This one’s a classic and while it’s probably funny to some people, it’s no laughing matter to me.  I work in a “bullpen” style office where the desks are bunched together fairly closely.  We have someone in our office, “Lucy,” who is a fairly strong, generally likeable person, but has a strong body odor, particularly around “that” time of the month.  I’m a guy, and a younger one at that, I don’t feel comfortable addressing the issue with her (and think it would be creepy and gross on a few levels, too).  I feel bad, though, as it is something that EVERYONE talks about behind her back, but I don’t know that she is even conscious of.  To make it worse, I know she really wants a job that may come open this year, but it’s customer facing.  Any ideas?  I could really use some.

Charlie; Indianapolis, IN

Charlie,

Though the details may vary, the question of how to tactfully communicate to a co-worker/roommate/classmate the fact that they bring the funk more effectively (and far less intentionally) than George Clinton or Parliament has been around, no doubt, since the first time circumstances forced two people to share space.

Suggestions have ranged, over the years, from anonymous “hints” such as deodorant or breath mints left in a conspicuous place, to blunt statements-of-fact (akin to ripping off the emotional band-aid and getting the damn thing over with), or even anonymous letters, but I am careful to note two specific factors related to your case: 1) that the odor is of the “feminine” variety and not a more straightforward smell such as underarm or breath odor and b) the fact that you are a young man and unlikely to be in any position of power or responsiblity in relation to your colleague.

Both of these are significant because they largely rule out the earlier options.  Not only can the awkwardness factor increase by crazy amounts when a man attempts to discuss a strictly feminine issue with a woman (no matter how well intentioned, or how carefully phrased, it always risks coming off as someone talking about something they can only guess), there’s another consideration in this day and age: harassment.  Whereas placing a new package of deodorant or breath mints in a locker or on a desk was once just embarrassing for the recipient, it could, later be used as supporting “evidence” of harassment, hazing, or intentional humiliation if someone (someone perhaps feeling humiliated and angry in the initial wake of realizing they may have offensive body odor–and everyone has been talking about it) wanted to press the issue.  Now substitute “deodorant” or “breath mints” with “feminine deodorant spray” or “feminine body wash,” and you’ve just instantly compounded the issue with a sexual/gender element that, especially for you as a man in a potentially subordinate position, could be misread and cost you and your reputation dearly should things move in an unfortunate direction.

For these and many other reasons, it makes the most sense for you to speak with HR (and, specifically, your HR manager, not a clerk or HR administrator).  HR is the only department in any company paid to have awkward conversations–from initial salary negotiations, to sitting in on disciplinary actions, or explaining the terms of a layoff–and they are not in your chain-of-command (while many bosses–yours, hers, or one you share–would appreciate your obvious sincerity, a poorly chosen phrase or simple miscommunication as to your motives or reasoning could affect your own prospects with your company’s leadership).   In fact, in most cases, when you ask to speak about an issue confidentially at the outset, such a request is respected (though not a given). Further, an HR manager is the one person most inoculated against a charge of harassment, in this case, and thus the person most likely to take, rather than avoid, action when your conversation is over.

To be most effective, go in with exactly what you’ve shared here: a statement of the problem, your genuine concern that she might not be aware, your uncomfortability with the fact that some co-workers now gossip about the situation, and the concern you have that she might be unintentionally limiting herself in future opportunities.  Don’t over-explain, don’t defend, and don’t try to inject humor or examples (unless asked).  There is something sweet about your concern that speaks well of you here, and you want that to come through in this case as well.

And then, well, don’t hold your breath.   While I suspect the issue would be addressed promptly, it’s quite possible your HR manager may punt on it.  (It IS awkward and uncomfortable to discuss body odor and HR managers are human as well.)  And it is further possible that even with all the awareness in the world, you co-worker may be unwilling or unable (for medical reasons, etc.) at least in the short-term to affect the issue (while it is likely she has no idea, there is also the possibility that she has struggled with this for some time and may need to see  a doctor about an underlying cause).  She might react negatively and the whole situation could go poorly–it happens. But you will know you’ve taken action both to improve your situation and assist your co-worker in optimizing her situation and you did it sincerely, tactfully, and at the right level of appropriateness (no more, no less).  Those qualities will serve you well as you advance in your career and onto supervisory and managerial efforts–refine, but never lose them.  Good luck!