I Just Work Here: Handling the office stinker

When it comes to a smelly co-worker, there might be more to it than bad hygiene — and you might want to pass the buck

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Smelly co-workers

It's not always their fault, but no matter the cause, handling a co-worker who smells bad is difficult. (Getty Images / August 1, 2011)

Did anyone consider just painting the debt ceiling the same color as the walls? It really would make the whole room look bigger.

That's my contribution to the debate that has gripped our nation.

Now, let's get to your questions.

Q: An attorney at work really smells bad, and it makes me physically ill. I've never had this issue before. Please help!

— Teri in Michigan, via email

A: There's no good way to tell someone they smell bad or have bad breath or should not be wearing jean shorts. (I just tossed that last one in because, really, enough with the jean shorts.)

Perhaps the trickiest thing about smells is that they're subjective — one person's "ewww" might be another's normal.

To explore this, I contacted Jim Drobnick, whom I'll call a "smellologist," although he's actually editor of the book "The Smell Culture Reader" and an associate professor at the Ontario College of Art & Design.

"There's no one universally disliked smell," Drobnick said. "What smells bad in one culture may not be considered at all bad in another. Even the military has tried to conceive of a stench bomb that would universally disrupt people, but they couldn't find a single smell that worked in all cultures."

So when a co-worker has an odor that's outside the norm, colleagues need to address the situation with a heavy dose of cultural sensitivity.

"A bad smell may be part of cultural factors such as diet," Drobnick said. "When a cuisine contains a lot of coriander, that can cause changes in people's odors. It could also be due to medical conditions — different kinds of diseases can bring about different odors from the body."

Peter Gillespie, an attorney with Fisher & Phillips in Chicago and an expert on workplace discrimination, noted: "Somebody who's coming in to work who may have issues with body odor and cleanliness, the problem might be deeper than simply whether or not they took a shower that morning. It can often be a sign of depression or other psychological issues. It could be that what co-workers are smelling is the manifestation of some other medical issue."

In situations like that, particularly when an employee's physical appearance or overall cleanliness seems to have suddenly changed, Gillespie said a boss or manager might want to let the employee know about the Family and Medical Leave Act, which can allow a person to take a leave for medical reasons with no risk of job loss.

That might provide that person with a hint and a sense of support from the workplace.

But if a person's smell is unrelated to mental or physical health issues, employers must tread carefully and make sure the employee in question isn't being harassed.

"The employer, for example, does have an obligation to reasonably accommodate someone's religious beliefs under federal law," Gillespie said. "That may require that the employer tell employees that this is a diverse workplace and they shouldn't be complaining about or hassling the employee in question."

My advice if you're faced with a workplace olfactory dilemma of this nature: Stand up, take a deep breath (or don't) and then bravely pass the buck to your supervisor.

Seriously, no good is going to come from talking to a co-worker about how they smell, unless, perhaps, you're close friends. And even then, I'd leave it to the people paid to handle these kinds of delicate situations.

Q: I'm 53 years old. The long first career is dead. A new second career is possible. I'm retraining in a field where there could be some jobs available. But what if they don't want an entry-level person over 50? Many say our middle-age retraining stories are inspiring, but when it comes to getting hired, not so much.

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