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9 December 2023

Student Life
& Society

Help! I have a smelly colleague

We spend more time with our coworkers than with our families, so what to do when one of them smells bad? ‘Addressing someone in the wrong way can lead to difficult situations.’

‘Dear Ad Valvas, I have a colleague who smells bad and I’m not sure how to deal with it’, a VU employee writes. ‘This colleague smells of sweat and spicy herbs. There’s a really penetrating odour in our office, which I can’t get used to and is really distracting. It’s also annoying for that colleague because people are going to avoid him at some point.’ Regardless, the reader decides not to say anything about it to his colleague. ‘He is an expat and may have a hard enough time feeling included. Possibly, he can’t do much about it either. So I try to sit somewhere else as much as possible.’

Damage relationships

Head of Social Psychology at VU Amsterdam Josh Tybur explains why these kinds of situations can be difficult to deal with. “You want to solve them, but going about it the wrong way could cause damage to relationships on the work floor. I think that’s especially the case with someone who smells bad.”

Josh Tybur

According to Tybur, telling someone that they smell, might make them feel that they’re socially evaluated negatively by others in the workplace. “When we feel that others think we’re dirty or unclean, we’re likely to withdraw – to feel like others don’t respect us and that we don’t have allies in the workplace. And that can be pretty difficult.”

What could also happen is that the person who gets the message, might assume that there’s been gossip about them in the workplace. Tybur: “They can wonder who else thinks this, or if the person who told them they smelled bad, told five other people before and now everyone thinks they smell.” 

So maybe we shouldn’t say anything, just like our reader did? Tybur refers to a paper comparing the effects of being avoided at work versus being harassed at work. The findings suggest people don’t experience harassment as negatively as they do being avoided. Tybur: “It’s not to say that harassment is good – it’s just that being excluded and avoided is especially bad. So someone who wants to be nice, might decide to avoid the person rather than bring up the odour. But that approach can also have negative effects.”

Empathetic communication

Tybur suggests an alternative to confronting or avoiding a smelly colleague: discuss the issue with a manager. He says this approach can have two positive effects relative to the colleague confronting the other colleague. Firstly, managers typically are trained in communicating empathically with their employees. “It’s part of their job to think strategically about conversations before they have them. The person who wrote to you, might have really good intentions in mind. But if they’re not experienced with these types of difficult conversations, they could say something the wrong way and the message might be received differently than what was intended.” 

A second reason to call in a manager could be because they are accustomed to having confidential conversations with their employees. According to Tybur, employees generally understand that conversations with a manager aren’t shared with other members of the team. “If the manager has this conversation in a safe space with the employee, there might be less of a perception that everyone on the team thinks that the colleague smells or that other team members are talking about it to each other. Of course, managers should have some experience with – and hopefully training on – conducting these types of delicate conversations.”

It seems we’ve lost the ability to talk to each other about difficult topics’

Sounds like a good idea, but what about the feeling the person in question has about everyone gossiping about them in the workplace? “If the person who wrote in is especially mindful about the thoughts and feelings of this other employee, they could also approach the manager and suggest strategies like ‘don’t tell the person that you heard it from me or someone else on the team’. The manager could then communicate it like it’s just coming from themselves and point it out in a nice way, just in case other people might notice it in the future.”

Practice social situations

Renée-Andrée Koornstra (by Yvonne Compier)

According to HRM Director Renée-Andrée Koornstra, VU Amsterdam doesn’t have a protocol for these kinds of situations. However, the newly launched ‘Art of Engagement’ concept encourages transparency and clear communication between colleagues. Koornstra: “Somehow, it seems as if we lost the ability to simply talk to each other, with good intentions, about difficult topics. So we often just say nothing in order to prevent the conversation from getting out of hand. Because I also know that not everyone is equally tactful and capable of giving this ‘feedback’. Addressing someone in the wrong way can lead to difficult situations”, she agrees with Tybur. For staff members and managers who want to practice social situations – like dealing with a smelly colleague – VU Amsterdam offers two in-house trainers.

But how would Koornstra herself deal with a smelly colleague? “In a personal conversation I would discreetly explore whether the person in question is aware of the unpleasant odour. I’ve done it that way before, based on how I myself would like to be approached if it happened to me. I would prefer that someone discusses this separately with me in a pleasant tone. Personally, I would find involving the supervisor very unpleasant. To think that my supervisor would address this with me! But that is just me. It may be different for others, also depending on the context.” 

‘Sometimes, you just have to suck it up a little bit’

Accepting flaws

Is there any behaviour we should avoid in similar situations? Tybur: “Well, let’s take middle school or elementary school as an example. The way that children often deal with abnormalities like smelling bad is that they gossip with everyone else. There might be five people who hold their nose and point at the other person. Of course that’s very damaging, and the goal there is actually to devalue and bully the other person. Doing something similar in the workplace might change your colleague’s behaviour. But there’s going to be a lot of costs associated with that approach.” 

Another advice from Tybur is for the person who is bothered by the odour to figure out ways for them to deal with it themselves. “Try to keep in mind that life is not going to be perfect and there are going to be these types of annoyances. Think of strategies to not let this bother you so much. Sometimes, you just have to suck it up a little bit. Because as annoying as colleagues can be, it’s often upon us to accept them for their flaws. And hopefully they accept us for our own!”