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I share an office with someone who smells extremely bad, maybe the worst I have ever known anyone to smell in my life (I'm not exaggerating, it smells like they have some item of clothing which has not been washed for years). Breathing it in you can almost feel the hairs in your nose being singed it is so corrosive.

I normally would not care about someone's smell as I don't get that close to people, but this guy's smell permeates everything in a radius of a five metres around him and even walking through a corridor where he has been is unpleasant. Opening all the windows in the office space does not help.

What is the best way to approach him about this without upsetting him or offending him?

I work at a university as a research student, so I don't really have a manager to go to, there is no-one who manages that office space and not a HR department as far as I know.

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    I doubt that you don't have a manager to go to. Who hired you? Who is responsible for your work? There's almost always someone responsible for the spaces where people work, too. And, at a university, there's an HR department, along with staff for whatever department you work for. Sep 17, 2022 at 13:08
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    I don't really have a manager to go to, there is no-one who manages that office space and not a HR department - OK, sooo.... move to another office? If you don't have a manager, and there's no HR department then it seems to me that you have the liberty of working anywhere you please.
    – joeqwerty
    Sep 17, 2022 at 17:08
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    Does this answer your question? How should I approach a co-worker on matters of personal hygiene? Sep 18, 2022 at 11:18
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    You may not have a "manager", but perhaps you have a "personal tutor", "advisor", and/or "supervisor"? Sep 18, 2022 at 22:08

4 Answers 4

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I have witnessed the same situation back when I was a student in the university and doing an internship in a department.

A teacher from said department simply didn't take any showers. This was very bad, as you could know if he had used the elevator minutes before you or even the open corridor.

Nothing implied or said by the head of the department could solve the issue. This I think is some kind of mental health problem. You won't be able to make this person take a shower because what that person needs is some sort of therapy or medical help.

The teacher sharing the room with him had those electrical air fresheners on every single plug of the office and started doing every possible activity outside of the office. He climbed the ladder of the university management very fast, we always joked it was thanks to the smell of the other guy :)

For the students, we just had to endure it. If there was a meeting with people from outside the university we just made sure of opening all windows and maybe smoking in the room beforehand to mask the smell a bit. It was definitely embarrassing.

Good luck with it.

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    I wonder why is this accepted as an answer while offering no actual approaches; but to just suffer & endure.
    – sepehr
    Sep 26, 2022 at 12:28
  • And this can only happen in places with Tenure. You can't possibly expect this to be tolerated in a private company, and then to MEET PEOPLE outside the company.
    – Nelson
    Sep 27, 2022 at 4:11
  • @sepehr I just wanted to add my personal point of view and experience. You do not always have a way to ‘fix’ something. To me it also looks like the environment that OP described (university, tenure, lack of boss) was quite similar to what I witnessed during my university years. Indeed I have never seen anything similar in the private sector.
    – LaintalAy
    Sep 27, 2022 at 13:22
  • @sepehr also there are levels. One person may not shower enough and smell a bit and your answer will help them. Other people may have a way bigger mental problem behind and your solution is like recommending to someone depressed to just stop being depressed. It all depends on the situation and individual in question.
    – LaintalAy
    Sep 27, 2022 at 13:29
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    @LaintalAy You have a point there about depression.
    – sepehr
    Sep 28, 2022 at 11:50
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This will be very unpleasant for both of you, but the only possible solution I see is having a private talk with the colleague. Ask him if you can have a word in private, and very politely point it out to him. Don't tell him "hey, you stink, wash more!", but inform him about your observations.

I'm very embarassed to say this, but I notice some body odor when I'm standing near you. Just wanted to inform you about that.

Leave it at that. No washing tips or guesses what causes it.

If it doesn't improve after a week, find the manager of the colleague and share your observations with that person. As always, be factual and as polite as possible.

You identify the person as an "colleague", so I'm guessing this is not just a open workspace, but some lab or office. In that case, there must be someone who hired all of you, or owns the lab. If it really is just an open room where everyone can go to for learning or working, all you can do is leave. Or repeatedly inform the colleague that the smell is still there. Maybe this will cause him to go eventually.

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Depending upon whoever was in charge (manager or maybe HR), and how much I could safely trust them, just went and informed them in a non-combative, direct, and concise manner that the perpetrators had bad body odor, and it was making it difficult to work in the same setting. The key was to try as best I could to not step on toes or come across as judge mental. With politics and over sensitivity in workplaces, you have to watch your back.

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Get closer to him & open up a communication channel.

I was in a similar situation with a colleague. I approached him after a while and mentioned something along the lines of:

"Hey XXXX, you know that you're known as a valued asset around here. I want to let you know of an issue that is sort of circulating about you but no body dares or cares to tell you about it. This is not an easy conversation for me, but I think I owe you that much as a colleague to let you know about this. It's probably not going to be a comfortable conversation for you either. Let me know if you want to hear about it... People are talking about the body odor around you all the time, and they tend to keep their distance when you are around. I would dare and say you'll greatly benefit from addressing the issue."

He did address the issue and was thankful for the advice.

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