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Body odor in the workplace — be honest, yet sensitve

Nonprofit experts Gary G. Godsey, executive director of the Association of Texas Professional Educators, and Kathryn Engelhardt-Cronk, MissionBox co-founder and CEO, have teamed up to create MissionBox DoubleTake — a column that offers opinions about the peskier aspects of working in the nonprofit sector. The opinions offered here are based on the authors' personal nonprofit experience and may not reflect the opinions of MissionBox, Inc. These opinions should not be considered legal advice or used as a substitute for professional legal consultation. MissionBox readers are invited to submit alternative responses, which may be published here as well.

I have a weird question regarding my co-worker’s hygiene, or rather his total lack of hygiene. I don’t think this guy ever takes a bath! He smells so badly, I have to fight gagging when he gets too close.

We share a cubicle, so I end up spending a lot of time doing my daily work in the employee kitchen, which is noisy. I know many other employees have the same reaction to the odors emanating from his workspace. I have no idea how to address this problem. I don’t want to be mean or make an enemy, but it is unbearable.

What can I do? I know we don’t have an employee policy called: Take a Bath. So, how do I proceed?

Gary says ...

Talk to your immediate supervisor and tell them about this issue. Clearly, you have a right to a workspace that is free of unusual or unpleasant odors. In fact, that is why most places that have a cubicle or open space environment require their employees to eat in a kitchen or break room. Not everyone enjoys smelling your big ol' bean burrito or your re-warmed shrimp scampi, and the same principle holds true for unusual body odors.

Rules like this are put in place to protect all employees and I am sure that your supervisors will take the appropriate steps to address the situation. If not, ask to be moved to another location in the office. Human Resources have probably dealt with similar situations like this in the past and should be involved if your director or supervisor doesn’t bring this to a successful conclusion for you.

Kathryn says ...

First, I’d say go to your boss and talk about this issue and how it is interfering with your work. Ask to be moved immediately. You have a right to a safe and stress free workplace and this is obviously making problems in that area.

When you speak to your executive director, make sure you provide details (for the good of your co-worker, not to be unkind). Is this a relatively new problem or a situation that has gradually become bad enough to prompt action? Does he seem like he is in distress in other ways (withdrawn, non-communicative, tense, angry, etc.) or is he a seemingly “normal” co-worker with dismal self-care habits? This is all subjective, but may provide your E.D. with a better understanding of the overall situation.

I think it is your E.D.’s role to speak with this gentleman. Extremely poor hygiene can be a symptom of serious depression or other mental illnesses, as well as chemical abuse or a debilitating physical illness. He could also be under extreme financial stress and perhaps lives in his car or on the street, where it is difficult to access bathing and laundry facilities.

This is a sticky situation from an HR point of view. Your E.D. will likely consult current employee policies, which may require a basic level of cleanliness as part of a dress code. He or she should also consult an attorney or HR specialist for advice on applicable HR guidelines or laws. Even the smelliest employee has rights and those rights must be respected. Again, hand this off to your E.D—there may be more going on here than meets your eye (and nose!).

Enjoy your new cubicle!

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