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What to do when a colleague smells

The Life: The Workplace Doctor explains what to do if someone in your office smells. It is not a laughing matter, she says, and the culprit must be treated with respect.

A new manager recently joined the company. He is a great worker and a lovely man, yet he has extremely bad body odour and visible yellow sweat patches under the arms. There have been complaints from the staff he works with as the smell is completely overpowering. As I am his direct line manager, it is up to me to tackle this rather delicate issue, but I don't know what to say or how to approach the matter. What do you suggest? JB, Sharjah


JB, when I found myself in your shoes some years back with a senior team member, all the advice I received was, "It sure is a difficult one". Well, yes it was, but not impossible. I did swoop on this situation within the first week though - not sure how long you have waited? Here's how I approached it:

Firstly, I needed to get beyond my own fears of rejection and hurt, and when I brought myself face to face with the facts, it was a very simple and out-of-balance equation. There were many who were suffering thanks to the actions of one, while conversely the one, the source, was not suffering at all. I never could work out how his own olfactory senses seemed to be unable to detect what the rest of us could.

Secondly, I considered the consequences of this imbalance. The situation was not fair to the majority of my people and it was fast becoming a talking point and distraction in the workplace. Additionally, the team produce my results and with results being affected, it became a no-brainer for me. My team's energy was pouring into delay tactics, seating changes and unnecessary arrangements to help them survive and I realised it was time for action fairly quickly. I also knew that by not acting, the team considered me to be part of the problem. Most of us had worked together for some time and we looked out for one another.

It was as if we had an intruder silently, yet overtly, attempting to change our rules rather than a new senior member joining the team. I called him in and opened up a general conversation, which then veered into areas to improve and align to "our way", of which personal presentation headed the list along with the associated body-odour reality.

To get around the fear of insult, I brought out the facts gently yet assertively, remembering that I had no right to insult, blame or shame the person but rather should help him to cope with the offending actions. To my surprise I learnt:

• He was aware that "something" was not right, but couldn't detect what.

• He was unaware that there is a difference between aftershave or "perfume" and deodorant.

JB, I felt relieved that my frankness paid off. In this case I discovered a great opportunity to help and educate someone in need, and was able to have a positive effect on his personal life too. He was keen to be part of the team and saw great benefit from removing this barrier to all relationships. He also indicated that he now understood a message his wife had been communicating for some time.

I've always been known for "saying it as it is" - tough love, perhaps? I'm not sure where this trait comes from; probably my practical nature. These days with increased wisdom I do combine "tough love" with questions, though, allowing more involvement of the other person.

As I look back on the years that have passed, I feel a sense of pride in the mutual respect this particular team member and I have today. He is one of my greatest team leaders and success stories. By gently facing the delicate situation head-on, I certainly attained returns for my efforts.


The doctor's prescription

All situations deserve direct and open communication.


Debbie Nicol, the managing director of Dubai-based 'business en motion', is a consultant on leadership and organisational development, strategic change and corporate culture. Email her at debbie.nicol@businessenmotion.com for the Workplace Doctor's advice on your challenges, whether as an employee, a manager or a colleague.

Updated: May 8, 2013 04:00 AM



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