years after the incident and didn’t hear any more complaints. (The coworkers who were complaining had to work in close quarters with her.)

      As I got to know her better, I figured out that she had some problems with alcohol and depression. I think people were smelling “the booze sweats” as they say.

      Reply
  11. Lora

    Oh, you must say something. With respect to your concern about the awkwardness of the conversation, would it help if you thought about it like you’d tell someone, “hey, Bob, you’ve got a bit of spinach in your teeth”? Quietly, discreetly, confidentially, with a “just so you know, dude” tone to it. You’re helping her. You know she would not want to be embarrassed, and you know she will correct the situation immediately, once she is aware, sort of thing.

    I mean, she might not correct it, she might have a thousand excuses, but I would start with the assumption that she does want to not be Pig Pen. You’ve had people offer you a tictac/Altoid after a garlicky lunch, right? Or say, “hey, your shoe is untied,” or “you’ve got something on your shirt” ? And it’s not a big deal. Maybe you were making a fashion statement, but the assumption was that it was an honest mistake you’d like to correct.

    Once had a very thoughtful but very blunt lady who did not speak much English, catch me as I was walking out of the restroom, yank me back into the restroom, pull my blouse out of my underpants where I had mistakenly tucked it, then nod curtly and walk out without saying a word. Later found out that I had done this more than once. It was super-embarrassing but I was SO grateful. None of the men I worked with dared to say, “ummm you might want to go re-tuck your shirt…” to me.

    Reply
    1. Rayner

      I think though there’s a point where you have to be firm about this as a manager, rather than just sort of pointing it out like you would if it was someone you knew in another social setting.

      It’s affecting how other people see her, it’s not a one time thing, and it’s occurred under the OP’s command so it’s up to her as a manager to…. well, manage. It’s not a suggestion to shower a bit more often, or to smarten up her wardrobe, it’s a “As your manager, this is me telling you that this shouldn’t go on, unless there’s a medical issue that’s causing it. ”

      She can certainly follow it up with asking if there’s something the company can do to help, or putting her in touch with relevant people/places/departments/community things, but it’s but it’s not something that’s optional, or that can be allowed to continue.

      I like the suggestion of assuming she doesn’t know, and hopefully a wake up call from management enables her to either ask for help or to change but there’s a line between treating it as a possibility for change, and a firm reminder of the expectations of the company regarding hygiene and dress.

      Reply
      1. Lora

        I was thinking more in terms of, the manager’s feeling super-awkward–a different way for the manager to wrap their heads around it than the typical “we need to have a Talk, why don’t you have a seat over there,” sort of serious thing. Because it hasn’t been addressed before, as far as the employee knows, this is the very first time it’s been a problem–so from her perspective, a big serious Talk is like going from zero to nuclear for one offense, and it’s already a conversation that requires a lot of trust and sensitivity. I sorta feel like the manager should treat it as if it were the first incident, because as far as the employee knows, it is.

        Reply
  12. Joey

    Your HR only gave you some links to articles? That person sucks.

    Good advice from Alison. But, one thing Id point out is to make sure you don’t say “I’ve gotten some complaints” or “other people have noticed.” When you have this convo its got to be absolutely clear that the expectation to be neat and clean are your expectations. Don’t blame it on the policy or someone else.

    Reply
    1. Andrea

      Yeah, that jumped out at me, too. I agree that this is the manager’s job to deal with and not HR, but it would have been better if HR had provided some helpful resources or training in this area, since it seems like the OP hasn’t dealt with this kind of thing before.

      Reply
    2. A Bug!

      Good point!! “Other people have noticed” is one of the worst things you could say to someone with shaky self-esteem.

      Because then it just opens the floodgates. How many people noticed? Who noticed? Did they talk to each other about it before going to the manager? Are you a running joke now? What other things are bothering your coworkers about you that they’re not willing to tell you directly?

      Reply
  13. Anonimal

    I know that I need to have this conversation with a friend of mine. It’s so bad that I can’t fathom how he got a job. And I can’t even pinpoint why he smells so bad. He doesn’t appear unclean and I know he washes his clothes. I think it’s his house as his kids smell as well.

    Talk about the mother of awkward conversations.

    Reply
    1. Rana

      Wow. The kids too? I wonder what detergent they’re using (or not). Maybe their clothes are mouldering in the washer or something?

      Reply
      1. Jamie

        That’s what I was thinking – or funky water? We stayed somewhere once where they had well water and our hair absolutely reeked. I can’t describe the smell – not sulfur but in that neighborhood. I had never been so happy to get back to municipal water and rewash. My hair was really dry and funky feeling, too.

        I do know not all well water is like this – some is fine – but this was an area where their water just smelled. If it’s the whole family I’d definitely think it was environmental.

        Reply
        1. Lillie Lane

          Our friends had well water like this. I used a “tingling” shampoo once while there and after getting out of the shower, my scalp BURNED for half an hour. Still don’t know what was in it, but I think it went away a few months after they dug the well.

          BTW, Jamie, I bought some HK sunglasses because of you. My husband thinks they’re the cutest darn thing ever. He gets disappointed if I wear a different pair.

          Reply
          1. Jamie

            You made my day – I LOVE that!! (I have a pair too, in my car, very subtle you have to really look to see the bow!)

            My office is kitty-free at the moment and I’m even wearing grown up shoes today…so I love that what I’ve lost others are picking up the flag!

            And I don’t know what one would do if it is the stinky water. Maybe some kind of filter for the showers?

            Reply
        2. The Other Dawn

          RE: Stinky well water

          My sister lives in an area that has underground sulpher springs and everyone on her street has well water that smells like rotten eggs. I hate going there because taking a shower is quite unpleasant. If I’m there for more than two nights (5 hr drive) I suck it up and use the shower. Otherwise I wait until I get home. And I always bring bottled water for drinking and brushing my teeth. Her family is used to it though and doesn’t notice it anymore. Apparently it’s possible to install a filtration system, but it’s expensive.

          Reply
      2. Marmite

        One of my friends started using one of those eco/organic detergents and I noticed when I stayed over at hers and borrowed a clean towel that, while it might have got things clean, it didn’t leave them smelling clean.

        It’s also possible it’s difficulty drying clothes. I used to live in a tiny, damp apartment and couldn’t afford to use the building’s dryer. It was incredibly difficult to dry clothes properly and if you don’t they can smell funny even though they’ve just been washed.

        Reply
  14. Alex

    To the person writing the letter: Tell your employee the truth. I was in a situation where everyone in the office complained about how I smelled, and I only found out because no one had the good sense to be discreet about it. I overheard them talking about me. My body odour is due to a rare enzyme deficiency, and no amount of bathing, deodorant, or perfume, will take it away. I would have understood if someone–especially my boss, had mentioned it to me directly. When I approached her about the issue myself, she told me that no one complained about it, even though I knew for a fact that some of my coworkers approached her. In spite of the root issue that is causing your employee’s lack of personal hygiene and unkempt appearance, you owe it to her to tell her the truth in a kind and non-judgmental manner. It may be a difficult conversation for both of you, but she will trust you because you told the truth. Which is more than I can say of my former boss.

    Reply
  15. Andy Lester

    The one time I had to deal with this, maybe 15 years ago, it was a cultural issue.

    It was a co-worker who was over here on a work visa from another country. After a few weeks, I explained that others had complained about body odor, and I asked if he showered every day. He said no, and I said that would probably be all it was. They didn’t shower every day over there, and I said that’s what we do in the US. He was terrified that he would be fired because of this, and I said no, just take a shower every day and I think it will all be fine. And it was.

    The extra fun part of this: He was a peer, and my boss wussed out and asked me to have the hard discussion. “You talk to Steve, don’t you? You get along with him? Well, I have this problem that people have been complaining about, and I figured since you know him, maybe you could talk to him.” So I did, but I recognize now how absurd the situation was. Shouldn’t I have had hazard pay or something for that?

    Reply
    1. EnnVeeEl

      That’s messed up.

      I am amazed at the number of people who don’t realize not everyone around the world feels the need to use deodorant. They bathe, but don’t do deodorant. That being said, these same folks that don’t use it at home know to use it in professional settings when abroad. “When in Rome, they do as the Romans do.”

      In your case, HR should have said, “Hey, for your professional development HERE, you will need to probably use deodorant. It’s the social norm here.” I think he would have understood.

      Sorry you were put in that position.

      Reply
  16. VirgoGirl

    She could have a disorder called Trimethylaminuria (aka TMAU or Fish Odor Syndrome), where trimethylamine gets released in the person’s sweat, urine, reproductive fluids, and breath, giving off a strong fishy or body odor. People with the disorder have no control over it. You can read about it here: http://tmaufoundation.org/

    Reply
  17. TeaBQ

    Speaking as someone with experience with depression, both in having it and knowing people who’ve had it, it’s also possible that she’s unaware of the odor. I knew someone who went a long time without showering or changing her clothes due to her depression, and she said she assumed that if she had an odor, people would tell her (she did, but they weren’t).

    So it may just be that this employee is assuming someone will bring it up if it’s a problem, and since nobody’s mentioned it she figures it must not be an issue.

    If it is a matter of depression making it hard for her to do this kind of self-care, you can still set expectations that she needs to present herself at work in a certain way. You can help and be respectful of the illness by trying to offer suggestions for how to get to that goal, but you don’t have to remove the goal.

    It may also help to ask what the goal is. Is it for her to be clean or is it for the issue of the odor to be handled? Because if it’s the latter that opens up options like the potential for her to work from home, or working different hours from most of her co-workers, and so on.

    Of course that might not be possible in this particular setting, and if so that’s fine. I just mention it to show how there can be ways to find a solution to the problem that is respectful to everyone’s needs.

    Reply
  18. Design-in-Dutchess

    The first thing that crossed my mind is, maybe something happened and she is homeless? That would make it hard to stay clean and pressed. If that is not the case, it probably is the depression. Either way, you should get to the bottom of it because it isn’t helping her or anyone else get their job done.

    Reply
    1. Jessa

      Yeh I mentioned that upthread too. Normally someone who is usually neatly kept up and suddenly isn’t, there’s a reason. Even if it is depression, there are issues as in “what changed suddenly that made this happen now?”

      But yeh I thought, even with depression, the clothing thing, sounds homeless or with limited resources.

      Reply
    2. Jess

      This. I’m a law student who often works with indigent clients, and the kind of changes described here are classic homelessness symptoms (though I’m sure they could have plenty of other causes). If you are willing and able and this is this situation, providing the employee with a list of resources where they might be able to wash clothes, take a shower, or get free clothing (often there are organizations that will give out professional clothing) might really help.

      Reply
    3. Lindsay

      I had a coworker with an odor problem a long time ago, and I always wondered if it wasn’t a poverty issue.

      He was a very large man. Over six feet tall and weighed from the looks of him around 500 pounds. He reeked. And not just like a BO type smell, but almost a mildewy rotten smell. It wasn’t just his clothes, either, it was him. I also knew that he lived close to the poverty line and lived in a mobile home, and I always wondered if perhaps he did not fit into or was otherwise unable to get into his shower. I know that some apartment and hotel bathroom showers are narrow as it is, and I can’t imagine a mobile home shower being any more spacious. There’s only so much sponge-baths can help.

      I’ve always wondered what I would do if I were his manager at the time and I found out that it was the case that the shower in his home just was not a feasible option for him to use.

      Reply
  19. EnnVeeEl

    Talk to her. It’s the kind and right thing to do.

    Maybe there is some underlying medical issue, maybe they are just lax in the hygiene area. But so many times in the workplace these kinds of conversations are avoided, and the person with the “aroma” or whatever the issue is is subtly or not so subtly affected at work (lack of good assignments, no promotions, etc), and other employees feel their complaints are ignored.

    I have to agree this is very difficult though. Sending good vibes the OP’s way, and hoping they provide updates on how the conversation went and if the situation improved.

    Reply
  20. Totally anon for this

    As someone who was the smelly employee once, I would like to stress telling her this at the end of the day. I was severely depressed and managing to get to work in the first place was a major accomplishment every day. Totally not an excuse though. My supervisor called me into her office in the middle of the day and said there had been complaints and asked me to go home, shower, change my clothes, and return to work. Although I absolutely needed to be told about it and to correct the problem, it was humiliating to rerun to work later that day in different clothes and know that at least some of my coworkers knew the reason why. So please please please do it at the end of the day and if possible I’d leave out any comments about coworkers complaining because its hard to have that explicit knowledge hanging over you without knowing who had complained.

    Reply
    1. Spanish Teacher

      I’m sorry that happened. Seems like it would have been so much more compassionate to have that talk towards the end of the day, like Alison recommends, so that you would be spared the humiliation of leaving and then coming back.

      Reply
    2. Job seeker

      I feel so sorry for this woman. Something is obviously wrong because I can not imagine anyone going unkempt on purpose. Just think how you would feel if this was you. You definitely would want someone to tell you. Sometimes being kind can be hurtful. I would definitely try to approach this in a kind way and privately. If this woman is depressed she feels bad enough. There could be many reasons that this woman is coming to work like this.

      I worked at a place once where a co-worker’s breath always smelled bad. No-one could say anything because he was the manager of the department. I never could figure out how he could come to work that way. His dad was the president of the company and he was well-off. I really liked him but hated to get in a close up conversation with him.

      Reply
    3. Mary

      I agree your timing – I would even go so far as to suggest, maybe at the end of the day on a Friday. This would give the person the weekend to clean up, wash and mend clothes, take extra care of their hygiene, etc.

      I once worked with a woman from a different culture who was very well put together except she never wore deodorant. We had low ceilings and by 9:30am she and everywhere she went was reeking. In the old paperwork days, I had files and would wave a file around after she left my cube as I didn’t want people to think I was the one who smelled. Finally a co-worker mentioned that she smelled – I felt a wave of relief.

      Unfortunately her job performance was not up to par and her manager went around to people asking for comments. The fact that she also smelled did not bode well in her favor and she was eventually let go.

      Reply
  21. Mom

    It could be as simple as not drying her clothes properly. My teenage son went through a stage where he didn’t want his clothes tumble dried. Our basement is cold and damp and his khakis took days to “dry.” We got a call from his school – from an awful woman – that he had apparently had an “accident” that caused him to smell. Very humiliating call from a hateful woman.
    Once we went back to drying in the drier the problem was solved.

    Reply
    1. Ann O'Nemity

      Off topic FYI… About 6 months after buying a HE front-loading washer, I noticed that just-washed clothes had a slight musty smell. (My husband could not smell it, but I did.) Turns out this is common problem with front-loading washers and there are some easy solutions: (1) use warm water instead of cold whenever possible, (2) leave the door open between uses, and (3) do the self-cleaning cycle with bleach every 1-2 months.

      Reply
      1. Sniper

        The same thing can happen to top loaders as well. Just leave the door open and you will be fine (that is, don’t buy the crap that Proctor and Gamble and all their friends are selling so that you can ‘eliminate washer odor’ and such).

        Reply
      2. Anonymous

        Ugh, that explains the musty smell coming from my front loader. It came with my rental so I can’t do anything about it until I move, but even with leaving the door open (which I did on instinct due to the moldy smell coming from the washer itself) it still happens. And the dryer seems to literally bake the smell in.

        I hate front loaders because it kills my back to use them, this is just another reason never to buy one once I have the choice. Oh, and they’re noisy as hippos having sex. The whole floor shakes. And you can’t open them after a couple minutes to throw in one more sock. Okay, I’m done.

        Reply
        1. Zahra

          I got front loaders, but I bought pedestals that double as drawers to put under them, so they’re at a really comfortable height. And noisy? They’re not balanced properly on the floor. They really need to be level on the floor, on a solid floor and they get almost silent. Even the spin cycle shouldn’t require you to raise your voice a lot. As for the can’t open and add stuff, that’s a definite drawback.

          I don’t think you need to do a self cleaning cycle, just fiddle with the rubber seal on the door side and you should see some black stuff. Wipe it off and you should be good.

          Reply
          1. Jamie

            This – 100x. I have mine on pedestals also (love the drawers) and the washer is so much quieter than any top loader I’ve ever had. Also, being at the correct height makes a world of difference regarding the bending.

            I got my pedestals from a Sears Outlet for like $35 each – so pretty inexpensive. Make sure you get the right model to fit your washer and you’ll see a huge difference.

            Reply
            1. ThatFormerHRGirl

              Ditto on the pedestals. We actually poured a concrete pedestal in our basement since I live in a 100+ year old house and the basement floor is really uneven. It was a pain to do but the finished result is great.

              Reply
        2. Diane

          My boyfriend and his boys had musty clothes right out of the dryer. When they moved in with me, the problem disappeared because I use Borax with every wash. It took several washes to get the damp funk out of the towels, but it worked.

          Reply
        3. Lisa M

          Try doing a cycle with hot water and several cups of vinegar. (After you’ve wiped off any black stuff.) But yes, front-loaders need to have their doors open — including the one where you put soap and stuff — to air after use.

          Reply
  22. Emma

    I’d like to offer one possibility re: smelling. Clothes acquire a sour smell when you wash them, but don’t dry them immediately. After they sit damply in the washing machine for hours, they develop this smell that won’t come out after drying with fabric sheets, etc. You’d have to wash the whole load again and dry it relatively quickly to remove the musty smell. She could be very busy at home re: chores, forgetting to change her laundry, then finding herself with musty clothes. In addition to the other suggestions (esp. re: self-care and depression), she might be experiencing this too.

    Reply
    1. Jamie

      Just a tip – a shot of white vinegar in the load will get rid of the musty smell – like when your teenager takes a load of still wet towels out of the dryer to dry one pair of pants to go out and let’s them sit in the laundry basket to get re-washed. Not that it ever happened in my house.

      You can’t smell the vinegar once everything is washed – just kills the mustiness.

      Reply
      1. Spanish Teacher

        Yes, thank you! I have the worst habit of leaving clothes in the washer for a day or two, and ever since we got an HE washer last fall, I’ve noticed that mustiness more often. This will save me some detergent!

        Reply
        1. Jamie

          You don’t need a lot – just like 2/3 – 1 cup. I have a front loader as well and put it in the little section for bleach (since I’m not using bleach.)

          I also do this for washing the dog’s bedding – it adds a freshness without being perfumey.

          Reply
        2. Anonymous

          Also with a front load machine, you shouldn’t close the door when it isn’t in use. Mildew will build up around the door seal.

          Reply
          1. ThatFormerHRGirl

            Was just about to comment this same thing! :)
            Also using a HE washing machine cleaner once a month or so should help, and in the instructions it actually has you pour some of the cleaner on the towel to wipe around the door seal.

            Reply
      2. AL Lo

        I don’t use fabric softener anymore at all — I use vinegar in the softener reservoir of the washing machine, and then a dryer ball to help with static in the dryer. Works like a charm — I don’t even notice the absence of the softener (either liquid or sheets).

        Reply
        1. Jamie

          I’ve been doing this for years – long before I had a front loader – so maybe 20 years and I’ve never stained anything. Just make sure you are using white vinegar and not apple cider or red wine vinegar.

          Actually a cup of vinegar or table salt thrown into a load of where the clothes are white/colors (on the same garments, so you can’t separate) will keep the colors from bleeding into or dulling the white. Learned this back in the day and kept my Benetton rugby shirts circa 1980 something looking good.

          Wow – I’m old.

          Reply
  23. Mimi

    I agree with the comments that it could be depression – and if she’s currently being treated for it, well, there you go. I had a coworker who was depressed, and she infrequently showered/washed her hair/brushed her teeth, etc. She said when she was depressed, she just couldn’t muster up the energy to do it; she felt very “why bother?” about her physical being.

    Shortly thereafter, she took another job, and wow – the difference is like night and day. She exercises regularly, lost lots of weight, and looks pretty put-together.

    Reply
  24. Not So NewReader

    OP, I don’t know all the particulars of your setting, so this may or may not work for you. I have found one thing that seems to help me with tough conversations. I start AND end the conversation by saying “If the situation were reversed I would want you to come tell me.”

    This type of statement helps to give her some power over the situation, because she sees that you expect her to act in a similar manner.

    Since this is a recent development you also have the opportunity to point that out. “I have only noticed this recently, so I figured something in your life has changed recently.” This helps her to narrow down the scope of the problem. You don’t want her thinking that it has been going on forever and you are just now mentioning it.

    If she asks about her coworkers commenting you can say you know for a fact that her coworkers like her. Which sides steps the immediate question and lets her know that she is actually liked. Again this helps to limit the scope of the problem.

    To me it sounds like daily hygiene has gone by the wayside for whatever reason. If she goes back to what she was doing before- the problem should clear up.

    Reply
  25. So Anonymous for This 1

    So how do you have that conversation if the employee in question is your boss? :-(

    I’m in that situation and I’ve been on the fence about whether to say something to her or not. It’s not really my place but no one at her level or above will say anything.

    Reply
  26. OP

    Wow…I am humbled and amazed by these thoughtful suggestions and observations. You have convinced me I do need to speak up, and given me the courage to do so. I’m repeating the word “compassion” to myself as I think about having this convo. The need for that came through loud and clear.

    Thanks to all of you. Keep sending those positive vibes. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

    Reply
    1. Sniper

      One thing I’d like to mention, don’t forget to talk to the employee a few days or a week later, to let them know that they are looking better and their odor is gone – presuming this is the case. Don’t leave them hanging, wondering if things have improved, since this is likely an issue they didn’t know about before and perhaps don’t know has been fixed.

      Reply
      1. Jessa

        OH yes this. But this kind of goes ANY time you have a “we need you to x” kind of talk. Please follow up and say it’s working if it is. A lot of bosses tend to only follow up if it’s NOT working.

        Reply
  27. Hannah

    As someone who suffers from depression and, a few years ago, went through a time where it got hard to change my clothes, shower, do laundry, etc., I would have wholeheartedly welcomed a manager talking to me about it. Scratch that. I would have hated it. But it would have benefited me in so many ways and would have made me seek help a lot sooner than I did and made me better at my job.

    Do it.

    Reply
  28. Liz in the City

    I haven’t read through all the comments, but the smell could be coming from her clothes washer. I only suggest this because I just spent 20 minutes cleaning my newish (3 years old) front loader, which had soap buildup and other joys. If I don’t clean the rubber stopper around the door regularly (like every few months), then this moldy, gross smell develops on my clothes and towels, no matter how many times I wash or dry or use good-smelling soaps. I (clearly) have no idea if this is what the OP is dealing with or if this is an explanation. Just throwing it out there (and to clean it, vinegar is your friend!).

    Reply
    1. Anonymous

      Apparently you should never actually close a front loader unless it is in use. Which is annoying..but should prevent the mold/mildew build-up around the door seal?

      Reply
    2. Anony1234

      Front-end loaders are notorious for this problem. I’ve used that Tide washing machine detergent – it’s not for clothes but rather for cleaning your machine. I probably should use it more often, but it is expensive (and coupons are scarce). Vinegar…I must remember that.

      Reply
  29. LadyHope

    My husband has a smelly coworker. They are in a warehouse and the guy drives a truck for hours overnight. The boss has spoken to him several times. The guy gets defensive, improves for 2-3 days, then apparently goes back to thinking an air freshener in the cab of the truck is an acceptable substitute for showers. Blech. It’s not dirty uniforms because the company washes them and gives them extras. Just laziness. I’m aure part of the problem is the boss not setting/enforcing consequences.

    Reply
    1. LadyHope

      Also, his boss isn’t up front about how this affects career opportunities- like how this guy won’t get considered for a daytime delivery route because they don’t want him to interact with customers when he reeks.

      Reply
  30. Kay

    As someone who has suffered severe, debilatating depression in the past: sometimes a gentle ass-kicking to have it pointed out to you that you are starting to fall off the edge, rather than continuing to walk along it, can be very helpful. I mean, it’s helpful in a kind of terrifying way that can make you go home and throw up all night, but it can help push you back to where you need to be.

    Reply
    1. Lily

      If you feel like you are disappearing and becoming a ghost, it’s a shock to realize that people actually still notice you. In that sense, it’s a good shock.

      Reply
      1. Anoneemous

        Nailed it!

        It’s been a very long time, and it all came back to me when I read your response. Very insightful.

        Reply
    1. Rana

      I think it’s because it’s something we all have experience with, unlike, say, managing a poor performer at a nonprofit, or dealing with strange customers in a retail setting, or whatever.

      Reply
  31. Jesicka309

    This thread is amazing. Between the hair wash tips, clothes watching tips, washing machine tips and hints about depression, I’ve learnt so much.
    It makes me worry that I’m not as on top of my depression as I thought. :( I shower every day at least.

    Reply
  32. Maggie

    Years ago I worked with a guy who had an awful odor. It was that baked on I-don’t-own-a-bar-of-soap stink. And his teeth…well, they were always slimy looking so apparently he didn’t own a toothbrush or toothpaste either. He was married. Not homeless, they lived in an apartment. All of us worker bees complained to management. Management refused to talk to him about it.

    Geez…it’s been decades since I worked with El Stinko and the thought of him still grosses me out.

    Reply
  33. darsenfeld

    I don’t agree with AAM, wholly.

    I do concur that a polite, warm and understanding conversation should be had with the person, and nothing scathing or humiliating. However, by simply pointing out the issue, it leaves the scenario open-ended without any real resolution.

    I would say the following if in the OP’s scenario:

    “Well, Ms. X, I am about to raise an issue that’s very sensitive, but I hope you do not get offended or feel embarrassed in this case. I have been receiving complaints from others in our department regarding your personal hygiene. I won’t mention who has stated this to me, but several staff have raised concerns in this issue. I know this is difficult for you, but I assure you it’s not a reprimand on your part but just a concern from me as your manager. Is there anything you would like to add or comment on concerning this issue?”

    Of course, your conversation should be private, as well as what s/he says to you as the cause.

    Reply
    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      No, no! Do NOT mention that others have reported it. That’s going to make it far more awful for the employee. And it shouldn’t be so open-ended (“would you like to comment?”). It’s a concern, you’ve noticed it, you’d like it to change, the end.

      Reply
  34. Lindsay

    I’ve had to have this conversation with a worker before. It was awkward, but not too bad – basically I did what the post said and outlined the expectation that he come to work clean and without odor. Since we also do a lot of physical work, I also let him know that he could bring deodorant and store it behind the medicine cabinet at work if he so desired, because I understood that he might be getting hot and sweaty after going outside during the summer (others did this but I was not sure whether he knew it was allowed). He took it well and there was not much awkwardness between us after.

    I also had to talk to the same kid about not excessively messaging one of his female coworkers on Facebook. He was nice, but just not 100% on top of social cues and norms.

    It kind of concerns me that OP seems to be against stepping in. She states a couple times in the post that she doesn’t feel like this is someplace where a manager should be “butting in”, but it absolutely is. Coming into work clean and dressed appropriately is absolutely a necessary part of work (especially if it is to the point where others are complaining about it), and if an employee is not meeting those expectations it is up to the manager to address it (as gently and using as much tact as possible). Even if the employee is depressed, reasonable accommodations can be made, but allowing the worker to show up stinky and unkempt is not a reasonable accommodation. I wonder if there are other issues in the workplace that the OP has been hesitant in dealing with because it would make her uncomfortable or because she feels it is not her place to say something.

    Reply
  35. Mia

    My girlfriend was the smelly employee before I met her when she had to spend 2 weeks on the street due to her extremely complicated home situation. Her dad is bipolar and kicked her out for no reason at all. She was left with 90 bucks and backpack of clothing. She ‘showered’ 4x a day in the Walmart washroom and on her lunch break with wet tissues and body lotion. She washed her clothes in shopping mall’s sink every other day and she still smelled. Her manager told her he heard complaints, even though she told him that she has unstable housing before her next paycheck, but he told her twice in those 2 weeks that they have a no smell policy and she should really shower. It broke her heart and destroyed her confidence for months.
    Don’t tell anything to your employee. You will make her feel much more depressed. It’s cruel. Her life is at stake, job is not the most important thing in the world.

    Reply
    1. Job seeker

      This is really sad. I am a mom and the thought of anyone having to bathe in a Walmart washroom and wash their clothes in a shopping mall’s sink every other day is terrible. I think sometimes we don’t realize there are many people having life very hard. You do have to say something though in a professional office. You can’t just let it go. You should do it with as much respect for that person as you can. You never know what road another person is traveling.

      Reply
      1. OneoftheMichelles

        Mia,
        If her boss knew it was a 2 week, temporary problem that she was already working toward fixing, the boss was a total ass to bring it up again in the same 2 weeks. Sounds like the boss was criticizing and throwing a tantrum rather than working on solving the problem–let alone being kind or helpful.

        I’ve been a stinky employee. Allergies take away most of my sense of smell most of the time so I bathe daily and am really careful to have a clean shirt each day. After my 2nd round of antibiotics for an infected sweat gland under my arm, I quit shaving and spent time re-arranging my hygiene methods. I thought I’d figured out a better way to stay “unscented,”–til my boss called me into his office in the middle of the day and stammered for 10 minutes about how this was so hard for *him* (terrified me that I was about to be fired!!). When he finally got to the point that a couple people were bothered by my smell lately, I was so relieved that I wasn’t getting fired!

        Since I knew the backstory, we then had a friendly little chat about it and I went back to searching until I found that Crystal liquid stuff in a health food store. I’m a “want to know” kind of person. Even though my boss didn’t handle this well, it was ok because 1) he was trying to be kind and 2) there was something I could do to make it better.

        So I doubt that this kind of issue can’t or “shouldn’t” be brought to the attention of an employee, it just needs to be with a genuinely helpful attitude. Not the way your friend’s boss did it.

        Reply
    2. Jazzy Red

      Her manager was a jerk! If I had been her manager, I would have offered her a room in my home for those couple of weeks, with complete household privileges.

      At the very least, he should have gotten her an advance on her paycheck.

      Reply
  36. Not usually anonymous

    Lactose intolerance can creep up on you with age. I had 2 episodes of incredibly stinky farts at work because of food served there that I usually didn’t eat at home before I figured out that I was lactose intolerant. I’m not sure if my farts might also have contributed to getting fired shortly afterwards from a new job.

    Reply
  37. applemoon

    My boyfriends father smells so bad. He does not wear deodorant or bathe regularly. Everyone is aware how bad he smells not too mention all he wears is sweatpants and he dresses like this to work. One day @ the dog park with our dog one of the ladies told me that he had bent over and she could see that he was wearing dirty underwear. He buys dollar laundry detergent so his clothes are in fact never properly cleaned. It’s so bad that our dog has an odor after being with him. My boyfriend laughs and says he’s English that’s how they are. He has been in America for over 30 years so don’t you think he would have learned hygiene. How his co-workers have not said anything after all these years is beyond me. It’s not easy to tell someone they smell but I can’t stand to be around him nor can anyone else it makes you want to vomit it’s that bad.

    Reply
  38. Anonymous

    I have a family member who has a medical problem.She was told her job was on the line.A doctor prescribed medication .I have a coworker that smells so bad he/she smells the vehicle that workers share for eight hour shifts.I was told by a fellow worker that the stink is from bad hygiene.And the stink in the vehicle will never come out ,it stays on our clothes and follows us where ever we go.I thought maybe using the same thing to get rid of skunk smell.Dawn soap,peroxide,baking soda and water. Telling the person is a supervisor task who checks on employees.What do you say about dealing with the smell .

    Reply
  39. Advice Appreciated

    Well I am on the other end of things. According to my doctor, I must have some kind of medical condition. I shower daily. Sometimes up to three times daily, and still smell. I have spent $17K plus on different tests, vitamin supplements and medicines at my doctor’s recommendation and still smell. My dental care and hygiene are appropriate. Next up is hormone testing, and to follow a colonoscopy. More$. It hinders me professionally and does affect my self-esteem. I have been isolated at work, and ridiculed. I’ve been forthcoming with my office manager. I Provided a note stating I am undergoing testing. I’ve asked to be moved to a more remote location in the office without result. There is no HR. I have joined the gym in my building to shower. I am fearful I will lose my job.

    Reply
  40. It's a metabolic disorder stupid!

    You guys are clueless! Many, many people who smell bad are actually cleaner than you are! They lack enzymes to break down things like tma or tryptophan. Failure to break down tma leads to a condition called tmau! Failure to break down tryptophan leads to fecal body odor! Hooray for everyone whose genes keep them smelling rosey! But understand that you don’t smell bad because your genes are working properly. The very hygienic person who stinks smells bad because of faulty genes. So, now what are you going to tell the coworker who stinks? Unless you have a cure for metabolic disorders, I would say just shut up and move your seat if you can’t handle it. Perhaps the person is being treated for depression due to the very same odor problem that you are complaining about. Undestand that the stinky person is living in a hell on earth that you cannot even imagine. Oh, and thank god that you don’t suffer from this metabolic condition, because there is no cure at the present time.

    Reply
  41. Tina

    My office dilemma sounds similar however, a bit different from the posts I have read. My co-worker smells horrific! I would not attribute her smell to body order rather than the smell of damp and or dirty laundry. We work in close and tight quarters so on some days when she turns her fan on, the smell is unbearable! We have to open our emergency exit door to allow air in and take the smell out. There have been days where she has come to work with wet/damp jeans on. How do I know this? She told me her jeans were wet because you can hear the sound of her pants rubbing together when she walks. This person also wears the same jean at least three times a week and does not wash them. How do I know she does not wash them? Again, she told me she does her laundry every other week because she does not like to wash her clothes every week. She also said her dog pulls her dirty clothes out of her hamper and urinates on them. So the smell we have to endure may be a bit of both damp moldy and urinated clothing. I don’t know if she showers on a daily bases because she will come to work with clothes she has slept in. Again, she is very forthcoming about this information as well. I talked to my supervisor about the smell because I sit directly behind her. Unfortunately we have weak management and they will not address this issue. Another co-worker complained about the smell to management as well because she can smell the stench as she walks out of her office into our cubical area. My co-worker was she needed to confront her about her smell! Really? I often spray around my desk with a scented fragrance when she turns her fan on because the smell come directly in my direction. My next step is to go above both my supervisor and supervisor right to corporate HR.

    Reply

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