How to Break the Bad News (Body Odor)

It’s for sure NOT a pleasant topic to discuss. Your colleague has an odor. And as fates go, it’s your job to resolve the issue. How do you do it? What can you possibly say to that person to leave them with dignity – and yet get the point across that, well…they stink?

Implementing the following three methods can alleviate the anxiety of having to confront a smelly workmate. They are (1) giving due credit; (2) the matter at hand; (3) solution to the problem.

1. Due Credit. – It’s important to remember that the smelly individual does have feelings. Likely he works very hard (why else would you keep him?) and wants to be acknowledged for his hard work, like most of us. Why not begin the meeting with his good points? Let him know that he’s a valuable asset to the company, even giving specifics of his contributions. This helps to buffer the ‘bad’ news you’re about to give.

2. Matter at hand. – When giving bad or embarrassing news to someone, it’s best not to just blurt out with, “Joe, you smell!” but to precede the news with something like, “Now Joe, the reason I’ve called you in was to share a specific concern with you.” With the current state of the economy (and before he has a coronary), you should probably let Joe know right out the gate that he’s not fired, or that his hours are cut. You can do so by saying something to this effect, “Before we start, I want you to know that your job is safe.”

With his defenses lowered, you can go on with something similar to, “Joe, I know this won’t be comfortable for you and it might even be embarrassing to hear, but I have to talk to you about it because I don’t think you’re aware of it.” By this point Joe’s interest is piqued and he really wants to know what the problem might be. You won’t need a prompt; he’ll ask.

At this point, just dive into the pool.

“Joe, you have an unpleasant body odor. Now sometimes it can be a medical condition, which is why I’m talking to you about it.” It’s not necessary to go into the discomfort it causes everyone else. It’s obvious, otherwise he wouldn’t be meeting with you. And to mention others at this point would make Joe more uncomfortable.

With the news “out there,” it can’t be taken back. The only thing you CAN do, though, is maintain a level of dignity for “Joe” by assuring him that the discussion is just between the two of you.

I once had to address a colleague with this problem, and it went really well. She was so appreciative that she thanked me. She was born with severe deformities and told me that her sense of smell was not fully developed so she didn’t know that she smelled badly.

My point is that we really don’t know what others smell.Our sense of smell is like any other sense; it differs from person to person, so it just may be that your colleague isn’t aware of the problem, as unbelievable as it might seem.

3. Solution to the problem. – It’s important to note that some unpleasant odors are due to medical conditions. For instance, some causes of halitosis (chronic bad breath), can be due to medical problems. As can be the case with foot odor and other unpleasant body odors. The important thing is to give a listening ear to your colleague and help him find practical solutions to solving the problem. This might include something as serious as his seeking medical attention or something as menial as him buying stronger soaps and deodorants.

In the case of my colleague, her problem was foot odor, which often occurs when when you don’t wear socks. Our solution: she’d bring in her socks and I’d put them on her feet. Case solved.

Because of the sensitivity of the matter, your colleague might need encouragement and added support in terms of a follow-up discussion and an actual show of concern. It’s an investment worth your efforts. In time, Joe will know you’re a “good egg” and will want to go the extra mile to work harder for you.

And couldn’t you use a good man like that?

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