Difficult Conversations about B.O.

Shawnee Love   •   November 1, 2019

We kicked off our series on Difficult Conversations by addressing the topic of Inappropriate Clothing.  This week, we tackle the dreaded topic of B.O.

Body Odour

While it can be awkward at the best of times to tell someone their breath stinks, it is a far thornier issue when the whole person is just smelly.

A) People take it personally when told they smell.  It is a pretty personal thing after all, and if they haven’t already noticed their odour (because who goes out thinking I want to stink today?) it can be quite a shock to learn your perception of yourself is wrong.

B) Body odours can occur for many highly sensitive reasons outside of our control, such as:

  • Health challenges (i.e., due to illness, disease or condition),
  • Culture (i.e., different cultures have different styles of personal hygiene as well as different foods which impact their scent), and
  • Age (I may get in trouble for this observation, but it seems to me that the strongest abusers of perfumes and least aware of underarm and body odour tend to be teens/ young adults.  Additionally, and regrettably, the very mature seem to be a bit more odiferous as well).

C) Stink often isn’t a quick fix. I mean it can be a simple matter of brushing your teeth or putting on deodorant, but more often than not, real B.O. permeates clothes, skin and hair and is thus all around the person and not easy to get rid of.  E.g., the smell of smokers or people after a hard workout.  Even a change of clothes, tooth brushing or application of deodorant might not be enough to remove or even mask the scent.

All these factors make the conversation about B.O. extremely difficult, but what’s more is the fact that scent is somewhat in the eye of the beholder.  I.e., Garlic oozing out of your pores might be normal in some circles, yet feel stifling to the people in your cubicle farm.

When you are tasked with speaking to someone about their offensive smelliness, the things to do are:

  • Without gossiping about the individual, ensure you aren’t the only one who has a problem with the smell.  Because then it might be your issue and not theirs.
  • Only accept the responsibility to have the conversation if you have the relationship currency to leverage.  I.e., if you don’t have a good relationship with the person, you are better off investing your energy into building a good rapport before you embark upon this topic.
  • Assuming you do have a good relationship with the person (i.e., they trust your good intentions), approach the conversation with the sincere desire to help and care and compassion for the individual.
  • Choose your timing and location well so that both of you are in a good space (physically and mentally) to speak.
  • One option is to consider the motivations of the individual and lead into the discussion aligned with the relevant motivations.  E.g., would the person want to know how to improve, or how to be invited to more activities, or get promoted, or a raise, etc. If one or more of those would connect with the individual, you could start by asking if the person would be interested in learning something that would enhance their chances of achieving their desire. If the answer is yes, proceed.  If the answer is no, respect their wishes and say nothing until you can figure out what would cause the person to want to know how to correct this issue.
  • If you absolutely have to address the issue regardless of whether the person wants to hear it or not, start with why addressing this issue is important to the organization and the individual. Then gently explain the problem and ask if the individual is aware of it. Give the individual a chance to explain.
  • Don’t belabor the topic. If the person is mortified and just wants to leave, let them. If the issue is corrected, success.  If not, circle back next time you both are in a good “space” and see if you can continue from where you left off.

As always, it helps to prepare your speaking points and say them out loud a time or two before you meet with your stinky employee to ensure you word choices are clear, compassionate and yet firm as well.

We are here if you get stuck!