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The Smelly Coworker

Nurses Relations Article   posted

TheCommuter specializes in Case mgmt., rehab, (CRRN), LTC & psych.

Dealing with a coworker who has offensive body odor can lead to an unpleasant experience for colleagues, patients, visitors, and anyone else who comes into contact with the person. The purpose of this article is to provide suggestions on handling the smelly coworker.

The Smelly Coworker
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I'm sure that the majority of readers have had the unpleasant experience of working in close proximity to a coworker who smells terribly at least once during their careers. If you have never had a coworker who stinks to high heaven or at least smells somewhat strangely, consider yourself extremely fortunate.

Predictably, everyone on the unit or ward is acutely aware that the person smells. In fact, everybody talks about this person's raunchy smell when he or she is not within an earshot. If the smelly coworker provides direct care, the more alert patients might discreetly mention the problem to other staff when this person is not around. Strangely enough, the smelly coworker is always the only one who is not aware that he or she is emitting body odor that offends others. It's a sticky situation.

Too often, nobody directly approaches the coworker about his or her noticeable smell. Instead, an anonymous group of colleagues may pitch in with some cash to purchase some toiletries, personal care supplies, and a basket. The coworker feels embarrassment, humiliation, and a figurative kick in the face when he or she later discovers a basket with bars of soap, deodorant, toothpaste, shampoo, and a nameless note with a blunt message to use these personal care items because he or she stinks.

Also, some colleagues spend years without even taking the anonymous route of getting the message to the person. They simply have learned to adapt to the person's stench. Ignoring the problem is not fair to the smelly coworker or the people who must work in the same quarters with the person.

Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the smelly coworker's manager or supervisor to confront this person regarding the strong body odor. Yes, I most certainly said it. Lateral colleagues should not be forced to deal with the smell, nor should they bear the responsibility of approaching the coworker regarding his or her offensive odor.

The manager needs to have a private, straightforward talk with the coworker. This is not the time for any hedging or indirect clues. The manager or supervisor should keep the conversation short and get to the point while employing a sympathetic, cool tone. "We're here to discuss your hygiene. You have an odor that is distinct enough to make your patients, coworkers, and others uncomfortable. Can I count on you to concentrate on this problem as soon as possible?"

Of course, the smelly coworker might be in denial and insist that they do not have an odor. In addition, certain health conditions result in body odor, and specific cultural foods and seasonings are odorous. If management has been made aware of the body odor and they refuse to address the issue, a brave colleague may arrange to have the private talk with the coworker.

Dealing with a coworker who has body odor can be distressing for all parties involved, but some sympathy, patience, and tact should go a long way. Good luck!

TheCommuter, BSN, RN, CRRN is a longtime physical rehabilitation nurse who has varied experiences upon which to draw for her articles. She was an LPN/LVN for more than four years prior to becoming a Registered Nurse.

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tothepointeLVN specializes in Hospice / Ambulatory Clinic.

Seriously? I've liked your other articles but this one makes me feel icky. We are going make people bad and have them be disciplined because it offends our nose? You'd rather make your coworker paranoid for a lifetime?

How do I know this? Because I was brought into the managers office because a coworker complained that in the week that the air conditioning was broken I smelt. Me who takes two showers a day as it is. It's petty and it's mean and often it's untrue and it's just used as another method nurse to nurse relational agression.

So disagree.

TheCommuter specializes in Case mgmt., rehab, (CRRN), LTC & psych.

We are going make people bad and have them be disciplined because it offends our nose? You'd rather make your coworker paranoid for a lifetime?

You probably did not have body odor, and your coworker might be petty. I apologize if you feel uncomfortable as a result of what I wrote.

However, I have been in more than one situation where a coworker or classmate had body odor that made everyone want to gag, including patients. Body odor is a formidable problem that makes millions of coworkers feel uncomfortable in their own workplaces, and I feel that we need to create some discourse regarding the issue.

tothepointeLVN specializes in Hospice / Ambulatory Clinic.

Well as with anything you can't point out a problem without simultaneously offering a solution. Usually bringing toiletries is not the solution. For people with body odor problems they often ARE aware of it and probably have more toiletries that CVS. I've had coworkers complain to me about how other people smell and it's never come across to me as very mature. Is it really so bad you can't transcend beyond it?

I was thinking about this earlier today but not in respects to coworkers but patients. With a few exceptions there's nothing you'll smell on a patient that you won't eventually smell on yourself at one point.

Having said that I'm pretty direct. I'd probably sidle up to coworker A and probably say something like "Well don't we smell lovely today." With a smile but it has to be genuine. If you don't have rapport it won't work and will just be unkind. And I think often this particular opens the door to unkindness more than it does compassion.

TheCommuter specializes in Case mgmt., rehab, (CRRN), LTC & psych.

Usually bringing toiletries is not the solution. For people with body odor problems they often ARE aware of it and probably have more toiletries that CVS.

No, bringing toiletries, personal care products, and the anonymous note is not the answer. This only serves to figuratively slap the smelly coworker in the face.

However, I have observed that many people with strong body odor are either unaware of it or in deep denial when confronted ("I don't smell.").

Are we really doing anyone a favor by allowing him/her to go on for years with an offensive body odor? It is acceptable if a medical condition is causing the issue, but unacceptable if poor personal hygiene is resulting in the problem.

prinsessa specializes in LTC/Skilled Care/Rehab.

It isn't the BO that bothers me. It is the perfume that I can smell from 20 feet away. People should shower before they come to work....just please don't shower in perfume! Makes me sick and I don't have asthma...

brillohead specializes in Cardio-Pulmonary; Med-Surg; Private Duty.

I worked in a non-health-related industry for two years. My manager's hygiene (or lack thereof) was a HUGE problem. I suspect that part of the issue was that his home only had a shower stall, not a full-sized bathtub/shower, and he was rather obese -- I think it was difficult for him to be able to maneuver in the shower, so he just avoided it as much as possible.

Unfortunately, he didn't seem to do much of anything to counteract the lack of showering, such as utilizing a washcloth and the sink, or regular application of antiperspirant/deodorant, or regular changes of clothing. One of my coworkers even took to calling him "Stinky" to his face, to which the manager would reply, "I shower!" (yeah, but once a month doesn't count!). It was not at all unusual for him to show up three days in a row wearing the same uniform, and we knew it hadn't been washed because the egg yolk from his breakfast the first morning was still in the same spot.

It was at that job that I mastered the art of toilet-hovering, because when he sat on the toilet, the buildup of body oils and such (I'm sure you can fill in the "and such" based on the anatomy involved) from his vertical smile would leave a noticeable smear on the toilet seat.


When I left for the day, he would sit at my desk and use my computer and phone, so I had to wipe off my phone handset every morning because he would leave his ear goop on the earpiece and his face oils on the mouthpiece. One day my then-boyfriend picked me up from work and did that "sniff-sniff" face and said, "What's that smell?" Finally tracked the source down to my butt, or rather the clothing on my butt -- the boss-stench had rubbed off him and onto my chair from his evening adventures, then rubbed back onto my clothing. I bought a can of upholstery cleaner and brought a bunch of rags the next day and cleaned the heck out of that chair the next morning -- I used a visitor chair from our lobby while my chair dried in the sunshine for the rest of the day. When it dried, my chair was ten shades lighter -- turns out it was a gold color instead of the tan/brown that I assumed.

There may be a reason why a coworker smells, but that doesn't mean that everyone else should be subjected to it. Some people may not have a functional shower at home, some may be depressed and just not care, some may have cultural differences in the way they view hygiene, etc. But it's not good for any business to have employees and customers (patients, in the case of healthcare) constantly exposed to offensive smells. Most hospitals have rules about visible tattoos or excessive piercings because it "doesn't look professional" -- I don't see how olfactory offenses should be treated any differently.

Edited by brillohead
forgot a word

Flare specializes in school nursing, ortho, trauma.

part of my job as a school nurse is having a chat with students over personal hygiene and the fact that they smell offensive to others. of course this is a bit easier for me because talking to a student is quite different than talking to an adult. With my students i can use the line "you're of an age when your body chemistry is changing and you need to take a different approach to your personal hygiene." Can't exactly use that line with an adult. Anonymous notes and toiletries are insulting, passive aggressive and ineffective. I like the directness and non judgemental line that thecommuter provided - i think it's forward enough that, if delivered by the right person, it would be more effective than doing nothing.

I don't believe that often times people are aware that their odor is offensive. I think sometimes people are "living in the monkey house" so long they get immune to the smell. I think if a person has a perpetual issue, it should be addressed appropriately.

OCNRN63 specializes in Oncology; medical specialty website.

it isn't the bo that bothers me. it is the perfume that i can smell from 20 feet away. people should shower before they come to work....just please don't shower in perfume! makes me sick and i don't have asthma...

oh yeah. i haven't worked with too many people who smelled bad, but i have worked with innumerable nurses who were drenched in cologne or perfume. if i have to keep my rescue inhaler because of your fragrance, then you've crossed the line. if i have to take migraine medication because of your fragrance, then you've crossed the line. if i have to step away to take sudafed

because of your fragrance, then you've crossed the line.

why should i, or my patients, i have to suffer because someone decided to marinate in "youth dew" or even worse, the dreaded patchouli.

This is a very delicate subject. As stated earlier, some B.O. may be caused by certain foods that are indigenous to a particular culture, but that is fairly unusual.

Mostly, it is a lack of regular hygiene, and that can be addressed. My ex-husband still has to be reminded to brush his teeth - when he doesn't, the stench can fill a car. Whenever we are likely to be together I feel a need to remind him to brush. It is sad that a grown man needs to be reminded to attend to his personal care.

But co-workers are different. The issue needs to be addressed by the manager, and with great care. Frequently a lack of self-care is due to depression. This is especially true if the person was not a problem until recently. And that person may need more than a pep-talk about their odor. Maybe a suggestion to make an appointment with EAP, or their own physician.

Currently, I have a friend who has financial difficulties. Her gas was cut off, and she has no hot water. I have invited her to shower at my home. Only a few months ago I lent her some cash to get these issues straightened out, but I cannot afford to do that again. I can absorb an occasional shower into my budget, and not feel resentful about her using my money inappropriately.

So the reasons can be varied, and may be very embarrassing to the person who is suffering. But B.O. can be difficult for the patients to bear, as is too much perfume, and definitely needs to be addressed.

By the way, perfume was specifically developed to cover B.O. when people only bathed once or twice a month.

VickyRN specializes in Gerontological, cardiac, med-surg, peds.

Years ago, my husband was manager of a fast-food restaurant. One of his female employees would have a peculiar strong musky odor, but only at certain times of the month (it apparently corresponded with her menses). During the rest of the month she had no noticeable odor. The other employees complained in private to him about her rank odor. So, since he was the manager, he had the unpleasant task of confronting this employee of the opposite sex in private about this delicate matter. He used as much tact and diplomacy as he could muster, but still - there's no nice way of getting around stating, "You have a body odor problem. Others have noticed. You need to do something about it." Of course, the girl was mortified. Afterwards, however, she no longer had any noticeable body odor. Problem solved.

frankie,RN specializes in peds-trach/vent.

Sometimes we all have instances where we're not our freshest when we arrive for our shift at work. I dont think a person can be totally unaware of their own body odor. Isnt it true that you usually smell yourself before other people do? However, if it happens once or twice a year then shame on you. I have went to work and occasionally forgot to put deodorant on; I keep a spare in my car now. I know that there are people from other countries and even this one who do not believe in using deodorant and some cultures where the women are considered "sexy and attractive" if they smell "musty". But we dont need sexy at work we need people who dont offend. What is the difference between smelling offensive and using offensive language in fornt of coworkers or patients? Nothing, but Its a whole lot easier to give hints on not using foul language than about foul odors. I actually prefer the almost subtle route of offering gum or offer me some. i found the easiest way to address a stinky person is to ask, as soon as I smell them, "whats that smell"- I think it makes them more self-concious, but maybe Im wrong. i do think its a great article.

P.S- i dont think it is rude to address this with the person or a manager. most facilities have rules regarding personal appearances and body odor whether it be too much perfume or offensive body odor.:)

Seriously? I've liked your other articles but this one makes me feel icky. We are going make people bad and have them be disciplined because it offends our nose? You'd rather make your coworker paranoid for a lifetime?

How do I know this? Because I was brought into the managers office because a coworker complained that in the week that the air conditioning was broken I smelt. Me who takes two showers a day as it is. It's petty and it's mean and often it's untrue and it's just used as another method nurse to nurse relational agression.

So disagree.

I think there is a huge difference in your situatation and what Commuter had in mind.

I do believe your coworker was being petty, if the AC was out I'm sure everyone smelled a little weird!

However, if there is an obvious, continual lack of personal hygene, it needs to be adressed by a supervisor, as it is probably a violation of dress code or other related policy.

SweetPEI specializes in (Nursing Support) Psych and rehab.

I agree with having a supervisor handle the situation. Anonymous baskets of toiletries may be insulting. Even comments like "don't we smell nice today"are not appropriate because it is not reality, which can be interpreted as sarcasm and can further cause insult and injury to the person. Body oder is not something that we should "just deal with". It can actually make people physically sick. But there is a respectable way of addressing it that can still afford the offender some dignity. When people have to work together it is important that everyone be respected and comfortable (as much as possible) in the work environment so that the tasks at hand can be accomplished

We currently have someone that has a bad smell. She smells as if she hasn't washed herself well in awhile. Her hair looks like it hasn't been washed in months either. She is a very lazy person in her professional life, so I am not suprised that she would be lazy when it came to personal hygeine. We have been told we can't say anything as it may offend her. Our manager won't say anything as she avoids conflict as much as possible. It's awful.

Edited by xoemmylouox

Xoemmy - - those are signs of serious depression, not mere laziness. It is important that someone adresses this. Go above your manager if necessary. Offending her should not be the issue here, getting her to a mental health professional is more important. Be kind to her, she may be in great distress.

I was on that cusp, and got help for myself. But not everyone has the insight to know what they need.

HM-8404 specializes in Trauma.

I am not sure which is worse, BO or the stench of bathing in perfume/cologne. I once heard that perfume/cologne should be a gift to those that are close to you not an announcement you just entered the room.

I read once that Matthew McConaughey was "all natural", does not use deodorant. If that is true I bet he gets pretty funky after filming all day under those lights.

tothepointeLVN specializes in Hospice / Ambulatory Clinic.

if you didn't use the term "smelly", this whole thread could be taken 10x more seriously

That's pretty much what made me turn my nose up at it. Smelly always seems to be correlated with other negative titles like dirty, messy and lazy and maybe even "fat"

Isn't that interesting . . . the word "smelly" seems to fit in my mind and didn't seem negative like "dirty, messy, lazy . . fat". Maybe because I'm the mother of 3 boys smelly seemed mild to me. :coollook:

I work hospice and am a school district nurse. We've had issues with pre-teens and teens who smell due to puberty issues and they need to be aware. I've had talks with them and with their parents. One family said they couldn't make their 12 year old son shower or bathe.

As to co-workers, I had a co-worker who became a roommate when I was in college. She was beautiful but had a terrible body odor. When she opened her closet door, the smell would knock you over. She had no idea she smelled of B.O.

I think people get so used to their own scent that they don't notice if they have B.O. or bad breath. I have a family member who gets out of the shower in the summer time and immediately his pits start to smell. And deodorant doesn't help.

I agree with Commuter - this should be a management issue and not done by co-workers.


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