When a Colleague Stinks, Literally

Last Updated Aug 7, 2007 11:41 AM EDT

pigpen.gifA month or two ago a guy was hired and put into my little four-person cubicle area. He seems like a nice guy but he isn't involved in any of the projects I am so our contact is very limited/non-existent. Basically, I know his name. Since he was hired the weather has changed and lately when he comes in he really smells. I can't think of any diplomatic way to bring it up to him since I don't know him at all, and he doesn't answer to my boss or really have any relationship at all with my department other than to sit there and stink.
I've been considering getting some kind of air freshener or something similar but read online that that is bad/rude in cubicle culture since some people might have allergies. Plus, I don't really want anything strongly scented, I just want to work in an environment that isn't constantly distracting me because of the stench. How can I resolve this problem? Should I just bite the bullet and get an air freshener and hope he takes the hint? I can bring it to my boss, but can he really do anything about it? Do I just have to grin and bear it until the weather goes colder again? Where's the line?
It's been a while since I tackled an office-drone dilemma, but this one just seemed, uh-hum, ripe. These little things are poisons of productivity. The slightest distractions can seriously hinder the ability to work. At the moment I'm writing this in my home office while a landscaping crew is attempting to set a noise record in my neighbor's yard. My brain feels like it's vibrating off the inside of my head; I feel your pain, so it's the perfect time for me to address this question.

It's obvious that you've given this much thought, since you've done my homework and laid out many of the potential courses of action. But you're missing the one I would use.

You need to get the odor to go, but do so in a way that is the least offensive to the offender. The best way is to use one of his friends. You say you don't know him at all and don't do any direct work with him, but the chances are that you know someone who does know him and works with him. I'd go to them and discreetly ask for some help and advice. If the odor is as bad as you say it is, they won't need you to explain the problem.

If your boss points out you have food in your teeth, it's a red-faced moment. If a friend does it, you thank them. No one wants to have food in their teeth, just like no one wants to be the smelly guy. Getting your boss involved will create an even bigger office stink. He'll look bad, and you won't exactly come out smelling like roses. Use a friend.

Have a workplace-ethics dilemma? Ask it here, or email wheresthline@gmail.com

  • William Baker

    William Baker is a freelance writer living in Cambridge, MA. His work has appeared in Popular Science, the Boston Globe Magazine, the New York Daily News, Boston Magazine, The Weekly Dig and a bunch of other places (including Field & Stream, though he doesn't hunt and can't really fish). He is a regular contributor to the Boston Globe, where he writes the weekly column, "Meeting the Minds." He holds a master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and is at work on his first book.