How do I tell a colleague he smells?

Dear Counsellor,

My colleague really smells bad. I don’t mean sweaty like after a gym session, I’m talking so bad you can almost taste it. I suspect he hasn’t washed properly in ages and he wears the same clothes every day. When I mentioned it to my manager she said there was nothing she could do. I’ve only had this job a few months and feel it shouldn’t fall to me to tackle him. I like my job and don’t want to leave, but how can I work with a person who smells so bad?

Rita
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Dear Rita,

At the workplace, trying to effectively deal with someone with poor hygiene is always a tough issue to tackle. Body odour can be unpleasant, and the most evident reasons that come to mind are that the person in question does not take a bath regularly or doesn’t change clothes often.

It’s a problem that can have a huge negative impact on the entire team or department at the workplace. Something needs to be done on how to ‘confront’ your colleague respectfully, while helping him maintain a good degree of dignity.

Although your employer has a legal responsibility to ensure a pleasant working environment for employees, a caring employee, like you, has a moral responsibility to help this colleague out of this problem if you truly care about his wellbeing and that of your work environment.  One thing you have to know is that when someone at work smells bad, they usually have no idea about it and they’re likely not to know how to go about the problem. Approach your colleague at an appropriate time and in a suitable environment, and bring forward the issue with respect in order to avoid embarrassment and defensiveness.

Start by praising him for being a cooperative colleague and then later bring up the topic. Suggest possible causes and solutions by saying, “Perhaps you just need to wash your clothes more often or maybe you could try showering more frequently.” Be sure to first create a comfortable setting and explain the issue respectfully. This will soften the blow and let your colleague know that you are not trying to be malicious but want to help him out of respect.

If, after telling him about this problem, he doesn’t take reasonable and appropriate steps to freshen up; report the issue to your employer. In Rwanda, the section of the labour law governing employment, Article 47, states that “an employer has an obligation to make sure the work is done in suitable conditions, as far as security, health and dignity of the worker are concerned”. Your employer should apply all the necessary pressure to ensure that your colleague comes to work smelling fresh. Your boss will use the company policies to remind him that stinky workers reflect badly on the business and that failure to do something about his foul odour could kill the relationship with co-workers and the work environment at large and this won’t be tolerated. I wish you a happy stay at work. 

Your feedback

Find out what the problem is

Find out if the smell is ‘natural’ or not, if it can be changed, talk to him in a polite way so that he doesn’t take it personal. You can also help him look out for a good deodorant.

Erica Mbabazi, Kigali resident
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Talk to him about it

Suggest having dinner or lunch with him as this will help you out. It will prevent the embarrassment most likely to occur if you do it in the presence of other people.

Juliet Ineza, Businesswoman
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Seek help from colleagues

If the person is untidy by choice, I suggest you raise your concerns whenever you have staff meetings. This way, you can all come up with solutions.

Simon Mugisha, Parent
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He needs to know the problem

Explain to him how uncomfortable you are sitting next to him; however, do this in a polite way. Also, seek for help from your colleagues.

Enoch Kwizera, Mechanic
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