When the BOSS has the BO?

Question:

All advice seems right on and a tough job of the boss or the HR person. But what to do when the offensive odor emanates from the boss? She is a phenominal person, a great boss, and I guess an old hippie who wears the same clothing day in and day out. Could be she has several of the same outfits…but they aren’t laundered frequently enough.

This is not a subject I feel comfortable addressing-and while this could be an excuse, I feel the conversation should be initiated by one of her friends, or someone else she has worked with for longer than the 9 months I’ve been here. This a a non-profit, Senior Center in a small rural community. She has fought a long hard battle to get this center on its feet and there are a couple of board members who have been trying to get her gone for quite some time. How unfortunate for everyone if the BO issue overshadows all the marvelous accomplishments! HELP!!!!

Signed,

I Need Advice


Answer:

DearĀ I Need Advice:

You’re right, that it would be a shame to have good accomplishments overshadowed. On the other hand, your boss lives and works in a society where the requirement to smell fresh–and how to achieve it–is well known by most. So, she has created her own shaky–and stinky–situation. That is unfortunate for her work and for those who would like to see her succeed. So, hopefully you and others can help her see her error.

It may be that you are right and she doesn’t use deodorant or antiperspirant. Once that smell is in clothes, dry cleaning will not take it out easily, and even washing requires extra effort to get all the bacteria and odor out of the seams and the fiber. A few weeks ago, a woman who smelled really terrible approached me at a conference. She had heard me tell a story about an odor situation. She said, almost with pride, that she never used antiperspirant because it causes cancer, and she doesn’t use deodorant because one’s body smell is natural. She was so pugnacious about it that it became clear she was more interested in being stubborn and resistant to the norm, than she was in anything else.

I said, “One’s face is natural too, but I see you’re wearing make-up. And hair oil is natural, but you’ve washed and curled your hair, and you’re wearing a bra, a blouse and pants and running shoes,and you have jewelry and you’ve trimmed your nails, and seemed to have brushed your teeth, so apparently natural isn’t that big a thing to you after all.”

That whole “it’s natural” concept seems to only apply to someone when they are making other’s ill from the sweat smell! In some cultures the sweat smell is not considered offensive, but that isn’t THIS culture. In this culture it detracts from the focus on good work when people are keenly aware of odors, whether it’s body odor, breath odor, too much fragrance or anything else.

I am usually an advocate of talking to someone directly rather than using anonymous notes or hinting. But, when the person is your own boss I think that makes it quite a bit different. There is nearly always an awkwardness afterwards. That is part of a supervisor’s job and they should learn to deal with the awkwardness. But, a direct report employee is a different situation. I wonder if your boss has a direct boss. If so, that is the person who should be talking to her about it. Perhaps you could say something to that person. Or–and I rarely suggest this, but think it would be appropriate in this case–send that person an anonymous note saying how much you admire Ms. Smith, but feel someone should say something to her about her odor. You don’t need to identify yourself as an employee, so it could be anyone. That way your boss’s boss would have a way to start the conversation, and take it off her own shoulders if she wants.

You could also send an anonymous note to your boss’s home, not indicating that the writer is an employee. Again, I would usually not advocate that, but it is one option. Working in a senior center makes it a bit easier, because one of the people using the center might have written it! Or, you could bite the bullet and use this method: Think to yourself that the conversation will be over with in a few minutes, it won’t kill you, you won’t be fired, and just do it. Say this in a confidential tone, to imply you’re hinting as a courtesy.) “Ummm, Shirley, I’d want someone to tell me if my clothes had a bad odor, so I’m telling you. Your sweater has a sweaty smell, and I know you wouldn’t want that, so I thought I’d better let you know before you were around other people today.”

You could make it stronger and say that you’ve noticed that her clothes have a sweaty smell now and then–like right now. Or, you could stop at the immediate problem and hope that would help her realize that all her clothes might have that odor. Then, do the same thing the next time there’s an odor. You could say, “You must think I’m the clothes police, but I know you wouldn’t want people to be bothered by a sweaty smell!”

Or, you could try taking the approach that you don’t know for sure where the odor is coming from. (I don’t think this works as well, but has on occassion.) “Oh my! I smell a sweaty odor. I hope that isn’t me! (sniff, sniff) No, it’s not me. Shirley I hate to say it, but it must be you. Yep, it is. Oh my! Do you need to run home and change? I’ll handle things while you do.”

If she acts shocked and horrified to think she smells badly, reinforce it, “Oh, I KNEW you would hate that, that’s why I thought I’d better say something.” If she doesn’t act upset, you know your advice won’t be accepted, and you will also know she MAY have been talked to already.

If you only hint about someone else smelling sweaty, or leave articles around, or leave some antiperspirant on the desk, she might not get the connection. Then, if someone says something to her directly, she’ll realize what you were hinting and may be hurt and angry that you didn’t come right out and say it. I think she will likely have to be jolted to get her attention. Right now she thinks no one notices or cares. Or, she doesn’t care. So, if you want to help her you may have to be the one to shock her out of her complacency. Or, maybe you can offer these suggestions to her closer friends and see if they will do it, as a way to help her save her job.

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

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.