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Sticky Situations: Help! One of My Colleagues Has Bad B.O.

This is one of those times when the professional and personal lines are crossed.At the same time, that odour can affect the entire team's productivity and cause ill effects.
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Julie Blais has joined as Huffpost Canada's etiquette columnist. Please direct any questions about sticky situations of your own to

Sticky situation:

To tell or not to tell: one of my work colleagues has B.O.?


Having been an HR manager I know that presenting this sticky situation to a colleague is one of the toughest talks you will ever have at work. This is one of those times when the professional and personal lines are crossed. At the same time, someone's scent is personally intimate and on the other hand, that odour can professionally affect the entire team's productivity and even cause ill effects.

Having researched it, I also know that there are about 800,000 Canadians that suffer from hyperhidrosis, extreme sweating, which cannot with antiperspirant or deodorant. Sixty per cent of these sufferers don't even consult with their doctors.

This is a tough one. So here goes three options:

A. Be a silent sender

Send an anonymous email to your colleague. This is the contemporary techno version of the traditional unsigned paper note. I recommend writing it in five steps:

1. Write in the spirit of empathy and kindness.

2. Start with a few words of appreciation for your work relationship and your colleague's input into the team.

3. Mention that this is difficult but that if it happened to you, you would appreciate the honesty instead of being part of the office gossip.

4. Add something that recognizes the physical and uncontrollable consequences of stress.

5. Relate that you have noticed changes in smells and simply wanted to advise him/her.

B. Talk to your colleague directly but discreetly and delicately

Use the same precautions as described above in the first option, with a few extra steps. Ideally, this type of conversation is better with persons of the same sex. Should you need to enlist the confidential help of an opposite sex colleague, brief him/her on the suggested five steps. Plan to have this discussion, one-on-one and in a private environment. Be discreet. Don't alert the entire team that today will be "B.O. day."

C. Speak to your superior or HR

As with most work situations, confiding the task to your superior or HR is usually a good decision. In today's culturally diverse workplace, this is also the safest alternative. If you are not sure about your relationship with the 'distracting scent' colleague or what words to use, this is the way to go. You certainly would not want to be perceived as harassing anyone, so when in doubt, delegate to those in authority.

Personally, although I recognise the difficulty of the discussion, if you are close to your colleague, I encourage you go with option number two and have the talk. Option number one may leave your teammate feeling unapproachable and excluded. Option number three may be safe but once again he/she may feel that her closest colleagues are talking behind her back.

Whatever option you choose, my experience is that the problem will go away once the air has been cleaned.

Ask Julie: