5 ways to tell a colleague they smell bad (with examples)

Oct 21st, 2019 Tisho Iliev
A statue of a man smelling something bad
A statue of a man smelling something bad (photo by Graham Hellewell, CC BY)

Telling a coworker they stink is thought to be one of the hardest conversations you might need to have in your office. There could be a lot of reasons for the unpleasant smell. And there certainly are many ways to handle the issue and help your colleague resolve it.

Generally, you wouldn't know whether your coworker knows about their unusual smell or not. So, you should be extremely delicate. The second thing you don't know is whether there is a medical reason for the smell.

What follows are my 5 ways of letting your smelly coworker know they stink. In each case I will give you an example of how you could say or write it. So, let's begin!

1. Send an email to the colleagues in your area

Colleagues working in an office
Colleagues working in an office (photo by Carbon Tippy Toes, CC BY)

This could work if your team or the people around you have email accounts provided by your company. You could send them a message similar to this:

Dear colleagues,

Recently, I've noticed there is an unusual body odor in our area. It's a little bit distracting and unpleasant. I think you'll all agree we should maintain an acceptable level of hygiene in the office.

Could you please take some action and resolve the issue?

If you need any advice on the matter, please let me know, I will discreetly give you some tips.

Warm Regards,
Tisho.

If you work in a larger area, send this message to 4 or 5 people which are located near you.

This mail is very direct but it's not personal, so it's alright. You realize, of course, you will send it to a lot of people which are not responsible for the smell. Don't worry, they won't be mad, quite the opposite - they'll be thankful.

Mailing the people around you will only work if this person knows about their body odor. If nothing changes after this email, it's time for being more direct.

2. Send your colleague an email or write them a note

Sending an email
Sending an email (photo by Web Hosting)

Another way of telling your colleague they smell bad is to write them an email. If your company does not provide email accounts for communication, you can do it the old-fashioned way - write them a note. Here is how I would write such a message:

Hi Bob,

I have to tell you about something which has been bothering me for a while.

Recently, I've noticed there is an unusual body odor which appears to be coming from you. I'm not sure whether you are aware of this.

If this issue is not related to some medical condition, is there anything I could help you with to resolve it?

I hope sharing this with you won't hurt our working relationship. I really like you and will love to continue working with you the same way as we always did.

Let me know if you need some tips regarding this matter.

Warm Regards,
Tisho.

Sending such a message has a great risk of ruining the friendship with your smelly coworker. But you have to remember, this is for their own good, too. Imagine how much their body odor holds them back in work and life. They'll be grateful and will thank you at some point in the future.

3. Persuade your coworker's best buddy to talk to them

Jordan Belfort
Jordan Belfort (photo by Jordan Belfort / Facebook)

Even if you are not as good at persuasion as Jordan Belfort, you can still try to persuade your colleague's best buddy at work to have the difficult conversation about the bad smell instead of you. This tactic could be used when your smelly colleague is of the opposite sex or you are not so close to them. One sunny day you can go to your colleague's friend and tell them something along these lines:

Hi, Kate, can I talk privately with you for a minute? … (you go somewhere safe to talk)... I'd like to ask you a favor. You know our colleague Emma? … (she'll confirm, of course)... This is kind of an awkward thing to ask but… Lately, I noticed an unusual body odor coming from Emma. I am clueless how to tell her, because I'm not so close to her and I'm afraid I might hurt her feelings. I love working with her and prefer to continue doing so in the same manner. It seems to me like you are her best buddy at work. Could you talk to her about this issue?

You won't lose anything going this route. So, if you feel insecure about telling your colleague they smell bad, persuade someone closer to them to have this conversation instead of you.

Additionally, you could clarify with your colleague's friend whether you want them to mention your name or not.

4. Talk to your colleague face-to-face

Two women talking privately
Two women talking privately (photo by Christina Morillo)

Talking directly to your coworker is the hardest way of resolving the stinking issue. But it is also the most effective way of doing so. If you have the communication skills and you really want to cope with this issue, it's time to talk to your colleague face-to-face.

Just remember, you should be delicate - you don't know whether they know about the stink or they have a medical condition resulting in a bad smell.

Make sure you have this conversation in private. It might go like this:

Hello Karen, I have to talk to you about an issue which has been bothering me for a while. Working with you has always been a pleasant experience for me and I decided I should be honest with you… Recently, I noticed an unusual body odor which appears to be coming from you. Are you aware of this?

This is a critical point in the conversation and could go either way. Whatever happens, Karen will be extremely embarrassed. You don't need to explicitly ask her whether she could resolve the issue, at this point it would be pretty clear. After she tells you whether she knows about the BO coming from her or not, you should let her know she can count on you for tips.

Karen, if you need any help with the matter, I'm always on the line for you. I hope I didn't hurt your feelings. I'm sure if you were in my place, you would have let me know about this, too.

Tell her that you value her and you are honest with her because of it. Yes, you might ruin this working relationship, but you did the right thing. After all, you are really doing her a favor by telling her.

Benjamin Franklin
Honesty is the best policy.
– Benjamin Franklin, politician (photo by National Portrait Gallery)

5. Talk to your HR team or supervisor

HR Manager listening to an employee
HR Manager listening to an employee (photo by Freepik)

One relatively easy way of resolving an issue with a smelly coworker is to talk to someone in your HR department. If you do not have such professionals in your organization, talk to your supervisor/manager/boss. Ask them to resolve the issue for you. Here's an example how you could do it:

Hello, Julie. This is a bit awkward but here it goes. Recently, I noticed Bob has an unusual body odor. It's distracting and unpleasant. I'm not sure how to tell him. I'm afraid it'll ruin our working relationship. Can you talk to him? Thank you.

Depending on the company you're in, they could either help you or advise you to talk to him.

Talking to your HR department could be the first thing to do if you don't want to be so direct with your colleague. Or, it could be your last, if you have already talked with your coworker, but they don't care and keep stinking.

What you should AVOID doing

Perfume
Perfume (photo by Tharosa1942, CC BY)

No matter what the reason for your colleagues' bad smell is, don't make them a perfume or an armpit roll-on gift. This is immature and stupid. There's no point in leaving clues and hoping your coworker gets it. Deal with the issue like an adult.

You shouldn't make fun of your coworker for being smelly. Some people have anosmia - a loss of the sense of smell, others have medical conditions.

Even if it's about bad breath, living with smelly pets or wearing dirty clothes, try to remain respectful.

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Tisho Iliev
Tisho Iliev
Tisho Iliev
An IT specialist with 8+ years of experience in developing software solutions. I have been working in multiple US - based corporations. How the working environment impacts the employees has always been fascinating to me. The working conditions, underestimated by many employers, contribute to the health and productivity of the employees and always affect the outcome of a project in a positive or negative way.
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