How to Tell Your Colleague About a Body Odor Issue

July 18, 2021

One of the most challenging conversations involves informing a coworker that his body odor is affecting the entire department. I, along with several of my coworkers, have been enduring this issue, but someone has to address it, even though it's an uncomfortable subject. So, how should you approach it? I advocate a mix of initiating and supportive communication methods.

2021 07 18

This situation began a few months ago when our company hired a new employee named K.K. After an online interview, K.K. seemed to be a friendly individual who always wore a smile. He came across as personable and had a range of engaging hobbies, such as basketball.

However, upon our first in-person meeting, I noticed that something was amiss. K.K.'s scent was unpleasant, to say the least. I had organized a welcome meal for him so that everyone in the department could get acquainted. As soon as he arrived, a foul, fish-like odor became evident. Initially, I attributed it to the air conditioning and we proceeded with our team lunch.

As time passed, the smell seemed to intensify. My colleague Cherry, who was seated next to me, texted me discreetly via WhatsApp, asking, "Hey Victor, do you smell that too?" I read her message, glanced back at her, and we both chuckled.

Then K.K. joined our table and asked, "What's so funny? Can you share the joke with me?" Cherry replied, "No, it's nothing," effectively killing the conversation. Others began to laugh as well, further isolating K.K., who appeared puzzled. "Can someone share the humor with me?" he queried. His question elicited more laughter. At that moment, I knew I had to act.

So what would you do in this scenario? There are four types of communication styles: direct, initiating, supportive, and analytical. Let's say you prefer straightforward communication. You might directly tell K.K., "Hey, you have a noticeable body odor. Could you shower more often?" While this approach may be efficient and effective, it could also offend K.K.

I prefer to avoid confrontation. I'm concerned about the repercussions for K.K. He might misinterpret our laughter and think we're making fun of him. Worst-case scenario, this could lead to a complaint to Human Resources. Using an analytical communication style might not offend K.K., but he could miss the point entirely. In that case, the problem remains unresolved.

Instead, I opt for a proactive and supportive approach. First, I schedule a convenient time for a one-on-one conversation with K.K. The goal is to create a comfortable space for open dialogue.

Second, regardless of your communication style, it's crucial to frame the conversation with sincerity. I need to be clear, saying, "K.K., I'm bringing this up to find a solution, not to criticize you." My intention is to help him out of genuine concern.

Third, I politely outline the issue and ask for his perspective. "K.K., are you aware of this? Is there a medical reason for the body odor? Is there anything we can do to help you improve your hygiene?" This allows him to express his concerns and make his own choices.

This method proved effective. K.K. was not offended and even thanked me a few days later, mentioning that he had consulted a doctor. My coworkers were relieved, and the issue of the offensive odor was resolved. I successfully navigated the conversation using both leading and supportive communication styles.

Life demands flexibility and the use of different styles of communication for various situations. We cannot force change upon someone; it's all in how we communicate. By choosing the right tone, I was able to assist K.K. and make a positive impact on the situation.

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Victor Leung, who blog about business, technology and personal development. Happy to connect on LinkedIn