On the nose – what to do about smells in the workplace

On the nose – what to do about smells in the workplace

When we think about human interaction we usually discuss what people say to each other.

How you influence or affect someone usually comes down to a matter of discussion, but rarely do we take that awkward step in discussing how people affect each other via scent.

Does smell really matter?

In a word, yes. We just don’t talk about it. Bad smells are one of the strongest taboos in the workplace. We are all affected quite strongly by unpleasant smells.

Think about the language used around unpleasant smells: foul, offensive, disgusting. Nobody ever uses those words when discussing how someone looks or sounds. For some reason, the olfactory system carries with it an overwhelming response when it receives some unwanted sensory input. If someone near us is emitting a strong body odour we can find it really difficult to concentrate. One of the biggest complaints about public transport is morning breath and body odour.

On the other side of the equation – being accused of being a source of a bad smell is highly offensive. We will react quite strongly and deny it immediately if someone dares suggest that we could be the source. It is otherwise quite embarrassing if we know that we are the source of a smell and somebody else happens to comment.

We often don’t address this issue properly – but it really does matter.

Cigarette smells

In Australia we have some of the strictest smoking laws in the world. Smokers have been driven outside regardless of the weather. We are all more knowledgeable about health concerns around passive smoking, but what about those who are offended by the smell of cigarettes? It is a scent that clings to clothes and hair – and that’s just for the people who stand nearby! The smoker themselves bring a latent ashtray smell with them wherever they go.

What if two people do long drives together for work, and one complains to you about the other’s smoker’s breath in the car. They say that each time the smoker stops for a smoke break, they bring their disgusting smoky breath back into the car. Meanwhile the smoker feels they are smoking well away from the other person and would deny there is any issue. People do have different sensitivities to smell, and for some it can make them nauseous. Many smokers are either oblivious or simply don’t care and will happily smoke at outdoor cafes as if no one will mind.

Slightly less than one in five Australians smoke, and depending on your take on deeply embedded addictions, it is a choice they make which influences the 80% of the population around them. As a manager you would probably act quite quickly if you thought that there was a passive smoking issue that was affecting the health of non-smoking employees – but what if it was just affecting their ability to feel comfortable and enjoy their working environment? At what point do you make a stand?

Body smells

There seems to be an extra level of reaction reserved for the waft of body odour. It will cause people to avoid certain offices (opting for phone or email contact instead) and be the source of many behind-the-hand conversations at lunchtime. It can come from a variety of sources, but the effect is always the same: complete and utter devastation from the person who inhales that scent. Many a story has been told about a taxi driver on a hot summer’s day, or the sporty person in the office that bike rides to work.

Food smells

If someone in the office is on a health kick and decides that a tuna salad is going to be their choice of lunch every day, and that sound of opening the can causes a rising cringe in the rest of the team sharing the office space, then you’ve got a bit of a problem on your hands. In a relaxed office you might have someone walk in and say “what stinks? Oh it’s the tuna”, in which case the health kicker gets some feedback instantly, but in more conservative office where people opt out of direct discussion, the person carries on eating the tuna every day and irritating all of those around them.

Open conversation makes a huge difference

In an openly communicative office people will comment on a smell when they first encounter it. When you have a team that is comfortable enough to be free and open with conversation like this it saves everyone a lot of heartache. (Not just for smell issues, but also the full gamut of communication-related issues.) However, even in this sort of environment people will only comment on what they perceive to be something that the person can change.

Is it really someone’s fault? What about medical conditions?

Okay, imagine this – you’ve got a promising young colleague that you need to manage. She does everything right: she is smart, creative and hardworking, but her breath is noxious. You know her people skills are impeccable so you want her to meet your best clients, but you know that they will be put off by the smell of her breath. Remember, it’s hard to even think straight if your nostrils are filling with something you find unpleasant, so as a manager you need to consider this carefully.

But let’s say she has a medical condition: an unexplained halitosis that persists despite her strong oral health habits and constant supply of breath mints, what then?

And what about the colleague that arrives smelling like aftershave and soap, but within an hour is exuding a body odour that could peel the paint off the walls? These are clearly people who do the same as the rest of us but for some reason have an odour that persists.

What can a manager do? Sack someone?

I’ve never heard of someone losing their job over poor smells, but it does go a long way to interrupting the person’s ability to build the standard social bonds that make us more effective in the workplace. A manager could never sack someone whilst citing the reason as ‘body odour’ or ‘bad breath’. However, in a client-facing role in particular the manager needs to ensure that they’re optimizing the customer’s experience at all times.

Like most things, pretending it isn’t happening or just removing someone to avoid dealing with the problem isn’t the right way. Because people are so sensitive about smells this will require navigating the grey areas in a way you’ve never had to before. If you want to deliver the news to someone that they are the source of a smell that is affecting the way others work, then you need to do so very carefully.

Make sure you do it in private. This sensitive issue will blow up and do significant harm to the person’s self-esteem if you treat this as any other than a strictly confidential discussion. Outline the problem quickly but show a lot of understanding. Most people will be at pains to explain that it’s not their fault, or that they were completely unaware of it. Sometimes it will be a case of hygiene – which is a difficult conversation to have because you need to either mention that others have been complaining (which will cause huge embarrassment) or you describe your own experience, which can result in aggressive retort.

It’s important to address the emotional response without becoming emotional yourself. Calm and confident the whole way will mean that as the initial shocks eases the person will start to realize the implications of what you’re saying.

Also – make sure you highlight that even though it’s hard to hear, that they’ll benefit greatly in the long run by addressing the cause. And better that it is said directly to them than have others continually talk behind their backs.

There is no easy way.

Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace.



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