Navigating Complex Workplace Situations; Or: My Coworker Smells Bad—How Do I Tell Him?

We’ve all been there. Maybe someone in your cubicle row breathes loudly. Or someone on the assembly line just won’t stop talking. And then there’s the case of the coworker that smells … less than good.

These are all real problems, but you’re working with this person every day. How can you politely let them know that their behavior is negatively affecting your performance?

Honestly, it’s really a three-step process.

  1. Calm Down and Think Rationally

It’s easy for issues like these to fester and become bigger in your mind than they actually are. After behavior like this goes on for months on end, it can seem like they’re personally targeting you.

But in all honesty, they probably have no idea they’re doing whatever it is that annoys you so much. People aren’t going to have a reason to change their behavior if they don’t know it’s causing problems for other people.

Also, take time to consider the facts. Is this something that the person is even capable of changing?

Human behavior is complex. Most people aren’t setting out to bother the rest of the workplace every day. Perhaps they keep talking because they’re nervous and want to impress you. Maybe they just breathe oddly because that’s how they’re built.

  1. Don’t Speak to Them Directly

But don’t gossip about them either. Take their manager aside and talk to them about the issue. Don’t be accusatory. Let them know that it’s totally possible there is a cultural or behavioral reason for the offending behavior. You don’t want the coworker to feel called out for something they didn’t know was wrong! Put yourself in their shoes. Of course this tactic helps you as well; you don’t want to look like your complaining about what looks like a relatively small problem.

  1. Observe and Adjust

Okay, you’ve done all that you can do. You’ve let their manager know. If the behavior continues, consider changing your own behavior to block it out. If they talk to much, let them know when you have to work and put headphones on. If they emit an offensive odor, grab a scented oil dispenser or some scented spray. Though it may be annoying to change in a bid to adapt to someone else’s behavior, it’s far better than telling them they stink and dealing with the ensuing awkwardness for years.

Have you ever had to deal with an awkward work situation? How did you handle it? Let us know in the comments section below!

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