How do you tell someone in your work area they smell?

First I’ll set the scene: Imagine a large, open room with low ceilings, and rows upon rows of long tables that are meant to be subdivided into work stations measuring roughly 1.5 meters per person. Except there are typically 3 people now squeezed into every 2 workstations. Imagine that each row is actually two sets of tables back to back, so that you face each other when sitting at your desks. The separator between the person across from you and yourself is a laughable raised divider 30 cm high, with a “jaunty” little shelf for some odds and ends. There is no separator between you and the person to the right or left of you, beyond your own accepted notion of personal space. Oh yes, and this is in the basement of the office building, so there are no windows, and the circulation of the air is sluggish at times.

In this large room there are project team members belonging to various projects. These team members could be clients, or come from any of the many vendors the client has. However, there is no signage around indicating which team sits where. Due to the nature of the space being “flexible” by design, teams are moved around on a frequent basis. Add in the spice of turnover of resources as the project passes through different phases, it all sums up to a room full of people you don’t know what they are doing nor who they are working with.

It’s kind of like being back in university, studying in the library, being surrounded by people you don’t know, some of them doing very annoying things.

There’s the Loud Talker. The Space Invader. The Dirty Eater. But the most uncomfortable one of all: The Stinky Colleague.

Now, I’ve been in environments where people have body odour, even on a regular basis, but usually you had to be right in their personal space before you could smell it.

This was different.

This young man was malodorous from such a large distance that it was disrupting the work space. Problem is, neither I, nor my project team mates, knew his name or who he worked for. And so months go by where we cringe when he was within 2 rows of our desks, working with his teammates.


How do you politely tell someone you don’t even know, that they smell? We puzzled this over for weeks. Finally through some detective work I found out the name of his manager that he reported to. And so I sent the following email:

From: Jennifer Toh
To: Ravi
Re: Please inform team members of North American cultural norms
Hi Ravi,
I don’t believe we have met, but I am on the YYYYYY project, sitting in row H. Unfortunately, I have an issue with one of your regression test team members. He has extremely strong body odour that is more than distracting, it is offensive, especially in our enclosed environment. Even when he is more than 3 meters away I can smell his body odour.
I understand that Canada may not have been where he has grown up and so he may not be aware of the cultural norms here in terms of personal hygiene and how most people find body odor very unappealing. However, based on conversations I have had with other team members in this Zen space, we all share the same response when he is around, and find it hard to continue working. Please, please, *please* inform your team members that the cultural norm here is to shower every day and to use deodorant / antiperspirant. The work environment will be much more pleasant as a result.
Thanks for your attention. If you would like to discuss more, I sit in 0N22-H6.
Thankfully, it worked. Ravi went and had his uncomfortable discussion with his smelly team member, the team member did something to rectify the situation. Ok fine, so I didn’t actually tell the person myself that they were smelly, so yes the title of this post is misleading. But we all breathed easier afterwards, and that’s the result I care about. 🙂