Dear Fox Foxerson,
We have a guy at work with really poor personal hygiene. He’s a nice guy and a real asset but—OK, I’ll just say it—he smells. It’s like you left fast-food wrappers in your car for a day. We all notice it. He dresses well, but often carelessly. His shirt might be a little rumpled, his glasses a little smudged. Since I’m the one who notices it the most (and who works closest to him) I’ve been tasked with the job of mentioning this to him. I have no clue how to even work up to such a conversation.
Any advice you can give is much appreciated as we’d love to include him in after-hours get-togethers but are reluctant.
Dear Uncomfortable Coworker,
This poor fella! There are so many different reasons for human smelliness. Meds? A different diet? Dirty or damp clothing? The inability to address a rotting tooth? He could be housing insecure and not have a proper place to tidy up. Then there are mental health or body image issues. At a brief point in my life, this fox believed that soap washed away my creativity. It was brief.
You are right for wanting to let him know, but how? I hate confrontation. So let’s make it a conversation.
First, I would make sure you two are alone or at least out of earshot. I would not mention that anyone has said anything about it. It’s a horrible feeling to think that people are talking behind your back. And even though you all have the best intentions, that’s what it would seem like to him.
Once you are alone with your coworker, start by letting him know that you are going to have an uncomfortable conversation. Then it’s time to rip off the Band-Aid: Tell him when you are in close proximity, you’ve experienced he has a persistently unpleasant smell. No hypothesis why. Add that you enjoy his company, and his work, but that this issue works against your ability to be present. Wait for his reaction and take it from there. He might try to explain the reason. It’s likely he will be upset. How that plays out, whether with embarrassment, tears, defensiveness, or denial—you can’t predict. He might walk away. He might rage. We’ll see, right? Remember to be kind, to not be reactive, and, above all, to listen. You don’t want to be judgmental but the truth is telling someone something like this is, in fact, a judgment. Perhaps there is a problem to help solve. But above all, you’ve said your piece and regardless of how it goes, that should be a relief.
In the days and weeks that follow, give him space but don’t pretend the conversation never happened. Hopefully it will motivate him to do whatever he needs to resolve the issue. Depending on how things play out, make sure to engage and extend new invitations. Hopefully, you will both be comfortable and he will want to join your social circle after work.