'Smelly' co-workers give their side of story

  • Managers and HR: If you receive a smell complaint, get the story from all sides, including your own nose. If the complaint is legitimate, handle it with compassion.

    Managers and HR: If you receive a smell complaint, get the story from all sides, including your own nose. If the complaint is legitimate, handle it with compassion. Getty Images

 
 
Posted7/21/2019 6:00 AM

In last week's column about dealing with a co-worker's personal odor, I asked for comments from readers who have been on the receiving end of such complaints.

Reader 1: "I was a temp at a facility with open desks. My manager called me in; my neighbor, who spent a lot of time chatting in my space, had complained about foot odor. The company required socks or pantyhose, which made my feet sweat and itch, so I routinely took my shoes off. I could smell my shoes, but I had no idea the odor was far-reaching. I explained this issue to the manager and said my doctor had recommended open shoes without socks. The manager's response: 'Fine, wear open-toe shoes with no socks. Problem solved.' "

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Reader 2: "I was in a public-sector job. We had recently moved into new offices that were kept at about 85 degrees in the winter. The office manager called me in and said it had been brought to her attention that I had body odor. I was mortified. I told my husband, and he said yes, I smelled sweaty at times. I had been dripping sweat but was unaware of the smell. I have multiple sclerosis, and the heat aggravated my symptoms, but I had wanted to 'work through it.'

"Ultimately, I was grateful to be told. I addressed it by changing my shower routine and wearing summer clothes under a winter coat. Also, the building engineer checked out the ventilation and discovered someone had closed a damper in the system.

"I used to suffer in silence, but this incident changed my mindset. I am now more assertive about my office environs."

Reader 3: "As a 20-something woman, I was called in by HR and informed that my work neighbor, on the other side of a six-foot-high cubicle wall, had complained that he could smell the lotion I sometimes put on my hands, and he thought I was sexually harassing him by doing so. This was an older man from a different team whom I did not work directly with and almost never spoke to."

From an enforcer's perspective:

Reader 4: "About 10 years ago I was the supervisor of a middle-aged, disabled woman. Her younger co-workers convinced our supervisor that this woman smelled bad and needed to go.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"I met with her and shared the complaints. The employee demanded I smell her clothes. I smelled nothing unpleasant. She saw a doctor that day. The doctor and entire nursing staff smelled her clothing and body and wrote me a letter stating that they smelled nothing untoward.

"My boss, a self-proclaimed 'super sniffer,' admitted he had never smelled anything around this co-worker. Still, he told me to terminate her. I refused and had her moved to a private office. My employee suffered despite keeping her job. She was scrubbing herself so hard that she caused rashes and bleeding. She needed counseling to handle her resulting paranoia.

"It is my opinion that I was dealing with a conflict involving ageism or disability discrimination against an employee who did not 'fit in.' "

Some take-aways:

-- Managers and HR: If you receive a smell complaint, get the story from all sides, including your own nose. If the complaint is legitimate, handle it with compassion.

-- Employees: When in doubt, ask someone close to you for a sniff test. If a medical or environmental factor is to blame, speak up. And maybe avoid synthetic fabrics.

-- Friends, family, significant others: If you smell something, say something.

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