Bad Hygiene Isn't an Oversight -- It's Her Strategy

Last Updated Nov 16, 2009 2:22 PM EST

Dear Stanley,

A co-worker reeks of cat box and some days are worse than others. A kindlier soul than I has spoken to her gently but she's dismissed suggestions and admonitions. At times, the smell is so intense I become nauseous. Others noted her odiferous presence with less kindness, directly to the management, but nothing's been done. Although she's a competent worker, she apparently can't smell herself. What can be done?


Nosed Off

Dear Nosed,

As Robert Burns said in his famous poem, "Oh would some Power consent to tell us/How other people hate to smell us!" Actually, he didn't really say that. But he said something like that. It was his contention that the ability to see ourselves as others see us (and possibly smell us) would "from many a blunder free us." And he was probably right, except for one thing: In the case of some people, they're not making a mistake, and the offense they are giving is not inadvertent. It's on purpose.

There are many places in the business universe right now where people are forced to work cheek by jowl with each other. It's cubicle culture. This is particularly prevalent in New Age hipstervilles where everybody is presumed to be equal, even the billionaires walking around in T-shirts and ripped jeans. It's all so very cool, you know, that nobody has a real office and that the conference rooms belong to the people and that we all just camp around wherever our work takes us on that day and that all we have to call our own, really, is a little chair and a little desklet, and some tiny little dividers, maybe. In New York City, the mayor owns a huge media company, and everybody there has absolutely NO privacy at all. I don't care what they say, I know the bosses have a place they can go where it's quiet and they can have a little space of their own. But for the rest? It's democracy to the point of totalitarianism.

In such a world, people need to establish 1) a sense of individuality separate from the ant-farm mind and 2) physical boundaries of some sort. People are not insects. They aren't meant to inhabit a hive in which all individuality and privacy are eradicated. Some set up these boundaries with flowers and pictures of their puppies or spouses. Others tack up posters that offend their colleagues. A saw a guy recently who had a huge rubber Godzilla between him and the guy at the next patch of Formica. But there are those few who so stoutly refuse to be socialized that they choose to become anathema to their peers. They don't brush their teeth. They shower infrequently, if at all. In your case, your co-worker has chosen to smell like her cats. That smell, by the way, probably reminds her of all she loves. It's not a bad smell to her. It's heaven. Believe me, it's not hard to tell when people are grossed out when they come near you. Their noses wrinkle. They make gagging noises. And most of all, they steer clear. And that's precisely what your colleague wants. This isn't a case of some medical condition that makes her odiferous. It's voluntary. It's a strategy.

In response, you have to get strategic as well. You say that people have gone to management. But I'm willing to bet they haven't done so as a group. That's your next step. Target a manager who can be spoken with, not some uncaring stiff but somebody with a small sense of humor, if such a boss exists. Visit this individual as a group. Groups make managers nervous. They're why God created unions. Ask the manager if he or she will accompany representatives of the collective on a little field trip. Then go visit Cat Lady on some business pretext. Get close. Make him experience the aura. Then go back to his office and ask him what he's going to do. If that doesn't work, try festooning Litter Queen's space with flowers and air fresheners. After that, people can start being really direct. Batter her with the full force of the group.

Now, I know a lot of you are going to start honking about how mean this is and all. And maybe it is. But what we're dealing with here is an aggressive narcissist imposing her personality on a group of innocent people, all of whom conform to rules of politeness in order to work pleasantly with each other. Such people deserve to be treated with all the respect they show others, i.e. none. Society has created workplaces that eliminate privacy and foster collective activity. Nobody should complain when the group acts as one to assert its interest against any unacceptable individual who is not the boss.