Avoiding Making a Stink in the Office
16 July 2018 at 7:00 am
Psychologist Adam Blanch offers advice on how to address a colleague with an odour problem.
“Dear Adam, One of the members of my team has an odour problem. Some of the other team members have complained to me. How can I tell the member of staff involved without insulting them?” – Anon
Tricky. How to protect your own workspace from being a noxious experience for you and your team, but also not cause humiliation to another person.
The first thing is to become this person’s ally and to take the view that you are helping them, rather than insulting them. If I had this problem, I would hope that someone would tell me, kindly, but let me know so I could do something about it.
The second thing is to do it privately to limit their potential for embarrassment.
The third is to be direct but gentle – saying something like: “Hey, I’m sure you don’t realise this but sometimes you have an odour issue at work and I think you should know”. They will probably thank you, with a very red face.
The fourth thing is to not mention the other people. In this situation, embarrassment is unavoidable, but it can be limited by limiting the number of people who “know” (officially).
Fifthly, follow it up with a compliment or a statement of how much you value them. The fear of being excluded for “smelling bad” is a primal and powerful terror in our species, some psychologists even believe it is the biological source of our shame emotions, which is why toilet humour is so prevalent among young children at the developmental stage where they are acquiring shame-based socialisation (4 to 5 years old). Your colleague will need to be able to reassure their more primitive brain that this does not mean social exclusion.
Lastly (or maybe first), have some type of remedy on hand so that they can immediately address the problem. Saying something like “I have the same problem at times, which is why I keep this deodorant in my desk” and offer it to them (make it a spray, not a roll on, that’s icky).
A problem shared is a problem halved, and a shame shared is a healing balm indeed.
About the author: Adam Blanch is a Melbourne-based psychologist, who supports clients around Australia. He provides support for individuals and group trainings for organisations through Good-Psychology, and a specific service for men’s health and wellbeing through Mentor Psychology. He is also a member of The Xfactor Collective community.
Do you have a question for Adam? Adam Blanch writes for Pro Bono News every fortnight. He will be answering all your people and culture questions. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
Please note the views expressed are the opinion of Adam Blanch and do not necessarily reflect the views of Pro Bono Australia, its staff or contributors.