By: Alison Green\The Cut.com
A week ago, a manager in another department, who is also a friend, sat me down in her office and talked to me because, apparently, I am the smelly co-worker.
She was very kind and I could tell that it was incredibly hard for her. I think I took the beginning of the conversation well. I’m incredibly sensitive to scented products (severity ranging from itchiness to full-on hives) and had just recently changed deodorants after the one I had been using was discontinued. Unscented products don’t always work well, so I was responsive to that. However, she mentioned that it was an ongoing issue and had gotten to the point that several co-workers had asked her about it (in her words, out of concern) and that our store manager and my previous department manager had mentioned it to me.
This is where I became mortified. I remember the specific instances she was referring to and they were not framed as “this is an ongoing issue.” With my department manager, I was running late to work and made it there without part of my uniform. I only had a shirt that I had tossed in my trunk a while ago. My manager mentioned that I didn’t smell great and that because she was pregnant it was hard for her to be around me. We went to a back office, and I took off the shirt and asked her to smell it and then me. She said it was 100 percent the shirt. We asked the same co-worker who gave me this recent talk and she agreed (she remembered the incident when I mentioned it). That was what my old department manager considered “talking to me about it.”
There was a similar scenario with my other manager: The power briefly went out overnight while I was drying clothes. I started the dryer when I woke up and didn’t realize that the shirt smelled mildewy until I got to work and started moving around. (I rewashed the entire load when I got home.) The first occurrence was in January of last year. The second was in June. Which means that this has been an issue for almost a year, and no one said anything to me.
I shower daily, wear deodorant, wash my sheets every week, and am generally a clean person. I am embarrassed that all my co-workers were talking about me and, yet, no one said anything to me. I could have taken steps to fix it, but I feel ashamed and really insecure that I was the source of work gossip for almost a year and now I am too uncomfortable to talk to anyone at work. Everyone has been asking me if I’m okay, since I’m not my usual jovial self.
I’ve just started using scented products on work days and unscented ones on my days off to try and give my itchy skin a break. I’m at a loss about how to feel comfortable in my workplace again.
Oh no! How awful.
But what you’ve described here isn’t necessarily a year of smelling bad! It sounds like it could just be three separate incidents, all with understandable explanations: the smelly shirt from the trunk last January, the dryer disaster in June, and the new deodorant last week. You might have smelled just fine the rest of the time! But in your co-worker’s head, those three different times could add up to a pattern worth addressing, without it having been a problem all those months in between.
I’m sure the last thing you want to do is reopen this conversation with your colleague, but there might be real value in asking her to clarify whether it’s been a consistent issue the entire time, or whether it’s just been these three individual incidents. That will help you figure out what you need to do to address it and, depending on the answer, it could also bring you some peace of mind.
If it does turn out it’s been an ongoing problem, the best approach is to be as matter-of-fact about it as you can with yourself. Don’t let your internal narrative be, “This is humiliating, I smell and everyone knows but no one has told me, and agggghhh how will I face people again?” Instead, the internal narrative you want is more like, “Well, something on me stinks! I’m going to figure out what it is.”
I know that’s easier said than done — but the more you can see this as a weird thing that happened to you rather than as a personal failing, the better. And truly, this does not sound like a personal failing. You shower daily, wear deodorant, and keep your laundry clean — all the normal defenses most people have in place against our own stinky bodies. Something just wasn’t working the way you expected it to.
It also should help to think about what you would think if you were the co-worker of someone who sometimes smelled. You probably wouldn’t think, “What a revolting person!” but rather, “Oh, she doesn’t realize.”
As for more practical steps, you shouldn’t have to rely on scented products that are making you itch! There are so many products for sensitive skin; you shouldn’t need to sacrifice your physical comfort in this quest. You can also talk with your doctor, who should be able to figure out if there might be something medical going on, as well as recommend products that will work for you (including prescription-strength ones if you want to go that route).
Last, this probably sounds counter intuitive, but you might feel better if you thank your colleague for having the conversation with you. There’s real power in being comfortable enough to go back to her, thank her for being willing to raise an uncomfortable topic, and let her know you’re taking steps to fix the problem. That could also give you a chance to stress that if it’s ever an issue again, you’d want to know right away — and not let the discomfort of the topic delay getting it fixed.
Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here.