Ten Feet Isn’t Far Enough Away To Breathe

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about restroom odors:

I work in a very small office, 6 people total. My desk is literally 10 feet away from the restroom. Several of my co-workers use this restroom daily to dump. They each sit in there, sometimes as long as 40 minutes, doing their business. When they come out, the smell is horrendous. There is a can of air freshener in the restroom, but only one person will use it. When she does, she uses so much it hurts to breathe. I’ve only worked here a few months, but I’m at my wits end. I can’t complain because my female boss is one of the worst offenders. It’s the craziest situation I’ve ever experienced. What is wrong with people??? What can I do?
It Hurts to Breathe

Dear It Hurts to Breathe:
You are not alone. Other employees have sent questions that smell like yours. There is no quick fix, but you can do some things so you don’t have to hate to breathe. You have eliminated getting help from your boss who is supposed to make working conditions suitable for you and others in your office. Therefore, my first advice is don’t rule out her help. It’s her job and she gets paid to handle difficult situations.

My Associate Workplace Doctor, Tina Lewis Rowe, is busy training and therefore I am responding to your question, but I am sending along her suggestions and then copying one of her detailed response to a similar question to yours. She suggests actions you might try:
“She may not be able to control the restroom smell, but perhaps she can put a fan on her desk to redirect the air or spray a light mist of something, to counteract the bad odors. She may also want to invest in the spray item called Poo-Pouri, to leave in the bathroom.

“I don’t think it would be considered inappropriate for her to talk to the boss and ask if she can move her desk location or ask the boss to help her find a way to avoid the unpleasantness. Even though many people may think their stuff doesn’t smell badly, almost everyone would be empathetic to the challenges of working by the bathroom. Unless she has a poor working relationship with all those people, it seems likely that asking for some assistance would be understood and efforts would be made to reduce the fumes.”

Here I will add that seeking help from your boss and coworkers should not be ruled out. Although you are new to the job, you were hired because they needed you. Perhaps you were assigned a desk close to the restroom because no one else wants to work near the restroom odors. Use of a fan might help your coworkers and boss to realize that. But it might take a more assertive approach such as private confrontation with your boss or a staff meeting in which you engage the whole office staff in dealing with the problem.

Almost everyone has to learn how to deal with disagreeable working conditions and that requires courage and assertiveness. Assertiveness weds a positive attitude and an interpersonal communication process. This would entail not pussyfooting about your discomfort experienced daily when coworkers leave the restroom. Then it would mean either screaming distress or firmly asking for help and seriously dealing with a very common problem of bad odors. Asking for help and asking for adult-problem solving of your work group should not be ruled out. There may be solutions we can’t know from here, such as the total physical layout of your workplace. Might there be restrooms in other parts of your building your staff can use, especially for what you refer to as dumping? Might your staff request the advice of your employers about making a restroom farther from your work group?

Do any of these thoughts make sense? Working together with hands, head and heart takes and makes big WEGOS is my signature way of suggesting that your problem is not yours alone and you don’t have to nor can you solve it solo.–William Gordern
Now what follow is a copy just one of the many answers Tina Lewis Rowe has given to a difficult odor problem. It should serve as a model of how you might approach your situation:
Co-Worker With Body Odor
January 8, 2011 Tina Lewis Rowe Perfumes & Odors
We work in a sewing factory and our sewing machines are side by side. We have a girl working in the middle of the row, between 9 of us and she has bad b.o. everyday. Two different ladies have talked to the supervisor about her and also went to H.R. with no results. Today one of the ladies went to the supervisor again and he said that the factory director said that he had people go through that area and they didn’t smell anything and he didn’t want to hear any more about it. We were not to discuss this anymore.

This girl is really smelly. She comes in first thing in the morning smelling bad!
What Next?
Dear What Next?:
Hygiene issues are difficult for most people to deal with directly. Supervisors and managers will do almost anything to avoid talking to an employee and so will coworkers–which is why they hope supervisors will say something.

It IS an awkward subject, but it is so distracting and so obnoxious a problem that it cannot be ignored.

I don’t think you will all be fired if you make an effort to deal with this in a good way. One thing is for sure, either you do something or you have to settle for doing nothing while suffering with the odor. Here are some options for you to consider:

1. Think about the totality of the situation to decide what you’re actually dealing with. *What is the employee like otherwise? Is she congenial or unpleasant? Will she likely feel embarrassed and want to do something or become angry or be uncaring? *Is her odor solely caused by underarm odor or is it all over (hair, breath, feet, other parts of her body?) *While you are working does she seem self-conscious about her appearance and odor or does she seem to act as though everything is fine? *You say she comes to work smelling badly. Does she seem to be wearing the same clothes repeatedly or are even her apparently clean and fresh clothes smelly? *Does she have the same degree of odor every day or does it seem worse some times than others (or better)? *Is the odor that of sweat or is it something else? *Can you think of some reason why she might have an odor? (Is she from a culture where that is not so negative? Does she live in a situation where hygiene might be difficult to maintain? Does she have a mental or emotional problem? *Could she have a medical problem that creates the odor? Usually, even if there is a medical reason for an odor, it can be improved with medical attention. However, if it is medical she may not be able to correct it completely. One indicator it might be medical is if it is constant, the same level, the same odor and the rest of her appears very clean. Very few women who have grown up in this culture want to smell sweaty or to have any odor at all, so it’s worthwhile to consider why she would do so day after day. *How long has this been going on? Has she ever smelled OK, from her very first day? If she smelled OK at some time, that is at least an indicator that it is possible for her to do so. *Does she have friends otherwise? Or, is it she is disliked by most and this is simply another reason to dislike her?

Also consider why your supervisor and HR have done nothing. Could it be they sense some hidden agenda? If coworkers have been rude to the employee or pushed her out for other reasons, there may be a feeling that the odor issue is just an excuse for other behavior. Or, if the employees and the supervisor have had bad relationships in the past he or she may not feel very concerned about your complaint.

2. Consider what has been done about it so far and what her reactions have been. If she has worked there for several months or years and no one has talked to her about it directly, she probably isn’t aware it’s a problem. However, if snide remarks have been made or other “hints” have been given, she may only think people don’t like her but not associate it with a hygiene issue. On the other hand, if someone has talked to her directly and she has said she isn’t going to change, that is a much more difficult issue. I don’t get the impression that has happened though.

3. The above steps are just for you to have an understanding of what you’re dealing with. The next steps are the ones that count.

The first option is to talk to her directly. Tough to do, but not so difficult if you approach it the easiest way.

*Unless there seems to be a real need to mention the months of problems, just deal with the day you talk to her as though it is the first time. If she mentions other times you can say you have noticed it before but never as much as that day. By dealing with just one day you don’t have to have “a talk” with her, you only have to mention it as though it’s something you just noticed. Sure, she may figure you’ve minded before, but she won’t know for sure. Even if she knows complaints have been made, you still can deal with one day at a time. *Consider being prepared by having a can of antiperspirant spray with you. A trial size would go in your purse and you can loan it to her as though you always keep it handy. (But, unlike a stick or roll-on, she won’t think it has touched your skin already.) Also have a trial size or small size of low-fragrance body talc from the grocery store to loan her. (Like baby powder.) Both the spray and the talc will not only be helpful under her arms but will also help the fabric odor that is usually the worse problem. You might want to put in one or two wet-wipes or hand wipes. Keep these supplies in a small zip lock plastic bag in your purse, drawer or locker.

*Be ready to do something when you get to work, before work gets started for the day if possible. Yes, it will be tough. But, once you’ve done it you’ll at least have taken a positive step. You don’t have to say a long speech or memorize some perfect approach, just limit it to one or two sentences. Anyone can say one or two sentences. Say, “Jan, can I talk to you a moment?” Step to the side so others can’t hear. Then say something basic, quick and to the point. You’ll be nervous, but remember it will be over with very quickly.

When I talk to someone about the issue of body odor, I usually use a confidential tone as though it’s just between them and me. I also try to give people a way to not be humiliated the first time I talk to them. After that, if they don’t improve, I’m much more direct. But, I like to start with allowing them a way to save face a bit. So, I refer to “nervous sweat” (for women) or “a guy sweat thing” (for men). Or, I’ll blame it on something: The fabric they’re wearing, the fact that they had to walk to and from the bus stop, how warm it is outside or inside, that they may have worked out early and are still sweating or anything else that seems to fit.

“I don’t know whether it’s that polyester blouse or what, but there’s a sweaty odor on it.” “I don’t know if you had to walk fast from the bus stop today but something has stirred up the sweat. I can smell it when you walk by. Don’t you hate it when that happens? But, you sure can’t work that way.” Sometimes I have said something like, “I don’t know what the heck is causing it, but there’s a really sweaty odor around you today. I knew you’d rather I tell you so you can do something about it, than not say anything” I once said, “Wow, Shelly, something got your sweat going today! You need to wash up. And, you’ll have to see what you can do about your sweater too.”

When I’ve used the baggy of items, I’ve said something with a confidential tone, like, “Hey, Lisa, I thought you’d want to know that you seem to have a bit of a nervous sweat thing this morning. I have some spray deodorant and other stuff with me all the time just in case of a problem like that, so take these and you can use them right away.”

Or, to be really direct, “Oh my! Karen! There’s a sweaty smell on that blouse or on you! I’ve got stuff with me you can use, but you’ll sure need to use it before you work close to people.”

The most direct way, “Rita, I have to tell you, you’re smelling sweaty. You need to suds under your arms in the bathroom and do something to make your shirt smell better.” 4. After you say those one or two sentences, in a courteous co-worker to co-worker tone, she’ll either apologize and try to make it better or she won’t. If she comes in the next day smelling badly, say it again. Or have one of the other coworkers say something. “Maria, PLEASE do something to make sure you don’t smell sweaty when you’re at work. It’s really bad and I don’t think you want people complaining about it.” Most people, once they are told about odor one day, try to make sure it doesn’t happen on other days.

5. That brings you to what will you do if those things don’t help. Your manager has said to not talk about it. However, you mention that you have an HR section. Consider writing your complaint one more time. You might want to write this first, instead of talking to the coworker.

Say that the odor is distracting and intolerable. You can say, “Mr. Smith has told us nothing will be done and that we shouldn’t discuss it any more, but we can’t let this continue and would like to talk to someone higher in the company if that is needed.”

Address the statement that someone walked by and didn’t smell anything: “Mr. Smith says someone came by but didn’t smell anything. We sit next to Lisa for eight hours a day and we have to smell it every day. To find out for sure, someone needs to spend some time close to her or just take the word of employees who have worked here for a long time. We wouldn’t make up something like this. We can’t keep working while we’re trying to avoid smelling body odor. Please help us by talking to Lisa and telling her she has to wear clean clothes, use antiperspirant and not smell sweaty.”

6. I believe employees need to show the courage to deal with issues like this, even though it is very uncomfortable. But, I also think managers and supervisors need to be the ones to talk to the employee. This is no different than an employee coming to work late or whistling loudly while they’re working. It is a very common policy that employees should take measures to be and smell clean. If there is any kind of handbook or employee manual that talks about hygiene, use that as a reason for action to be taken. Your manager wants you to stop talking about it so he or she doesn’t have to do anything about it. But, if you put your complaint in writing at least you have shown that you’re trying to do things the correct way.

7. If none of that helps, and you continue to work there, you will have to mask the odor. Consider asking if you can have a small personal fan. That’s not ideal, but might help. You might ask if the work configuration can be changed in some way or that space assignments be changed. In jobs where there are unpleasant odors, workers wear surgical masks to cover their noses. That would get the point across!

I hope some of these ideas can be used to develop a plan of action that helps. I expect someone will need to talk to her directly, which I realize is something no one wants to do. But, it will only take those one or two sentences the first time and might solve the problem forever.

Best wishes with this. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens.
Tina Lewis Rowe