Someone smells bad – what do I say?

Sometimes we find ourselves in a very awkward situation at work. It is that uncomfortable feeling that you know someone needs some feedback on something very personal.

You don’t want to be the person that tells them that they have food in their teeth, or they have sat in something that has left a stain, or perhaps the most difficult to approach: issues of body odour and bad breath.

This is one of the most uncomfortable interpersonal situations possible. Most would prefer to recoil in disgust, move desks and leave the room… then complain to their friends rather than address the issue head on. Some will make jokes or give them a bad nickname. The reason most often provided is that they don’t want to embarrass the other person, but a contributing factor is that we are avoiding the potential aggressive/defensive outburst that may be directed at us.

Don’t make jokes or leave unsubtle gifts. INSTEAD: Use a personal approach

A common response to dealing with the issue of someone having body odour is to make subtle jokes or leave soaps or deodorants to tiptoe towards dealing with the issue. It is a test of sorts to see if someone is aware of the odour or whether they are completely oblivious to it. This can be a really damaging strategy! If someone is aware that they have an issue and you drop jokes and spray fresheners around them – they will become embarrassed and self-conscious.

The result will be shame and embarrassment. It is much better to take a personal approach, talk to them directly and, of course, in private.

Don’t give nasty or inappropriate feedback. INSTEAD: Be sensitive with words and explain that you care

Sometimes people leave it so long – weeks or months and by the time they tell the person it comes out in a nasty way (directly or anonymously) – because they feel they have been tortured for too long. It can be beneficial to mention that you are a little uncomfortable about bringing the issue up, but you’d prefer to be direct and deal with it quickly and kindly to avoid having anyone talk behind their back. Think of how you would want to receive personal feedback and use that as a starting point. Also, don’t be surprised if, despite your sensitive approach, you still receive an emotional reaction.

Embarrassment can make people react strangely, but over time they will appreciate the direct and sensitive way you approached them.

It is so easy to alienate and be condescending to someone when trying to communicate on this personal level. It helps to refer to what you would want to hear if you were in their position, and continually reinforce that you care about them and the impression they make on people around them.

Sensitive issues require a level of skill, and at times you may get it horribly wrong. However, people have a tendency to respect and warm towards people who show a personal and caring interest in them. Even clumsy attempts will be received well over time, and over time you will get better at it.

Eve Ash has produced a new range of CUTTING EDGE COMMUNICATION comedy videos including: Giving Hygiene Feedback, Ensuring a Respectful Workplace, Breaking Bullying, Surviving Team Conflicts, and Surviving Stress and Burnout that can be used for to kick off a fun training session. Eve has produced a wide range of video and book resources ( on building confidence and interpersonal skills. Eve’s two books can Rewrite Your Life! and Rewrite Your Relationships! and can be helpful when negative thoughts drag you down.


Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments