telling an employee she has body odor

A reader writes:

Two new secretaries in my office have body odor. The other staff have asked me to talk to them about it as the acting manager. How should I tackle this?

I do not envy you. I’m interested to hear advice from others too, but I think the best approach is to think about how you’d want it handled it if it were you and have a short, to-the-point conversation with each of them (separately), likely at the end of the day so they don’t need to sit there feeling self-conscious for hours afterward.

Be honest, direct, and as kind as possible. You can even admit that you’re nervous about bringing it up. Start by mentioning that their work has been good (assuming that it has been) and then say something like, “I want to discuss something that’s awkward, and I hope I don’t offend you. You’ve had a noticeable body 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.”

Likely, the employee will be embarrassed. But if they’re combative, explain that they need to come to work clean because of the impact on the office. You might also suggest a visit to a doctor to find out if there might be a medical reason.

By the way, I’m assuming that the issue is one of not bathing/laundering enough, but if it’s more along the lines of cultural differences in food that can lead to different body smells, I’d ask the staff to be more tolerant. I’m also assuming that you’ve verified the problem yourself, so that you’re sure it truly exists (if you haven’t, do, since it’s not inconceivable that someone cranky on your staff just wants to cause problems for these women).

Also, there’s an excellent podcast on this topic from Managers Tools on this issue here. (That’s part two, where the real action is, but you can also listen to part one here.) It gives really detailed advice about how to tackle this.

{ 48 comments… read them below }

  1. HR Wench*

    Ah, the smelly co-worker. Who doesn’t love dealing with this type of situation? AAM has given good advice, as always. Personally I have found focusing on the “I’m a manager and I’m concerned for you” part of it really helps. That being said, even as an HR pro with yards of experience in “uncomfortable conversations”, I do NOT envy the writer’s position!

  2. Career Encourager*

    I also don’t envy the writer’s position either – and I have a follow-up question…how do you handle it if you are “frangrance sensitive” nd the offending odor is due to perfume, afteshave, lotion, etc.? Do you think that’s any different than how you would handle a BO situation?

    1. Nadia*

      Probably the best thing to do if it is an offensive perfume/cologne issue would be to remind the employee of the compamy’s cologne/perfume free policy. Or if you don’t have one, you can metion that there are some employees who have sensitivities to strong frangances and ask the employee to be courteous and to stop wearing strong fragrances.

  3. Anonymous*

    As an “individual Contributor”,I was once issued a grievance on my brand of perfume (Chanel #5 for those curious noses). Needless to say both HR and the individual’s manager were hard pressed to resolve the issue as several other bargaining unit representatives had grotesque body odor. So go figure – my Chanel aroma wasn’t so bad after all.

  4. Lisa*

    For both fragrances and odors, go right to the individual. I once tried the “whole group, working together in close quarters” approach and that backfired. The individual with the strong (not Chanel!) fragrance knew I was referring to her and was offended noone came to her personally. I have not had to have an odor discussion, but if and when I do, I will be right there beside HR Wench with the “I am concerned for you approach.”

  5. Jackie Cameron*

    As wearer of Chanel No 5 myself it never occurred to me that others might find it offensive. Overdoing any scent though is hard to accept. On the BO point when this was an issue on our team one suggestion was to discuss the various options for shower/ bath/ deoderising generally. Everybody except the person with the problem found it informative.It needs to be a direct approach. Good luck.

  6. Anonymous*

    Having dealt with this on at least three occasions, I consider the direct approach to be the best. My first attempt of informing the employee of the BO problem was a disaster. Beating around the bush does not kill the odor. Even though the other discussions were uncomfortable for both of us, the direct approach was better by far and produced a desirable result – no odor.

  7. Anonymous*

    Am I the only one who would prefer an email or note? I would be moritifed if I had to talk to any superior eye-to-eye about my smell…

  8. Anonymous*

    While it’s probably better to say something (sensitively) in person, you could always try an anonymous email website like NoOffenseOrAnything –, where you can send a pre-written anonymous message to the employees letting them know about their body odor problem.

  9. lily bird*

    my boss (male) who has his desk 3 meters from mine has sometimes very strong body odor. I think I am having a maybe hormonal related reaction to it ? I get all antsy, I am starting to hyperventilate and I am also becoming much more aggressive. How should I react ? Is maybe something wrong with me that I am having such strong reactions ?

  10. Anonymous*

    I have a temporary worker who is African American and wears her hair in dreadlocks (or similar skinny braids/twists). I realize that this type of style is not frequently shampood. It's not an inappropriate style for our office and she keeps it up out of her face when she needs to. The thing is she is starting to have an odor about her. I'm worried about approching her about it because of the ethnic spin and my general lack of familiarity of care for this hair style. I really hate to bring it up to her but I think others are starting to notice, and I rather nip it in the bud before someone asks me to do so.

  11. Anonymous*

    Wow, I thought that last sort of racist claptrap was long gone! FYI, Black people with dreads/braids/twists whatever _wash their hair as often as anyone eles does_. The belief that these styles are "dirty" is nothing more than racism – and racism that other employers have been sued over.

    1. JohnQPublic*

      No they don’t necessarily. Some hair requires the head’s natural oils to remain strong, and overly frequent washing can dry it out and make it brittle. This doesn’t mean the rest of the body goes without, but may mean hair goes longer between washing. Ask a friend or coworker who has African hair how they care for it.

      1. Another Anonymous*

        Wow. I am quite offended by the racist comments regarding dreadlocks. I am not sure why dreadlocks would be inappropriate in a workplace. For the record, I am a black woman. I do not wear dreadlocks. My sister has worn them for years. She washes her hair (and her body) regularly.

        Anyone (regardless of race or gender) should embrace basic health and hygiene practices. If a person chooses not to do so, addressing the lack of hygiene is appropriate. Assuming that people who wear dreadlocks do not shampoo their hair often is not. This type of racism is why faculty members at my university (I attended an HBCU) recommended that we not wear braids in the workplace. While I was a student, I basically ignored the advice because I thought it was ridiculous. My hairstyle (I am a software engineer) has nothing to do with my ability to provide excellent service for my employer and my clients. However, a few years after I started working, it was very clear to me that braids are not accepted in many work environments. Suppose two people are applying for a position. Candidate X wears braids, and Candidate Y does not. Few hiring managers will say, “Candidate X, you did not receive the promotion because braids are not part of our corporate culture”. Instead, a hiring manager might say, “we felt that Candidate Y’s experience was more in line what what we were seeking for this particular position.” Racism is difficult to prove. In some cases, Candidate Y truly could have been the better candidate because he/she had more experience than Candidate X did. In other cases, Candidate Y received the position because those in authority assume that people who wear braids do not wash their hair often. Fortunately, not all people hold these views. Unfortunately, too many people do.

        1. Anonymous*

          Wow, you have way over reacted. The reply was not racist and every criticism against a person of color is not always racist. Learn the definition of racism, otherwise you will overuse it to the point it is meaningless.

      2. Another Anonymous*

        The hair care industry has products that are designed to moisturize hair. There are products that are made specifically for people who choose to wear dreadlocks. My sister uses products of this nature to prevent her hair from becoming dry and brittle.

    2. Anonymous*

      I Really don’t see how the comment was Racist in the slightest. Some People with dreadlocks wash them, some don’t.
      “I’m worried about approching her about it because of the ethnic spin and my general lack of familiarity of care for this hair style. I really hate to bring it up to her but I think others are starting to notice, and I rather nip it in the bud before someone asks me to do so.”
      Clearly it has nothing to do with race! Re-read!

  12. Anonymous*

    I wish people would have showed up with BO at their JOB interview. Instead, it is hidden until they are at work. I'm tired of telling people don't be afraid of Soap and Water, you managed to use the day of your JOB interview.

  13. Lani*

    This really shouldn't be any more serious an issue than telling someone their fly is down or that they've got mascara on their eyelid. Yes, BO isn't as easily remedied, but it's still important to let them know as soon as is appropriate.

  14. Anonymous*

    White people have dreads too. It's not racist to say that people with dreads are dirty. It's a stereo type. So quick to jump to racism. Why?

  15. Stella*

    I have told an employee twice about his body odor. His manager has mentioned it 3 times. And still the problem continues. He will go for 2-3 months when everything is fine and then it starts over.
    I was thinking of telling hime one more time and adding that any further notices will be in written form. Three notices and he is out.
    What do you think?

  16. Anonymous*

    An fairly new employee has a strong smell of, what i believe is, cat urine. He has mentiioned that he recently had to throw out a pair of shoes because his cat peed in them. Coworkers of this employee are complaining and starting to avoid him. Any suggestions on a good approach to this one?

  17. luchador*

    I’ve got one – everybody has been talking to the person with the offending odor, and yet, he still doesn’t get it. I work in an enclosed area and he just lets it happen. I want to impose a suspension until he straightens himself up but how do I handle it?

  18. Anonymous*

    I was recently told that I smell and needed to spray. I bike to work wash twice a day. The people around me have told me that I do not smell. This particular day I did not bike to work and I was informed by my manager in a very hurtful way that I smell. My question people around me have told me I do not smell and they are friends who would be honest with me. Is this a personal issue with my manager I have only been told once and I have complained. I think there should be procedures with this issue and not the manager using her position. What do people think?

  19. Anonymous*

    I have a professional employee with a Ph.D. who smells so bad, he stinks up the office. I have gone to great expense purchasing air purifiers and the like. Now I am not perfect, but I hate confrontation. I had to build up the courage FIVE TIMES to tell him…politely and apologetically…bout the stomach-turning smell. When I told him to correct the problem on the fifth occasion, he had the temerity to accuse me of abusive behavior, and threatened to contact my own superior. His venom was directed toward the very person who rescued him from unemployment. Well, the long and short of the matter is he still smells. It has effected my working relationship with him, and I am getting prepared to terminate him for insubordination and lack of professionalism.

    I do not enjoy this one bit!

    1. Julie*

      I think that getting your superior involved migh not be a bad idea. There would be a second person of authority who could attest to the “unpleasant” smell, and, if you have had this conversation before, it may be time to get the “big guns” involved. Better yet, find a way for your superior to have to be around this person (invite your superior to a meeting, tell your superior straight out, etc.) so that Mr/Ms Boss can experience it first hand.

  20. Julie*

    Having been in an HR capacity for 15 years, I think there is one important piece of information that seems to have been left out of the suggestions. I truly believe that someone of the same sex of the offending-BO-employee should be the one to speak to that employee. That may mean asking another manager for assistance.

  21. Anonymous in NY*

    I agree that a face-to-face conversation with the offending employee needs to happen, but what when there is only one manager in the office – and it’s a male and the employee with the BO is a female? Any suggestions?

  22. Rachael*

    I worked in an office where the supervisor was a total b#tch. If she didn’t like you for any reason, you didn’t stand a chance of keeping your job.
    Anyway, this one wonderful and hardworking woman had the unfortunate luck of starting work under this supervisor the same day as the supervisor’s daughter was hired for another department. The daughter was fired two weeks later for never coming to work on time. Ever since that day, the supervisor had it in for the other woman who started the same day. That poor woman didn’t have anything to do with the daughter’s firing, but the supervisor couldn’t take it out on the manager who fired her, so she just decided to take it out on the other worker.
    After months of setting this poor woman up for one failure after another, accusing her of losing files, not following directions and screaming at her for no good reason, she finally decided that since she couldn’t prove her to be a bad worker and fire her, she would make the poor woman quit. After all the abuse, the woman was ready to quit anyway and the supervisor knew it so she knew it wouldn’t take much to push her over the edge.
    Well, what she used was accusing the woman of having BO. She told her that someone- but wouldn’t mention who- had complained about the smell. The supervisor told the woman that she had gone person to person in the office asking them if they could smell her. The woman was mortified. She threw her badge at the supervisor and walked out.
    I felt so sorry for her. Everyone in that office knew she didn’t smell and knew what had happened, but couldn’t do a thing to help her because we knew we would lose our jobs too.
    I have wanted to call that woman so many times and tell her that she didn’t smell. But I really think she knows that. She had to know it was just that b$tch supervisor wanting to get even.

    I no longer work there either. That supervisor has gone through so many employees. I just can’t understand why HR doesn’t investigate what is going on in that office.
    Some people just have no business being on this earth, and that supervisor is one of them.

  23. -*

    I have recently been promoted to manager and only been in this job role for over a week. I have taken on a part time girl who is lovely and really good at her job and is an attribute to my team.. Problem is.. Is her BO!! I didnt want to say anything at first, as I knew she was rushing round to make it to work on time on her first day, and put it down as a one off. But, the next day was the same! I wanted to nip it in the bud straight away so this didn’t carry on.

    I’m new to this, and the thought of having to confront this girl made me as uncomfortable as much as I knew it would make her feel embarrassed. So, I made a ‘feedback’ note to the new girls that had started this week just generalising their hard work etc. I also put in there a section about personal hygiene and how I noticed one of them smelt unpleasant and if this carried on I will confront them face to face.

    Do you think I went the right way around this? Or should I have just grown some balls and told her face to face? I think she will get the message, I just didn’t want to embarrass her or make her leave for that matter!!


    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think this is a face to face conversation, not something to put in a note, and definitely not something to threaten them over (if this carries on, you’ll “confront” her).

  24. KIS5529*

    I’ve been told I do smell. No one can tell me if it’s a BO smell, or a vag smell, or stinky perfume smell. I’ve been told the smell is not every day, but maybe more like when I’m nervous, angry, stressed, or upset. While I am indeed embarrassed about the situation, I almost feel like there’s nothing I can do about it. So embarrassing. To all you managers, office supervisors, human resource people, no matter how you break the news, it still hurts. It’s not always as easy as bathing more or scrubbing harder. I truly feel there’s nothing I can do. I’ve went through the checklist; shower, washed hair, deodorant, clean socks and panties, clean clothes. I have no idea, and really hurts. I was told just yesterday, and true it still might be stinging for now, I almost can’t see myself ever holding my head as high as I used to. How can I even look at my manager again? Hopefully I figure out what it is. I’m hoping it’s just a bad pick of perfume that does not mix well with my body chemistry. No one wants to be the nasty chick. Anyway, very hurt, very nervous to go to work, and extremely depressed.

    1. Nikki*

      I am really late, but have you tried skipping perfume altogether? Also, how long as this been going on? Can you smell it? For some reason the first thing I thought about on your particular post was your clothes themselves. Sometimes, they smell because your washing machine is funky and some clothes have dye that reeks to high heaven (and it doesn’t wash away).

      1. Jamie*

        Don’t some medical conditions cause this?

        Since the hygiene isn’t the problem I would suggest getting it checked out by a doctor.

        Check your medications, also, if any. Back in college I was on a med for migraines called Midrin – I took it as a PRN and whenever I did my skin smelled metallic to me. No one else could smell it, but my skin and hair smelled like burnt pennies – it was awful.

    2. Anonymous*

      What you are saying us to familar! No one will approach you with telling you that you smell if you do sometimes and than again sometimes not. You will get slurred at behind your back and to your face, talked about even if they don’t know you and are as wrong as hell about you, start humming when they see you coming, take a big whiff of your smell in thier nose, and they will be the first to smile and lie and tell to YOUR FACE that YOU DON’T STINK.

  25. Sad Sally*

    I’ve had BO since puberty, no amount of soap and water can change that, it’s just what i’ve been cursed with. I have had several jobs where i would overhear people saying”someone should tell her to wash”..if only it were that simple! If a manager were to approach me about my BO i would simply say there’s nothing i can do about it, though i’ve tried every deodorant, soap, and home remedy out there. I’ve tried crying, praying, doctor visits, medications, more crying and more praying and still nothing works. So now managers, what do i do next??

  26. In The Breeze*

    We have an issue with an employee regarding hygiene. In a nutshell, he has bad body odor. His belief systems are that soaps, deodorants are chemicals and harmful. He interacts with our customers a great deal. How do we handle. Help!

    Thank you

  27. Anonymous*

    I have just started traing my replacement and sitting next to her I have noticed a bad odor. I have spoken about it to our office manager (who I will be replacing at the end of the year) and at first she said she would deal with it but has now changed her mind ( I think she would rather someone else did it). Now she is saying it should be up to me(like a bit of a learning curve for me). This new person is really lovely, doing really well at work and gets on well with our small team. As I will be the one working with her I don’t want to make things difficult between us. Should I be the one to speak to her or should my office manager or ultimately our boss. When we had a male staff member start and had an issue with BO it was our boss who spoke to him. I don’t think anyone has mentioned this to our boss yet but I want to be prepared if he turns round tells me I should be saying something.

  28. MissY*

    I have the Problem as well and no matter how I try it doesnot stop! It makes me very shy, and afraid to be around people.I’m a beautiful young lady and It sucks knowing I might havve to live with this till I die #tears#. people will not understand that some of us kno but can’t do much about it. I try every thing :-( and I’m tired of hearing it.I’m tired of myself as well. it hurts as well! So next time any one of u smells an indivial just rem it couldv been you or your kids or grand children!!!!!!! and it hurts so don’t be mean.

  29. swetin*

    I suffer from hyperhydrosis. First it was my feet, now it’s my groin and behind my knees. I take frequent showers, use deodorant, talc powder, herbal so called remedies and nothing seems to help. I take frequent bathroom breaks to freshen up and even make underwear changes.
    It so embarassing . My poor friends at work tolerate me. I know they can smell me. Luckily my supervisor supports me and hasn’t yet said anything. I HATE it just as much as the next person. But what can I do hide in a closet and not work? I’m trying to earn a living.
    I don’t know how one can get fired I consider it a disability.

  30. Anon*

    Fwiw, I have just had to deal with this issue. Only been in the role as manager for a few months and my director asked me to say something. I used the info here to great use, and for all of those with a problem, any manager who is vaguely decent will be understanding and should certainly be approaching this issue with respect and diplomacy. I lost sleep knowing I had to deal with it and thought of any way I could delegate it to HR or another female colleague (I am male and they are female) so thought it might be a softer blow if not from me. Bottom line I said to myself that it’s my job as her manager at the end of the day.

    It wasn’t easy and I just dived it. I sorted it at the end of the day and explained i had something difficult and personal to address which was also not going to be easy for her to say. I told her that there was an unpleasant odour that might be down to clothing, a need for better deodorant or medical. As it was getting warmer the smell was becoming stronger. Either which way we needed to get it managed. She was a little surprised, and considering we have had some mild run-ins Between us was expecting her to go nuts. She was surprised by what I said and said ok. Job done in no more than 15 seconds. I thanked her for taking it so well and went back to work.

    I don’t want to make this issue all about the person who has to say something, but both sides need to understand neither of them want to be having the conversation, but as the person with the odour is unlikely to be reading this then it will be hard for them to realise it’s no easier to say it than receive. Whilst medical issues are slightly different, if you are aware of it then I implore you to speak with your manager before they speak to you. Tell them that you hav a condition and are trying to manage it. Would certainly help rather than having to go down this road.

    My only issue now is if it doesn’t improve, but I have my fingers crossed! It is difficult in no uncertain terms, as hard as having to fire someone, but once you have the first two sentences out then its all down hill from that point. Good luck

  31. Rose H*

    For those who are experiencing BO-I’ve not tried this myself but have been very curious about it. If all else fails, maybe try this and see if it works? The first link is to a blog I subscribe to that recommends clay for detox. The second link is to the product she recommends. I have no gain from passing on this information. I do not know the blogger, nor have I ever used the clay. But, I’ve been intrigued for a while now. Good luck.

  32. manager in a tough place*

    I have a female employee who had bo. My Co manager brought it to my attention 2 weeks ago. When I suggested we talk to her that day, she said she wasn’t ready. Now it has gotten to the point that the smell has made others sick. I would like to note that I don’t sit to the young lady and I was advised to speak to her with the others female manager. Since she continues to procrastinate, how do you suggest I handle it?

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