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Recently I encountered a candidate for a job that has a notable problem with body odor. This person is an intern so I've worked with them for a while, and can say for sure that the issue is consistent.

The company would like my recommendation as to whether we should extend a full time offer or not. As we are a consulting company and our jobs include frequent interactions with clients, I believe that the body odor is a serious downside when considering this person for the job. It is reasonable or ethical to include this in my recommendation?

To clarify, I'm more interested in general advice on the topic, rather than advice for my specific situation. The question itself asks whether is it ethical to consider body odor in any hiring situation, not just the particular one that prompted me asking. My situation is with an intern, so we have the benefit of time to fix the problem, but what if the only interactions with the candidate were in a few interviews?

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    related: workplace.stackexchange.com/questions/621/… – Gnomejon Aug 10 '16 at 19:33
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    Has anybody has a quiet word with person.they may not be aware of the problem – Ed Heal Aug 10 '16 at 19:33
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    Are you certain that you're not the only person who thinks the person has a body odor problem? ...Don't ask me how to even find that out. I have no idea, and that's a separate question. =) – jpmc26 Aug 10 '16 at 21:33
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    Comments are not for extended discussion; the conversation about how smell and body odor work has been moved to chat. – Monica Cellio Aug 12 '16 at 3:36
  • Humans perception of odors are different, what kind of odor do you talk about, you have to be more specific about that. Your best guess about source and reason of that odor. Is that dirty socks or specific kind of sweat. Have you asked other peoples, do they smell the same as you, and their perception of that smell. – MolbOrg Aug 12 '16 at 12:39
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I find that most situations can be solved by a frank discussion with the people involved seeking to find the best solution for all parties.

With that said, have you informed this candidate that they have offensive body odor?

If you have, and they have not changed*, then your critique need only say that the candidate does not follow instructions well.

If you have not, then the issue is not with the candidate, it is with you. You have identified a problem and then failed to attempt to correct the problem.


With body odor, and other personal issues, be very careful how you approach the subject. If you can, defer to HR or at least have a mediator. If you cannot, then be sure to bring up the topic privately and with compassion.

No one is able to smell their own natural odor, because everyone normalizes to themselves. It may be that the candidate does not have a strong sense of smell. It may be that the candidate does not have access to facilities such as a shower. It may even be that they use too much of a particular perfume/cologne, and just need to change brands. If you don't know the exact details of their life, give them the benefit of the doubt.


If the only thing wrong with this candidate is that they smell bad, then why waste a perfectly good opportunity over something so trivially solvable?

* I had mistakenly assumed that anyone reading this would understand implicitly that the odor would have to be due to something that was within the candidate's control. However the comments I've received have made it clear that I need to be more explicit on this: If changing isn't an option, or simply didn't work, then go back to my first point by having a frank discussion with the people involved seeking to find the best solution for all parties; try something new and repeat until the problem is solved.

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    Not only that, but this is a perfect opportunity to test how the person responds to being asked to make a change to support a role. That can tell a lot about a candidate! – corsiKa Aug 10 '16 at 19:43
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    What if this person can't do anything about it? I know few persons that just smell and they know about it but can't do anything. It's like telling to someone who is fat that he should lose weight... – dyesdyes Aug 10 '16 at 23:23
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    @dyesdyes, being overweight doesn't impact others abilities to work, and is not remotely similar to excessive body odor. If this person had a particular medical condition that caused the odor (casts on broken limbs can often smell pretty bad) then it's a matter of having "a frank discussion with the people involved seeking to find the best solution for all parties". – zzzzBov Aug 11 '16 at 0:00
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    Best answer so far. -- You could add a suggested visit to a doctor if a quick-and-obvious remedy isn't found. -- In addition, one of my coworkers was already on a medication that made them smell very strongly. Others were convinced he never brushed or flossed his teeth. I've never smelled anything else like it but it was a bad odor. As it happens the person switched his prescription and it completely went away. – user23715 Aug 11 '16 at 1:12
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    @maria, you've misquoted me. No one can smell their own natural odor. "when I do have one" implies there is a time that you don't have an odor. You have therefore just admitted to being unable to smell your natural odor, because there is no point at which anyone is odorless. – zzzzBov Aug 11 '16 at 13:45
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Interestingly enough, I have had this very same concern expressed, more than one time, to me!

And so, I can tell you "from the other side of the fence," that I was absolutely unaware of it. And that, once quietly and tactfully informed of it, I spent considerable time pondering what to do.

After all, "I bathe every day." "I put on deodorant just like you do ..." "This is the body that I was issued, and there's only so much that I can do with it ..."

Anyhow:   the most significant thing that I found to do, aside from making a studious effort to avoid being outside for long in summer, was to ... eat garlic.   No, no, not enough to repel vampires.   I simply incorporate it into my meals. (Easy enough to do, since I love pasta and Italian food...)

Body-odor problems, in "healthy, reasonably-wealthy, middle-class people," often translate to micro-organisms that are able to colonize on a particular individual's (heaven-issued ...) skin. Garlic happens to be a natural antibiotic that permeates throughout the body:   to the breath, and to the skin.   Without "making you repulsive to a vampire," it does seem to have resolved the problem for me.

Kindly remember:   "the human sense of smell is a marvelous thing." Fish-mongers can "smell a rose!" A person who personally possesses a body-odor problem (probably) cannot detect it.

Therefore: "keep these things in mind, please, as you make those hiring-and-firing(!!!) decisions that you are tasked to make. We all occupy bodies that are "fearfully and wonderfully made," but some of those bodies are more-receptive hosts to smelly-microorganisms than others. Therefore, please "graciously inform" any fellow human-being about such matters, and politely guide them to an equitable solution. (Sure, go ahead ... tell 'em about garlic.)

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    Another cause of odor that seems obvious to almost but not quite everyone is repeated wearing of clothes without laundering them. – kevin cline Aug 10 '16 at 21:05
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    Also: "suggest that he ask his doctor!" If he feels more comfortable with that idea, go for it. (In any case, this will help to properly frame the issue in terms of what it actually is: "a clinical problem." This is, in fact: "an over-abundance of [smelly] micro-organisms in your epidermis." – Mike Robinson Aug 10 '16 at 21:37
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    @kevincline : laundering itself can be a problem if the washing machine is overloaded. – gazzz0x2z Aug 11 '16 at 8:58
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    @gazzz0x2z Or leave it in the washing machine for 48 hours after it's finished, quite a lot of things can go wrong actually. – Mast Aug 11 '16 at 9:15
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    Another thing to keep in mind is the work people do. A previous role I had while being mostly inside the office, did involve some stocktaking and during the summer being outside lifting and moving heavy things constantly makes you sweat more obviously. Someone approached me about my body odour and all I was thinking "how do you expect me to smell after 4hrs of moving boxes in 35 degree (celsius) heat?" – fib112358 Aug 11 '16 at 10:24
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It's not an ethical question, but a professional one. As a mentor to an intern, it's almost unprofessional to not address this. It's a problem for them professionally, and it needs to be addressed.

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    +1 There are way too many people that see problems they can fix, and choose to ignore them. This being an intern who they've worked with makes it more egregious that they haven't approached them about it. – fib112358 Aug 11 '16 at 10:36
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    Appearances must be kept and some workplaces have policies regarding the usage of cologne/perfume. While the workplace might have to be professional, a client does not and can leave for whatever reason. – Dan Aug 11 '16 at 16:50
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    Very true. In this day and age when many managers and supervisors think that there are an endless supply of candidates out there, they decide that they no longer actually need to manage or supervise their employees - all they have to do is keep firing them and replacing them with new ones until they get perfect ones. This might work for a short time, but it destroys morale and can destroy the lives of workers who could have done the job if you had only supervised them. – Columbia says Reinstate Monica Aug 11 '16 at 23:20
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This is from an actual management training course I took, and is the recommended approach from that course. The course recommended this approach as the best one because it is such a hard issue to deal with. The reasoning is that "noticeable odor" is the only way of addressing the issue without being insulting. You are deliberately avoiding saying "you smell" or even that the odor is bad. You just address the issue in what is really the least offensive way possible.

The issue must be addressed and addressed thusly: "There has been a noticeable odor reported from several members of staff that you need to address"

If he remediates the issue, then hire him.

  • Actually, this problem is predominant among the Male gender. ### Nevertheless, the manager should speak privately, and directly, and frankly. (Don't leverage "the rest of the team." You don't need to.) Inform the individual that the problem exists, and don't be surprised if he doesn't know. Try to minimize his natural feelings of shock and/or humiliation ... (I know these things, and don't mind admitting it) ... and simply direct him toward a solution. Go ahead... mention garlic. Or, suggest that he ask his doctor. – Mike Robinson Aug 10 '16 at 21:35
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    Yep, direct and to the point, I've done it more than once, and this is exactly how I was given a heads up way back in my youth, and I took it to heart without being offended except the boss said 'Bro, you're a great worker, but you stink mate, do something about it, people are complaining to me and I don't want to hear it so do me a favour.' – Kilisi Aug 10 '16 at 21:56
  • +1 I've had to do this before. It was someone who didn't have this issue previously, and then for some reason it got bad, I noticed it but kept my peace until a couple people mentioned it to me, then I talked to him - he figured something out, because the problem went away. – mxyzplk says reinstate Monica Jul 27 '17 at 19:48
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One thing one needs to be aware of is that the human sense of smell is usually acutely underdeveloped while the actual sensor is fully functional and, while not on par with that of a blood hound, capable to a lot more than what modern life ever asks of it. Some forms of color blindness work similarly.

As a result, individuals' sensitivity to smell signals varies wildly. Now the remaining reliable areas of significant body hair coverage (axle and crotch hair) have been kept around by evolution for distance-signalling of the availability of mating partners. This is achieved by different sweat glands in that area cultivating a bacterial lawn of their own.

This is quite natural. Also quite undesirable in the confined spaces of modern life. I have a pretty solid sense of smell (I can distinguish most horses on our grounds if you towel them off thoroughly and let me smell the towels but again: horses are intended to have individual smell), and I had to give up on thinking that showering thoroughly and changing into fresh clothes was enough to get body odour under control sufficiently for not distracting/annoying me. I had to revert to hair removal at least with regard to the axle hair in order to get rid of the bacterial reservoirs readily providing bad smell pretty much right after showering with the first trace of sweat.

Now that's all anecdotal and whatever but the point is that body odour might not be accessible to measures that are even remotely suitable for suggesting to a colleague. Regular hygiene and change of clothes can be expected when a problem has been brought to notice. But it is not guaranteed to do the job, at least not for everybody in smelling range.

There is the additional problem of not just the "smelly" areas: skin has its own odour, partly determined by the sweat from the "non-stinky" glands. That of smokers smells rather pungently, people eating a whole lot of garlic smell strongly. And people of different race to your own have a different odour that is more distinctly noticeable than that of bodies more similar to your own.

Modern life is not organized in tribes, so you cannot afford getting distracted by the uncontrollable biological tribe markers, and bringing them to attention would be seriously unfair and offensive.

Which may explain the overall taboo on discussing all smelly things. Some people just cannot do a lot, and some people likely could.

After all that, there is not a lot to recommend in consequence that hasn't been said by others: don't be an ass about this. If this is going to end up a serious impediment for the person's employment, you have to give him the chance of changing it. There are a lot of reasons the person might not be aware of how much in excess of "standards" his/her smell is. If the person is lucky, he still has enough of an own sense of smell to assess his own impact on others once he has readjusted his attention. Otherwise he might be in the situation of a blind person applying makeup, finding someone in his personal circle who can, once asked, provide the necessary feedback until routine sets in.

The "worst" that can happen is that he drops out of one job out of embarrassment for having made a bad olfactory impression. Still better than getting shunned or let go again and again without having a clue why.

And to give this some perspective: the one colleague where I'd really have had a terrible time of sharing a room with him went overboard the other direction. I could tell whether he was on the floor when I arrived due to his choice of body care products. He went out of the country in between (incidentally, to the U.S.) and some months afterwards I enquired from a colleague whether he was already back ("what? No, he's away for half a year."). Later that day I saw him (he was on vacation) and he apparently had been in briefly before I had arrived.

When he finally returned, he was inconspicuous. Either somebody had clued him in, or he had run out of his usual product or whatever. Now that was for somebody who smelled "too good" and yet I never brought myself to tell him.

I hope you do better than I did.

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    As I meant by saying, "fish-mongers can smell a rose," the human sense of smell (like those of other animals) will "tune out" other smells (such as those produced by mounds of fish ...), in order to be able to detect another one (a rose). It takes a great deal of tact to inform someone that they have this problem. And, it certainly can be "medical." Some doctors say that they can get a good idea of what's wrong with a patient when they first walk into the examining room, and take a deep breath. – Mike Robinson Aug 11 '16 at 13:32
  • On the floor? I don’t understand. – JDługosz Aug 15 '16 at 2:41
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One fact that other answers are ignoring is timing.

The OPs recommendation is likely needed in a much shorter time frame than is available to assess if they are willing and able to consistently follow through on solving the problem. This discussion should have happened when the problem was noted so that it could have been resolved or determined unresolvable before this point. Failing to solve this before this point is the fault of this interns mentor.

Given that the OP is unable to determine if they can/will solve this problem once brought to their attention, current status of this issue should be mentioned in any recommendation for a client facing role.

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What is unethical is not addressing this issue with the candidate or employee when it's first noticed. Having various kinds of body odor issues will impact this person in every aspect of life either directly or indirectly.

As an example, I had an employee who had a very difficult time controlling his body odor. Sadly his spouse did not feel that it was appropriate to address the topic with him and he went around leaving an awful fecal odor at every chair in which he sat. This odor would remain for hours and no one knew what to do about the situation.

Once the issue was brought to my attention I spent a good bit of time considering the situation. He's an obese fellow and I'm certain that he can't take care of his problem very easily, but no one could stand being around him. I came to learn that we were silently losing clients due to this very issue as well.

Ultimately I brought the issue to his attention and it very much embarrassed him. It's hard to talk about these things and sometimes it's very hard to hear such things. Our relationship was never the same after this, but he did resolve the issue at least when it wasn't very hot. He still struggled even after the temperature raised, but things did improve.

Ultimately we had to figure out alternative seating arrangements in the facility and eventually he left our organization. Even though this was a difficult challenge, employees and clients were happier once he was gone.

It's a difficult situation, but frankly it is your obligation to notify a candidate of this problem prior to hiring them. If they show up with such issues at this phase when they should be shining their brightest and ready to perform, then things likely will only go downhill with time and comfortability.

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I know this was more than year and half ago but no one mentioned the fact that it can be a legal issue. There are medical conditions that can cause body odor problems. If you don't hire such a person because of odor, you're committing a Federal crime hiring wise; discriminating based on medical condition. Anyone in management or on hiring committees got a big lecture on this and asking any personal questions in interviews at Amazon because, apparently—I wasn't privy—it had recently been a problem.

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