July 17, 2017 1:20 pm

How to tell your coworker they smell bad (in a nice way)

An etiquette expert provides tips on how to talk to coworkers about body odour.

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Of all the challenging workplace conversations to be had, telling a coworker they smell bad is the most awkward, etiquette expert Julie Blais Comeau says.

Blais Comeau, who owns etiquettejulie.com and is the author of Etiquette: Confidence & Credibility, explains body odour in the workplace can often have serious consequences. People affected by the smell can have difficulty concentrating and develop headaches or allergies.

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But before having the conversation, there are a few considerations to make, the expert says, including considering alternative options.

Here are a few steps to follow:

Review workplace policies

Telling someone they have body odour is uncomfortable, so consider sending the message in other, less direct, ways first.

One way of going about this is reviewing workplace policies on scent, and sending out a reminder memo, Blais Comeau suggests. For example, if someone is wearing too much perfume, email a general memo reminding all staff of a scent-free policy.

Even if you don’t find an applicable policy, it’s good to double-check what the rules are before having the conversation.

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Think about the repercussions

It’s important to consider how the person will react to hearing they have body odour. They could they take it as discrimination or intimidation.

Sometimes, that can be the case, Blais Comeau says, explaining that the coworker may think it has to do with their culture or food. Someone could also think it has to do with their level or performance in the company.

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“How could it impact the other person?” Blais Comeau asks.

In more sensitive situations, the etiquette expert says to consult a superior first.

Have a one-on-one conversation

Conversations about body odour should be private, Blais Comeau advises.

“If it’s somebody you’re on good terms with, have the conversation,” she says, adding that a superior doesn’t need to be involved.

Other methods, such as an anonymous note left on a desk, may make the person feel attacked or isolated, she adds. They may also have a larger issue — money troubles or no laundry machine — that they need to talk about.

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What to say

Once you’ve decided to have the conversation, sending the message in the most empathetic way is the main concern.

Blais Comeau says a good way to begin is to say, “What I have to say is difficult, but if it was me I would like know.”

She suggests using the term “unusual odour” is more appropriate than “smell” or “stink.”

After you’ve broken the news, it’s good to apologize in case you’ve offended them, and then promptly offer any help.

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