My Bookkeeper Stinks!! Bad!

Question:

Please help me. I work in a very small office. There is my boss, myself and our bookkeeper. Our bookkeeper has worked for us for nearly two years now and we have dealt with his stentch for just that long. My boss and I both are aware of his problem and practically discuss it on a daily basis. We find ourselves avoiding him and his office at all costs because the smell is really unbareable. I’m afraid at times I’m even rude to him but only because i need to get away quickly because it’s so bad i litereally feel like i may vomit. I would describe the smell to you in great detail but it’s very discusting. We don’t know what to do. We are at our wits end and we have let it go on for way to long now. Personally i think our bookkeeper is a great guy and does a tremendous job for us. I don’t want to embarrass him or hurt his feelings but I just CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE! Any suggestions? Thanks. Sincerely, Holding my Nose

Signed,

Stifled


Answer:

Dear Stifled:

Your follow-up information about the nature of the odor on your co-worker, was helpful. I wish there was a solution that would be easy, but there isn’t. However, there IS a solution.

First, I should point out that this is the responsibility of your boss, more than it is yours. I hope you can convince your boss that you are depending upon HIM to do something about this. You don’t have the status to force George, the bookkeeper, to do anything, but your boss does. If your boss won’t, then you will need to. But you ought to get a raise in salary for it! There are really only two major options: You can simply not say anything, figuring you’ve tolerated it this long so you can tolerate it another ten or fifteen years. That doesn’t sound like a good option to me!

Or, you can develop a short, direct conversation and get it over with.

Before you decide about that though, I want you to think about the realities of all of it. Here are some statements of fact, to help you see this in a logical way, even though I know it’s an awkward, embarrassing situation.

1. There are two of you at work who are made miserable and only one is making you miserable. You can’t change your sense of smell. George CAN change his odor, or at least lessen it. Who ought to be making the adjustments? 2. There is more than one good bookkeeper in the world. There is also the complete picture of good work, in every job. It’s not enough to only provide part of the picture. For example, if George was mean to you, calling you names and making it difficult for you to concentrate on work, you’d say he might be a good bookkeeper, but he shouldn’t keep his job. If he was a great guy, smelled like roses and made work fun, but did a bad job of bookkeeping, he wouldn’t still be around.

A good way to consider it is this: If your boss knew then what he knows now, would he still hire George today? If you were applying for the job and they explained that you would be working every day with someone who smelled so bad it would make you want to vomit, would you still want the job? If George was magically replaced with an equally good bookkeeper who smelled normal, would you rather have George back, smell and all? If you could do something to keep George, and have him smell appropriately, would it be worth it to do what it takes to make that happen?

And keep this mind as well–I don’t know what kind of business you have. But, if customers or clients come anywhere in the space, they can smell something, even if you have gotten used to the worst of it. Those are all things to think about. But the bottom line is that George isn’t the only bookkeeper who could do a good job for your company. If he can’t be the complete picture of a good employee and can’t correct the problem, he should not be working there.

3. I would guess that George knows very well what he is doing or not doing that is causing an odor, or that has a potential for causing an odor. He may not know how to control it; he may not think it’s very bad; or, he may hope no one else is bothered too much. But, I would be very, very surprised if he doesn’t have an inkling that he might have odors that bother people.

I have talked to at least thirty people about their body odor, bad breath or other odor issues, and I have never yet found even one who, after some conversation, didn’t say that they knew they had a slight odor but didn’t realize it was so bad. Or, they admitted they knew they had a bad odor but thought others didn’t mind very much. Or, they knew they were doing something that was likely to cause odors, but they didn’t think it DID cause odors on them, or didn’t think it was offensive to anyone, or didn’t care if it was offensive.

You have probably sniffed yourself at some time and said, “Phew!” You smell your clothes and know it’s time to take them to the cleaners. You open the closet door and realize your sneakers are icky smelling. You can smell your own bodily odors all the time! We’re not in a country where sweat, dirt or any other odor is so normal that it’s considered a non-issue. George knows he has an odor.

4. George almost certainly knows you are bothered by his odor. Think about your actions over time, including your remarks the other day that you mentioned in your follow-up message. ( I thought your approach was very good. But, it would have helped had you stuck with it and not let him off with saying his potato chips made the odor!)

Would you be oblivious to the hint, if someone said something like that to you? Of course you wouldn’t. So, either he doesn’t care–in which case, you shouldn’t either. Or, he cares but thinks there is nothing he can do about it. Your direct conversation may push him to do something, and he may be very grateful to get the problem solved.

As it is now, he has never had to change anything he is doing, because no one has ever made him do it. Thus, whatever habits he has or whatever precautions he’s not taking to alleviate odors, he’s become OK with that. You need to make him not OK with that anymore!

5. As difficult as it will be to discuss, it will be over in about ten minutes and you’ll be glad you finally said something. I’ve never had a discussion about odors that lasted more than that–and often resolved a ten or more year problem!

It is far, far easier to say a brief, to-the-point statement, than it is to spend a long, painful counseling session. Just tell him, expect results and hold him to it, then move on.

Further, it may not be as difficult to talk about as you think. If someone came to you and directly told you about an unpleasant odor on you, you might feel terribly embarrassed, but you wouldn’t expect THEM to find the solution for you. You would go out immediately and seek a solution. If this person is a nice person, as you say, that is what he will do as well.

Undoubtedly there will be some awkwardness, but time will help that. Time won’t, on the other hand, help the odor! 6. There are likely several causes for his odor. Some of those you might be able to determine by considering his lifestyle, if you know it. Thus, before you begin your action to end this problem once and for all, you or your boss should investigate this a bit. You don’t HAVE to find out what is causing the odor to make him fix it. But it is often helpful to have an idea of the situation.

Among the things to consider: *Exactly how long has this been going on? Literally see if you can put a date to it. Was he this way the very first day he was hired? Did it start in the last year? It’s good to be specific, if there was a time when it wasn’t a problem. That way, if you feel he really, honestly, sincerely doesn’t know what is causing the odor, he might be able to figure it out. *What kind of home does his live in, as far as location, outward cleanliness, and inward cleanliness if you know that? A dirty home produces stale smelling clothes. If he shares clothing he might also be sharing odors. *Is George married? Sometimes single men, especially older single men, develop very sloppy habits about hygiene and keeping clothes clean. One part of his odor is very likely that he is not washing or dry cleaning his clothes often. You can usually tell that by looking at the crispness and overall cleanliness of the clothes. If clothing looks wrinkled, dusty, stained, limp, dull, it probably hasn’t been cleaned recently. *Does he wear a variety of clothes, or the same ones over and over? If it appears he is recycling clothing very often, he may not have many items, and does not clean them. Some material, especially synthetics, hold odors more than others, which makes the odor seem better or worse on occasion. And, the warmer the body, the more the odor is wafted into the room. Winter time is worse in those cases. Sweaters get very musty smelling in storage, and many people taken them out and wear them without airing them or cleaning them. *Does he have pets in his house? Having a smelly pet or many pets can create odors that are almost impossible to get out of clothes. Dogs and other animals that need to be washed to smell fresh, are the worst. The worst smelling woman I have talked to lived, slept and spent all her time with two big, dirty dogs. Her home was like a dog run–you get the picture.

A well educated man I once knew, has two dogs that he transports in his car. He often smells terrible after he has been in his car. I told him about it and he said he had been told that before, but didn’t care because he liked his dogs better than people. I don’t do business with him anymore! *Does he have any medical conditions that you know of, that might affect his odor? The most obvious, for the symptoms you mention, is if he wears a colostomy bag. But, the only way there would be an odor would be if it does not fit correctly, if he does not change it properly, or if there is gas leakage due to his diet–the usual problems with eggs, cabbage, fish and so forth. Properly cared for colostomy bags do not have odors and a physician could help him. *Does he appear to have an eating disorder? Purging or taking laxatives can often cause some of the odors you mention. The skin can literally smells like feces. Sometimes so many laxatives have been taken that bodily control over leakage is impossible, and clothing gets soaked with it. A physician can help with that as well. But you can imagine the odor! *Do you know if he takes a very large amount of herbal supplements? They won’t cause all the odors you mention, but they can create strong odors that trap other smells with them, and sometimes create bowel odors. * This is a gross question, but apparently you’ve noticed a lot about this man: Do some areas of his body smell worse than others? Does it seem the odors are coming from his torso, groin, hair, mouth or from his skin, in addition to his clothes? If it seems to be an underarm issue, then you know his sweat is carrying the odors out of his system. If it’s on the surface of his clothes, you know that is a large part of the problem. You and your boss may want to answer those questions together, as you decide what exactly might be the source of the odors. However, keep in mind that it is not the responsibility of you or your boss to figure out what causes the problem or how to solve it–that is up to the employee. If the man is a friend and he seems to not have any idea at all about the source of the odor, you might be able to help him.

Which brings us to the issue of how to solve this problem. There are only three ways to deal with an odor: Mask it with another odor, reduce the odor to a manageable level, or, eliminate the cause of the odor. In this case, George must either eliminate the odors or your boss must remove George from the office.

(Maybe, if no one wants to say anything to George, he could work from home?)

*Develop a short, to the point statement and directive to George. That’s why your boss is the most appropriate person to do this, since you’re not in a position to give a directive.

The example I’m going to give here would be if your boss said it, but you could adapt it, leaving out the “penalty” part.

You might think my suggestion seems harsh or too direct. But, I’m sharing my personal experience, that this is usually the only way to make it work. Hinting doesn’t do it, and neither does it help to minimize it, joke about it, suggest you might be hyper-sensitive to odors, or give him a way out by accepting an excuse as a reason.

The only way to solve this problem is to let the person with the odor have full responsibility for it, and let him be fully aware of how bothersome the odor is. Almost everyone who talks to someone with an odor problem minimizes how they feel about the odor when they talk to the offender–especially if the offender starts apologizing. Don’t let that happen. Explain fully how bad it is and stick with that. Otherwise, you will only get half-hearted attempts to solve the problem.

Here is one way–not the only way, of course, just one way–to approach it: “George, you’re not only a great bookkeeper, you’re a friend. I would be doing you a bad turn if I didn’t say something about a problem I’ve noticed for quite a while now. I don’t know what is causing it, but there is an odor on your clothes and on you, that is really bad, and I can’t ignore it anymore. It smells really, really strong and it’s terrible smelling. I don’t think you would want that to be happening. So, whatever is causing it, you need to do whatever it takes to fix it completely right away.” Then, stop talking and let him either explain, apologize or whatever. However, be a broken record, no matter what his response.

“Gosh, I’m sorry you’re having that problem! But obviously we can’t keep having an odor like that in the office, so it has to stop completely, right away.” “I know it can be tough to keep everything clean, but we can’t have an odor like that in this office, so it has to stop completely, right away.” “Well, if you don’t know what’s causing it, you should go to a doctor, or talk to a family member who can go to your house and see if they can figure it out. But George, the odor has to stop completely, right away, because we can’t continue to have an odor like that in the office. That’s not fair to the rest of us.”

If there is the slightest hint of rebellion or refusal to solve the problem, the boss should say, “I’d hate to lose you as a bookkeeper, George. But you’re keeping the rest of us from being able to work comfortably and I can’t have that. That’s not being fair to us. I want you to understand, the odor has to stop, right away or I won’t be able to keep you on here.”

This may be the tough part for a small business: Don’t let him come back to work until the odor is gone. Have him take work home or get someone else to do it. But until he has had time to fix the problem, he shouldn’t be in his office as though work is going on as usual. If he is given time to fix it while still working, he may take twice as long to fix it, or he never get it fixed.

A manager who talked to me about a similar situation told me, rather ashamed of her failure to solve the problem, that a woman who had a hygiene problem had been “working on it” for several months, but it still was a problem now and then. When the manager finally told her she would be terminated if she smelled badly even one more time, she never smelled badly again. Some people just don’t care about their affect on others, no matter how nice they seem in some ways.

Giving the employee time off doesn’t have to be treated like discipline. You’re giving him time to get to the doctor, wash his clothes, clean his home, or whatever it takes. In the meantime, do what seems to work to clean his office as well. The odors are also in there. And, it will send a very clear message if you say, “George, we’re also going to start fresh in your office. We’ll get some spray fabric deodorant for the chair and other fabric surfaces and get some things to wash the walls and surfaces real good.”

Through all of this, the boss may want to say empathetic things, like, “I know this is awkward George, but I knew you’d rather I’d say something than not let you know.”

The main thing is that the boss shouldn’t apologize for saying something about this. You’ve tolerated it for too long, so certainly you and your boss have given your co-worker time to catch on. That points out what happens when things aren’t corrected right away: The employee figures everything is OK.

If you can ensure that your co-worker fixes this problem, you can bet there are many, many people, in many settings, who will be grateful!

Best wishes as you develop a plan of action for this. If you wish to do so, please let us know what happens.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.