Scents and sensibilities
Even though HR is offsite, that’s where you should start. Good HR professionals know how to be diplomatic and discreet while remaining mindful of legal boundaries — and they’ve probably encountered this issue before. Amy Maingault, director of the Knowledge Center at the Society for Human Resource Management, recommends you acknowledge upfront that your issue is awkward and may seem petty, but that it’s affecting morale and performance. Then state the problem simply: Your supervisor has a strong body odor that makes you want to avoid faceto face interactions. You have observed similar reactions among your coworkers. Ask someone from HR to visit the office to verify your complaint and to discuss the issue directly and confidentially with your supervisor.
If that’s not possible, HR should contact your supervisor’s boss — who surely has noticed the smell — to report the problem and to advise on how to address it appropriately.
Maingault says whoever ends up initiating this unpleasant conversation should “be frank, gentle and make guidance available” — and should speak from firsthand observation, not hurtful hearsay: “I have observed that you have a strong body odor. To maintain the highest level of professionalism, it is important that you address this right away.” Then that person should ask whether the supervisor can resolve the problem alone or needs some suggestions on where to start. That gives the supervisor an opportunity to bring up any medical conditions. Incidentally, this talk will probably go over better with someone who is the same gender as the supervisor.
In the interim, when you can’t distance yourself through email, phone or telecommuting, try a dab of Vicks VapoRub or essential oils under your nostrils, or a strong menthol lozenge. With luck, the air will clear before you have to permanently distance yourself.
Karla Miller dispenses advice on workplace dramas and traumas for the Washington Post Magazine’s @Work Advice column. She tackles questions on obnoxious office mates, bullying bosses, and getting by in the current job market. You can read her columns at washingtonpost.com/workadvice and follow her on Twitter: @KarlaAtWork.