Something rotten in the state of Illinois (stinky coworker)

I work in tech support in Chicago. I have three co-workers; let’s call them Moe, Larry and Curly. They each have a special funk that is special in its own right.

Moe is from Poland and doesn’t believe in deodorant (he has said that he thinks deodorant is a waste of money). He is generally clean but he likes to ride his bike to work, unless it is raining or snowing. As a result he always has an underlying stink. Summer days are worse, of course. It doesn’t help that he likes to wear a sport coat all the time which just acts to amplify it.

Larry is from India. While his clothes and body appear clean, he smells of the spices in his food. It’s not overpowering but, if you have to sit next to him, the smell gets stronger and more oppressive. I’ve worked with many people from India ( I am in tech support , after all) and usually, if I smell anything, it is an exotic sweet/spicy scent. Larry’s is more a burnt hair and sour milk smell.

Then there is Curly. He’s 48 and from Kansas. His smell is epic in nature. When he walks past you have to summon all of your will power to resist the urge to gag. There is a combination of BO, feces, vomit and sewage surrounding him. No, I’m not exaggerating. He seriously smells like he crawled through a sewer pipe and then was barfed on by a vulture. I am unfortunate enough to sit next to him and had to buy an Air Wick air freshener to mask some of his stench. Every morning before he comes in I spray his chair with Febreze to no avail. Some of my coworkers spray cologne.

One time I was stuck on an elevator with him when a woman got on from a different floor. As soon as the doors closed she pressed the button for the next floor so she could escape.

The worst part is that the three of them have to collaborate on some projects. When the partners in grime get together I swear that they burn a hole in the ozone layer right above our office. I walked past them one time and I felt my eyes burn and the gorge rose in my throat.

Everyone in the office has talked to our manager about them and he just acknowledges what we say but doesn’t do anything about it. We contacted HR and all they did was send out a mass email with the company policy concerning appearance (it just says you have to have a clean and neat appearance, nothing about not smelling like a dumpster).

Does anyone have any suggestions about dealing with these foul creatures?

I’d say if you’ve already talked to your boss and HR, have you tried escalating it up? Surely there’s some kind of policy about hygiene and which the third guy very clearly violates but may not in a case like the first two who may be clean and just not do enough.

As far as I’m concerned, I’d consider smelling offensively to be on the same level as dress or language or whatever else could distract people from doing their jobs. It makes for an unpleasant work environment and likely affects the ability of people to do their jobs.

Have you tried talking to them directly about it? Some people smell badly and don’t even realize it since, well, they are around it all the time. In the case of Moe, he’s being a douchebag, sure he can think deoderant is a waste of money, but it’s not there so he doesn’t have to smell himself, it’s there to be polite to everyone else. Unless you have some bizarre religious beliefs, there just isn’t a good reason not to use it. I realize that some cultures have something against it, or at least aren’t as bothered by BO as we are, but that’s part of adapting to and living in another culture. And really, is $4 every few weeks THAT big of a deal for him? Hell, if that’s his holding point, be prepared to call him on his bluff and offer to start an office pool to pay for it.

For Larry, he may really just not know. There’s a guy like that at my gym who appears to have decent hygeine, but just has strong BO that, perhaps from diet or whatever, is just more offensive that most other people’s. I don’t think he wears deoderant either since I can smell me a good 10-15’ away. Maybe he too doesn’t use deoderant? Maybe he does but doesn’t use it correctly or needs to look into getting something stronger.

For Curly, it’s entirely possible he doesn’t know either, again, like the guy at the gym, it’s possible that he could have horrible BO and just not really be aware of it. Chances are though, from what you say, it sounds like a hygeine problem. Either way, same thing as with the previous guy. Is he in any way disabled? IME, I have met some people with limited mobility or obesity such that they simply aren’t able to sufficiently wash themselves and thus end up having a smell similar to what you describe.

This isn’t really a GQ thread, as there’s no single factual answer. I’m moving it off to IMHO where you can get opinions on what to do.


I used to have an exceptionally stinky coworker. It was horrid BO, the sort that would make you retch. He was very overweight, would sweat a lot, didn’t wash his clothes often enough and so on. It affected everyone on our team, quite badly. We went to management, they spoke to him but apparently he did nothing about it, apart from make some bad excuses about leaving his clothes damp in the washing machine for too long. How that’s a valid excuse for stinking, I’m not sure.

It went on for about 10 months or so until we had some drinks after work one night. He was quite a loud, belligerent sort of guy which only added to his offensiveness, so when he said something stupid that evening I decided I’d had enough. I took him aside privately, calmed myself to a rational level, and with as much of an intensely serious attitude as I could muster, explained just how bad his problem was. I told him people talked behind his back. No one wanted to work with him, he was an inconvenience to all around him. Most of all though, I said that if he didn’t acknowledge it and do something to fix it, this was going to be an obstacle the rest his life, professionaly and privately.

He works in a building nearby now, we’re still friends and have coffee together often. He dresses better, doesn’t stink, and is getting more respect and responsibility in his new workplace than he ever did in his old one. He’s a much happier guy than he used to be. It was a hard thing for me to do, and although he never said anything I think he’s grateful for someone giving him the wakeup call he needed.

Of course, I wouldn’t recommend doing something like that during work hours, on the premises.

Buy those odor-eating pucks and place one at each smelly co-workers’ desk.

We’re going to get a petition together and bring it to HR as a group. Maybe then it will be taken seriously.

I’m afraid that if I said something to them directly that I’ll wind up at HR for offending them and not being politically correct.

Curly’s only disability is that he is unable to keep the flies away from his stanky ass. Seriously, though, he is an able bodied, slender middle aged man. Who seems more than capable of keeping himself clean and odor free.

At least my HR has said that it’s best for stuff to try to talk to people first about issues. If I’m expected to approach someone about offensive language or sexist or racist remarks, it would seem that talking to someone about how offensively they smell falls in the same ball park.

Of course, you’re right in that it could end badly. So, if you decide to do it, just make sure you do it privately. My guess is, at least with the second two, it’s more likely than not that they just don’t know how badly they smell because, well, no one has told them. I suspect that they’d most likely feel a little embarassed about it and be thankful that someone finally told them and was polite enough to do it in private. I think as long as you do it in private and politely, they really can’t do anything to hurt you for it.

Besides, what can they possibly do? Go to HR and complain that you said he’s smelly? I suspect if you talk to your coworkers and make sure they’d be willing to back you up if that happened you shouldn’t have anything to worry about if it came to that. Besides, if you and others have already talked to HR and your boss about it, they should have on record that this is a problem. If you’re really not sure, perhaps you can call HR and get guidance on their policies regarding how you should approach someone that is offending you.

I think Xylo’s example is much more likely to be the kind of reaction you’d get, and the guy he was talking to was a jerk and he was even over the top about it. Do you think that they would react that negatively to it?

Oh, I can vouch for that excuse (as a one-off, not a continual thing. I forgot some t-shirts (the undershirt kind) in the machine over night, and I thought all was well after I ran them through an additional rinse. Dry, they passed the sniff test. There wasn’t a wiff of anything amiss.

But dear, sweet Jebus! At work, my office was a bit stuffy, and the second a hint of moisture from my perspiring body came in contact with that fabric I reeked a sweat-mildew combo that could have peeled paint of walls and made my own eyes water.

When I got home I had to re-ash all those shirts, twice, on the hottest setting our machine had. Really, though, that should happen once and you learn your lesson.

Side note: I know two people who do not wear deoderant of any kind. Interestingly, they don’t stink, and one bikes to work every day in the summer (and changes into fresh clothes at work). I asked the one guy and he said the only time he smells noticeably is when he has to testify in court (he’s a traffic engineer guy and goes to hearings when they are modifying roads and stuff). The nervous sweat makes him smell bad.

Ugh, I feel your pain, well, 1/3 of your pain. We had a stinky guy working with us this summer. He looked clean 3/4 of the time but still stunk to high heaven. We concluded that he had some sort of medical issue.

We petitioned/pleaded with HR multiple times individually and as a group but to no avail. Apparently HR spoke to him about it at least twice but nothing changed.

Maybe everyone could put Vapor Rub under their nostrils like they sometimes do in morgues?

I had a classmate who stank so much, I could taste it, and the taste seemed to linger for a while after I saw him, too. He’s Indian, and so I suppose it’s due to his food, but I think there was an element of university-student-not-bothering-to-shower-and-doesn’t-know-how-to-do-laundry as well. I never said anything to him about it though. I mostly just tried to avoid him and I actually haven’t seen him in a while. I hope someone told him he stank.

I also don’t want to turn this into another thread about smokers, but I had another classmate once who clearly had never cleaned his coat and/or was a several-pack-a-day smoker, because the stench coming off that thing was unbearble. It literally gave me migraines. Please, if you smoke, dry-clean your coats once in a while!

That always surprises me - a very nicely dressed man or woman, hair done, make-up nice, obviously someone who cares about their appearance, and smoke stench coming off of them so you can practically see the waves. It really is too bad that people can’t seem to smell themselves.

Oh yeah, totally. Once I can understand. But he was wearing that gross hoodie every day for months on end, so I’m sure the washing machine excuse was made up. Although there is something funny about the idea that when he finally got around to washing it, the process was so foreign to him that he managed to screw it up and make himself stink in an entirely new and equally offensive way.

Back to the OP though, there really is no easy answer. There’s a real social ineptitude in people like this. They don’t have that grasp of basic hygiene, but they also lack the ability to see that others are clearly repulsed by them. I think this basically means that they won’t give a shit that some random from HR says (probably in a much-too understated manner) they’re upsetting their coworkers and should take better care of themselves. I think they need to be told by someone they respect. Maybe even multiple people, so they know the OP isn’t the one with the problem.

But the poo/vomit/BO guy is probably a lost cause. Teaching him hygiene would be like explaining quantum physics to a newt.

I sat next to one at the Philharmonic last night, and believe me, in that kind of close quarters it really bothers you.

Dear smokers: just because you don’t think you smell doesn’t mean you don’t smell.

Rode in the elevator this morning next to a stanky med student (I assume, considering the medical center where I work). I know you guys work like dogs - but please try not to smell like one who’s just rolled in something awful.

I’ve worked in H/R and grooming and hygiene is a touchy issue. One thing I learned is if H/R is going to DO anything about something they will do it right away. Otherwise you’re just wasting your time to press the issue and H/R will get mad at you in the process.

I suppose you could press the point but if H/R isn’t prepared to actually sit down one and one and discuss it what are you gonna do? It’s tough to find another job, but that may be your only option.

You never get anywhere giving an ultimatium no matter how well intended or justified.

Having seen a few episodes of Hoarders, I’m wondering if sewage/vomit guy has some issues going on besides basic personal hygiene.

I once attended a summer school class with a guy who apparently only washed once per week. Ugh.

Let me see if I understand this: if a coworker was offending my sensibilities by making crude, sexist or bigoted comments then I can go to HR and complain about an uncomfortable work environment and the offender could be reprimanded or even fired. But if a coworker is offending my nose and stomach and they are making an uncomfortable work environment, I have little recourse but to find a new job? That sucks.

Unless he can prove that his problem is caused by a medical condition or smelling like skunk shit is part of his religious beliefs I think he should be made to clean up his act. No pun intended. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or the one.

I worked with a woman who stank. Caucasian, fair-haired, not overweight, about 28 yrs old, nothing appeared out of the ordinary. She was well aware of her smell only because of everybody telling her about. Strangers would tell her how bad she smelled. She showered twice a day, used prescription deodorant, etc. She did everything humanly and medically possible, but nothing helped. She was married to a man with a poor sense of smell, and was happy at home, but was uncomfortable everywhere else. She worked on a warehouse floor far away from anybody else.

When I was in high school I worked at local grocery store, and we had two customers that came in who absolutely REEKED. One was this loud, obnoxious old guy who always wore the same damned clothes, with greasy grey hair, who REEKED of cigars. He was always ranting about something stupid or another. Everyone used to try their damnedest to avoid waiting on him.

The other one was an old woman who would come in less frequently – thank god, because she stank even worse. She smelled like unwashed snatch. Once I breathed it in, and I almost puked right in front of her.