Reader 1: Our administrative staffer takes breaks to smoke and is a heavy coffee drinker. The combination of these odors, plus some kind of sickly sweet odor (body odor or something she uses to try to cover up the smoke smell), is pungent to the point of nauseating.
We don't have an HR department. As her manager, I feel like I have a right to say something about the smell of smoke, but it's actually the unfortunate combination of all three smells that is worst. I don't know if it's proper to confront her about the odors. What do you recommend?
Reader 2: I own a small business with a handful of professionals and no HR department. We work closely with our clients, often meeting face-to-face around a table in a small conference room.
We have one team member whose breath literally smells rotten. This person seems to have nasal issues and often mouth-breathes. In meetings, I have to lean away to avoid the smell. I'm almost certain clients can detect the odor. How do I get this worker to "freshen up" without offending or causing hurt feelings?
Karla: Dealing with olfactory offenders is an overwhelmingly common chore for most HR professionals, especially as office spaces continue to shrink. But when no HR professional is available, as above, the duty falls to the worker’s manager.
The bad news is, there’s no guaranteed way to bring up personal odors without causing embarrassment. The good news is, most people would rather be a little embarrassed in private than be ghosted by clients and colleagues. A smart manager will address the problem before it generates office-wide comments or shunning.
Set up a private meeting with the individual, and be matter-of-fact and nonjudgmental: “This is a difficult thing to say, and I don’t want to embarrass you. But it’s something I would want to know if I were in your position, and I wouldn’t want it to affect your relationship with co-workers and clients. I’ve noticed your breath/clothing/workspace frequently has an unpleasant smell that is distracting and makes it difficult to work closely with you. Please address this issue.”
For some workers, addressing the issue simply means being more attentive to personal hygiene — flossing and brushing teeth regularly, showering daily or gargling and washing hands after returning from a smoke break. For others, body or breath odors may be due to a less easily managed digestive, dental or other medical condition. “I might ask the employee if there’s anything (s)he needs that could help,” Amy Epstein Gluck, employment partner at FisherBroyles, said in an email. “If the odor … comes down to a medical issue, that could trigger an [Americans With Disabilities Act] obligation to figure out a reasonable accommodation with the employee.”
Again, it’s normal to worry about hurting or offending employees by having these discussions. But if you handle it with discretion and diplomacy, you are actually doing them and their colleagues a kindness. More to the point, you’re doing your job as a manager.
PRO TIP: Small companies that can’t afford to fill a full-time HR position should consider contracting with a freelance HR professional who can swoop in for ad hoc incident management and targeted guidance.