Employee Relations

Office Problems: How to Tell a Colleague They Smell

employees talking

Updated on: 9/6/2023

Today, I’d like to address a pretty sensitive office issue. It’s something that many people experience, but struggle to address – especially here in Britain, where our natural demeanour is reserved, apologetic, and non-confrontational. Yes, today’s article is all about ‘how to tell a colleague they smell’, and it’s a very tricky issue to tackle.

You see, even if a colleague’s body odour is bad enough to make your eyes water and consider calling in sick, none of us actually want to offend or upset – we simply want to work in comfort. If you’ve ever endured days, weeks or even months cooped up in a cubicle next to somebody who perhaps has a poor personal hygiene standards, then you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s a problem that can have a hugely negative impact on an entire team, department or even workforce, and so today, I’ll be looking at how to ‘confront’ your colleague respectfully, while helping them to maintain a good degree of dignity.

I’ll be referring mainly to an answer published by the Telegraph, written by Tom Preston, the founder of Thomas Preston & Associates (one of the UK’s leading executive coaching companies). You can read the full article here.

How NOT to Approach the Issue

So, the first part of Tom Preston’s response to the question “how do I tell a colleague they smell?”, is stuffed with bad examples of how to tackle the issue.

I wouldn’t normally focus on the bad parts, but I think that with this topic, it is important – after all, these ‘un-examples’ could cause unnecessary embarrassment and upset, despite seeming like the easiest ways to deal with the problem.

Do NOT Leave ‘Hints’.

You might assume to begin with, that the most respectful way to tell a colleague that they smell, is by leaving small ‘clues’ to prompt them into doing something about it. For example, you might decide to leave strategically placed cans of deodorant or body spray near to the person’s desk.

This is a bad idea. Partly because if it ever actually works, it could be hugely embarrassing for the person in question. But mainly because it is never going to work – the problem most often lies with a person not even realising they smell, and let’s be honest, if you assumed you smelled fresh, would you really pick up somebody else’s deodorant and start using it, just because it happened to be on your desk?

Tom Preston actually tells us a story about a young lady who had been subject to this treatment, and who spent a large chunk of her day innocently walking around the office asking if anybody was missing an armpit roll-on.

Do NOT ‘Be The Messenger’

One of the main fears when approaching a person about a sensitive issue such as this one, is that the person will think we are making a personal attack. As such, it is only natural to want to try and shift the responsibility and focus onto somebody else, by pretending we’re ‘passing a message from somebody else’.

This is, again, a very bad idea. Tom Preston tells us the story of a line manager who un-tactfully told an employee that the rest of the office had been complaining about their smell. Sure, the line manager has shifted the blame onto other people… but imagine the embarrassment of finding out that your entire workforce had been discussing your scent behind your back? It’s enough to make you quit your job – and in the story told by Tom Preston, the employee in question did indeed quit their job. They simply left and never returned, due to sheer shame and embarrassment.

How to Tell a Colleague they Smell in Five Simple Steps

If you can’t leave hints, and if it’s a bad idea to act as the messenger, then what can you do? Well unfortunately for you, there’s only one other option left – and it’s the answer you probably don’t want to hear: you need to swallow your fear and approach the issue head-on.

Luckily, there’s some good advice on how to do this tactfully, so as to minimise any embarrassment (to both you and your colleague), and in a way that will let you maintain your positive working relationship with your colleague.

Here’s the advice, taken from Tom Preston’s answer, and broken down into 5 simple steps:

1. Create a Comfortable Setting

This isn’t the kind of topic you should be discussing on the office floor in front of the rest of the team. The best way to prepare for your discussion, is to create a comfortable setting – for example, you might want to invite your colleague to the local café for lunch. Doing this reduces the risk of embarrassment that might arise if other colleagues are close by, and the friendly, casual setting also helps you to show your colleague that whatever you’re about to say is not a personal attack.

2. Assure Your Colleague You Like Them

Once you are both at the designated location, you’ll need to build a bit of rapport and create as relaxed an environment as possible. If you blurt everything out straight away, you risk offending your colleague – instead, you should start with a little bit of light chatter, and then slowly introduce the idea that you have something you would like to talk about. You should also tell them that the topic you’d like to discuss is very sensitive – perhaps even explaining that you were in two minds whether or not to even mention it – and explain that you’re telling them because you are their friend, and you have their own personal interests at heart.

3. Give Your Colleague a Choice

Once you have explained that you have a sensitive issue to discuss, and that you are telling them as a friend, you should finally explain that what you are about to say might cause offense, and therefore it is up to them if they wish to hear it or not. It is very unlikely that they will say no, yet giving them this choice is a very powerful way of handing a bit of control in their direction, while reminding them that this is not a personal attack.

4. Explain the Issue Respectfully

It’s time to take the plunge. Tom Preston advises that during your explanation, you should try to downplay the issue a little, to help them feel less embarrassed. For example, you might want to tell them that you’ve noticed, on one or two occasions during hot weather, that even though you’re sure they shower regularly, they give off body odour. Of course, it isn’t always body odour – some people might smell because they own a lot of animals and perhaps don’t realise the smell is sticking to their clothes; but this is just an example, and the important part is making sure you don’t embarrass them completely by telling them in no uncertain terms that they always stink!

5. Re-Confirm Your Relationship

Once you have finished what you have to say, it is important to remind your colleague that you are only telling them this because you are their friend, and that you’d rather they heard it from you, right now, in case anybody in the office noticed in the future (this helps them to worry less that it’s been an on-going problem that everybody is talking about). You can end your conversation by asking if they are offended, and asking if they think you did the right thing – this will help them to believe that you really do have their best interests at heart, and will remind them that your working relationship is not at risk.

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Rich Newsome
By Rich Newsome Digital Content Writer

Rich is a content writer at Access PeopleHR and has a wealth of experience within the tech space, including HR software. Passionate about providing website visitors with informative and easy-to-understand content, Rich is committed to helping SMBs find the best solutions for their needs. With a flair for writing, Rich's content engages and educates readers, guiding them towards informed decisions.

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