If that certain something about Mary (or Mike) is unusual ripeness, you've got a problem.
And so does your company, especially if the stinky person deals with customers. Solving it requires the right mix of tact and directness, understanding and forcefulness. You can't give an inch when insisting that an employee meet basic standards of personal hygiene, but you also must be empathetic.
"Severe body odor can be a passive-aggressive way of imposing on others," says Dr. Gail Saltz, a psychiatrist at New York Presbyterian Hospital and author of "Anatomy of A Secret Life." "It can be a way of saying, 'I don't like you' or 'I don't like what you're doing and therefore, I'm going to make you smell me.' This makes it harder to engage the person, but don't let the situation remain passive. If someone is clearly being offensively non-hygienic, make the decision to engage that person directly."
However, a profound personal funk may mean nothing more than the employee is completely wrapped up in thinking about whatever it is he's thinking about and ignores the small points of daily life. Or, an occasional acquaintance with soap and water simply may underscore different cultural standards. You can't know unless the problem is considered in the context of long-term behavior, and then there are no guarantees that you've correctly assessed the situation.
"We're pushed to be super-clean in our society," Saltz says. "Failure to bathe regularly could be a person's rebellion, telling the boss — or that person's parents — 'You can't control me, and I'm going to be the way I want to be.' "
The more than slightly gamey person also could be a raging narcissist with an overwhelming sense of entitlement, yet so insecure that he blankets the office and everyone in it with constant criticism. Such a person wouldn't take kindly to the casual observation that he's somehow less than perfect for reeking worse than a garbage dump on a hot day. If the employee huffs, "What stink?" when questioned about his unseemly aura, chances are it's passive-aggressive behavior.
In short, who knows why some people don't bathe regularly? Managers aren't shrinks, and there is no recommended handbook for office shrinkology. A manager can't solve the underlying issue, and shouldn't try, but can resolve the immediate manifestation of that problem: a stench thick enough to deflate a buzzard.
It's not unreasonable for an employer to ask workers to meet the company's standards in appearance and personal hygiene. As a manager, the task falls to you.
Here's one way to handle it:
First, don't tell the person, "You stink. Here's a buck. Go get a bar of soap." That will only anger the person and will accomplish nothing, except perhaps extending the time between showers by another week.
Instead, take the person aside and have a private conversation. If your office seems too confrontational, suggest a casual lunch or meet the person after work in an informal setting.
"Say 'I feel' rather than 'You are,' " Saltz suggests. "You don't want to make the person defensive. Try, 'You seem angry — I feel you don't want to be around me or your co-workers.' Say how the person's behavior makes you feel — and you might be able to get the person to step outside himself for a moment and see things as you do."
Make it clear to the person that this is a professional discussion — not a personal gripe. You might start by saying that personal cleanliness is part of the company's dress code or basic code of conduct. If the person's work meets company standards, make it clear that personal hygiene is the only problem in the person's job performance. (See: "I Pledge Allegiance To My Company.")
Keep in mind that other members of your team are depending on you to set things straight. Don't let this increase the pressure or make you become impatient. There's always the possibility that the person will cut the conversation short and leave in a huff. If that happens, it's time to talk to the folks in the personnel office.
Tell the person that his lack of cleanliness is offensive to others and undercuts his job performance. If the person deals with customers, remind him that for many he's the face of the company and his lack of personal grooming undercuts the company's effort to remain competitive.
Remember: Be direct, but don't be confrontational. If Mary or Mike gets huffy, say that you wanted them to hear your concerns straight up and directly from you rather than through the grapevine. In most cases, your directness will be appreciated.
Still, an angry or at least an emotional response can be expected. Again, be direct. Try saying something like this: "I can see that you're upset by this. Let's work together to sort it out."
The person may become confrontational. If you shout back, you've lost. So, remain calm — here's where you earn your pay as a manager. Let the person pop off, and then say that you're being upfront and honest about the problem for the good of the company. Remind the person that continued inattention to personal hygiene will limit advancement and damage his career — an unnecessary outcome for someone of his obvious talent.
Be prepared for no reaction other than simmering anger. If so, ask the person a simple question: "What do you think about this problem and what I've just told you?"
At this point, even the most self-absorbed knucklehead or prima donna will have gotten the point. But don't assume that Mary or Mike will immediately change after your conversation. Try to get them to agree that their lack of attention to personal hygiene is a problem for themselves and others and lay out a plan to correct it. Heavy perfume or cologne won't cut it — soap and water is only the acceptable answer. Always follow up your meeting with encouragement. Notice improvement and praise it. Keep an eye (or nose) out for recurring problems. (See: "How To Motivate Bad Employees.")
It's a mistake to tell the person's co-workers what went on at the private meeting. If anyone asks, just say that it was a minor problem and a resolution is in the works. If your superiors ask, tell them, but otherwise say nothing because you want to keep the situation as low-key as possible.
If you've done everything you can and the person refuses to acknowledge the problem and declines to take any corrective action, it's time to talk to the folks in personnel. Firing a worker can get dicey, and don't tell anyone to empty out his desk without first talking to the head personnel officer.
These basic techniques will serve you well at privately held companies or major corporations such as Intel, Cisco Systems, Microsoft, Boeing, Wells Fargo or Exxon Mobil.
"Like any relationship, a good working relationship requires conscious effort to make it thrive," Saltz says.