Dear Crucial Skills,
I work in a cubicle environment and sit next to a man who has a personal hygiene problem that is very hard to ignore.
He’s a peer of mine—should I address this issue? And if so, how do I do it appropriately? He’s infamous in the office—everyone knows it seems, except him!
Suffering in Silence
Often, when I conduct training across the country, someone brings up the “personal hygiene” question. Nobody wants to say anything to those concerned, and yet everyone suffers. People typically feel uncertain about bringing up issues with this topic for two obvious reasons. One, it’s not as if hygiene is an insurmountable issue—more of a convenience issue. Two, the other person just might be hurt, humiliated, or offended. We look at the balance between cost and benefit and often choose to continue to suffer.
In fact, the fear of humiliating the other person can be so great that some people absolutely refuse to broach the topic. My first job as a Coast Guard officer some thirty-four years ago put this problem in perspective when the head accountant who reported to me asked me to talk to her direct report (they also shared a small space) who had offensive body odor. I suggested that, one, she had the problem, two, she was the boss, and three, it was her job to talk directly to the person. She then told me that she would retire early rather than say a word. And she wasn’t kidding.
So I held the conversation. In retrospect, I just remember it was hard and that I didn’t do very well. The person cried and I felt bad.
So, let me share a couple of things I’ve learned since then about what to do and what not to do when discussing what could be a humiliating topic.
First and foremost, you want to keep the scope of this problem small and the tone breezy and relaxed. Don’t even think about mentioning that everyone knows about the problem but him. This is an important data point for why you should say something (and you should)—but it would be far too insulting to actually say aloud.
Second, be very careful in your use of terms. While there is no word that doesn’t carry with it a bit of a stigma, words like “Stink” or “offend,” certainly don’t work. Similarly, don’t go for political or cute language such as “hygiene impaired.” This isn’t a laughing matter.
Third, I would start the conversation by both Contrasting and sharing your good intentions. “I wonder if I could talk about something that would help me out at work a bit. It’s not a huge deal, but it’s worth mentioning.”
Fourth, I would limit the scope of the problem. Once again, don’t say it’s been going on forever or it’s causing you huge grief or that everyone else has talked over this issue. Don’t unnecessarily add to the pain this conversation could cause. Since it’s the first time you’ve brought it up, treat it as something that has only recently become an issue. Keep the discussion private—during and after your conversation. This will help the other person feel safe remedying the problem. If it’s feasible, try to give the other person an out or excuse. For example, “Recently I get the feeling that maybe you’ve been exercising before work or something. (Smile) In any case, we work so close together that I’m wondering if we can talk about a change that’s affecting our working environment.”
At this point, you’ve delicately placed the problem in the open and the quicker you finish the discussion the better. Accept any excuse they might come up with—bogus or otherwise. This is all about helping the other person save face. Once again, keep the tone easy and relaxed.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember as you approach such a highly sensitive topic is that you care about the other person and want to help him both address the issue and not feel humiliated in the process. Keeping this in mind will go a long way toward setting the tone and helping an awkward discussion go quickly and smoothly.
Best of luck,
The three “questions and answers” concerning body odor/hygiene by Joseph Grenny, Al Switzler, and Kerry Patterson were very insightful. I wish I had read them about 6 years ago when we had a male co-worker with this problem. I wanted to have a compassionate conversation with him, but feared hurting him. I believe this problem was never addressed before he left for a job elsewhere. After reading your answers I know I would feel much more confident talking with a co-worker or friend with a similar problem. Thank you for your kind, compassionate responses to help resolve such issues.