Something stinks: How to address odors in the workplace

When co-workers go on “the offensive” with unwelcome odors, an employer’s response requires some delicate HR diplomacy.

Sometimes work stinks — literally. At one time or another, most workers have had to deal with unpleasant smells in the office, be it from someone reheating last night’s leftovers in the break room or a co-worker with questionable hygiene habits.

According to a recent survey from staffing firm OfficeTeam, the most annoying workplace smells come from co-workers eating stinky food (57%), followed by wearing too much body fragrance (52%), and having a strong scent on their desks (39%).

Odors in the office have become such a hot button issue that some companies are even instituting a scent-free policy — 19% of survey respondents say their companies have such a policy.

Addressing the culprit of the offending odor takes some finesse, and often requires intervention from a manager, HR, or both to ensure there is no discrimination or legal matters that arise.

Nobody likes to be told that they smell

We’ve all been there — someone has fish for lunch and the smell lingers in the office for what seems like an eternity. The bottom line is that smells can be unpleasant and downright distracting. Even more so, fragrances can be problematic to people with allergies and sensitivities.

The best thing to do is err on the side of caution and stick with foods, fragrances, and scents that are subtle and don’t create a lingering odor in the workplace, says Sasha Truckenbrod, branch manager of OfficeTeam in Madison. If you’re not sure if a scent is bothersome, ask a trusted colleague who will tell you the truth. If you’re still unsure or you don’t want to ask, then trust your gut and leave the item at home.

What often happens, though, is that the person responsible for a distracting or unpleasant smell doesn’t realize the effect they may be having on their co-workers. According to research by OfficeTeam, 46% of those surveyed say they just let it go and suffer in silence when a colleague is smelly. Seventeen percent confronted the person themselves and 15% asked their manager or human resources to intervene, notes Truckenbrod. Fragrance-free policies established by a company’s human resources department can help to define what is and isn’t allowed in the office, she says, but they might still leave a lot of gray areas that can create problems.

“A colleague who has a strong odor may seem like a minor offense, but this matter may need to be addressed if it’s causing a disturbance to others,” Truckenbrod says. “If a manager feels that a worker’s odor is distracting colleagues or negatively affecting their productivity, he or she should take the individual aside to discuss the matter.

“If it’s not getting in the way of your work, however, it may not be something worth bringing up,” she adds, “but if it’s distracting to you and affecting your productivity, taking action may be necessary. If it’s a colleague you’re close to, you might consider gently telling him or her about the issue. If you’re uncomfortable confronting the person, you can bring it up with your manager or the individual’s supervisor instead.”



Legal experts often advise that a manager and HR are both present when discussing a sensitive issue like an offensive odor with an employee. Managers often lack awareness of potential legal issues or prior similar situations that might have arisen elsewhere in the company, which is just the sort of “institutional knowledge” that HR brings to the table, management lawyer Maria L.H. Lewis told Bloomberg Law in a 2015 interview.

Employers who choose to create scent-free policies should make sure guidelines are readily available to and understood by all workers, adds Truckenbrod. When introducing a policy to employees, employers should send an e-mail and discuss it during staff meetings. The information also should be included in the employee manual and highlighted during new worker orientations. If necessary, reminders about the rules of conduct can be posted in the break room.

Where it becomes especially difficult is when an employee has a medical condition responsible for the odor (e.g., someone who has had gastric bypass surgery and now has excessive flatulence) or a cultural or religious difference might be the cause.

“That can be a difficult situation because you want to be respectful of cultural and religious differences,” notes Truckenbrod. Those are exactly the kinds of situations when she says it’s advisable for managers to discuss their concerns with their HR and legal teams to ensure they’re handling them appropriately.

Click here to sign up for the free IB ezine — your twice-weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.