Ask a counsellor: How do I tell my colleague he smells?

Columnist and trained counsellor Fiona Caine offers her perspective on how a woman can navigate the issue of a smelly workmate.

The problem… 

“My colleague really stinks. I don’t mean sweaty like after a gym session, I’m talking so bad you can almost taste it. I suspect he hasn’t washed properly in ages and he wears the same clothes every day.

“When I mentioned it to my manager she said there was nothing she could do. I’ve only had this job a few months and feel it shouldn’t fall to me to tackle him. I like my job and don’t want to leave, but what can I do?

Fiona says…

I agree, it shouldn’t fall to you but nor should you, or anyone else, have to work in an environment that smells badly. His colleagues or managers should have tackled the issue long ago and that may be the problem; if he’s been this way for some time and no one’s said anything, it might explain their reluctance. Alternatively, they may have tried in the past and he has simply refused or been unable to change.

If your boss is not prepared to act, is there a departmental head or Personnel department you can approach? Hopefully, someone will have the necessary skill set to deal with the issue discreetly and sensitively.


If not, could you move to another office? Perhaps there are some internal positions you could apply for. I know you’ve only been there for a short while, but if Personnel are unwilling to deal with the issue, they should at least understand why you might apply for an early transfer. If none of these options are available, I’m afraid I can only see two choices for you: Accept it, or say something to this man yourself.

In fact, you might be the ideal person to do so as you’re new to the office and haven’t given tacit agreement that you are prepared to put up with the smell. He clearly has issues, but it’s also possible he is completely unaware of the effect he is having on others. For this reason, whatever you do, it must be done sympathetically, so try to find a moment when no-one else is around and be respectful.

Stress that you’ve got his interests at heart and don’t say others in the office have noticed it as well. The last thing he needs is to be embarrassed by the knowledge that the entire office has been talking about him behind his back. If you really can’t face talking to him, consider writing a letter. Finally, be aware that, however sympathetic you are, he may still simply reject your approach and carry on as before. Given this, you will have to decide how badly you want to keep this job.

If you have a problem you’d like Fiona’s advice with, email

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