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June 11, 2006

What's that smell?

Today's topic is body odor.

Not yours personally, of course. You personally smell like one of those air fresheners that taxi drivers use to cover up their smell. So you personally have nothing to worry about, unless you happen to work with taxi passengers, who, in my experience, absolutely despise those horrid air freshener thingies.

Anyway, today's topic is what you should do if you work in an office and there's a pungent body aroma wafting over your cubicle wall. I wouldn't have raised this issue at all if it weren't for the fact that the New York Times Sunday Business section raised it first. To wit:

Q. One of your co-workers often has an unpleasant smell. Before you break out the air freshener, is there a polite way to let him know that the odor bothers you?
Spoiler alert: The answer is that, if you are a reader of the New York Times, you send an angry letter to the boss denouncing your co-worker, because he (or she) is obviously a Republican and quite possibly a Christian. And then, you write a letter to "The Ethicist," a repugnant fellow who writes a column for the ethically challenged who can't turn to religion for moral questions (see, for example, here), and you ask him whether it was ethical of you to pilfer an air freshener from your taxi while the driver was taking your luggage out of the trunk so you could reduce the stench of your co-worker.

OK, so I lied. That's not the answer. As you may have suspected, given that this is the New York Times, the answer is not simple.

First, "many people are unaware of their own odor." More important, and this is really a quotation from a medical researcher, "Body odor can be a very personal and sensitive subject." That's the kind of opinion that companies pay big money for.

Second, "dealing with the situation may not be easy." Thank you very much for that advice. The article quotes a woman who once had to deal with a co-worker who rode his bike into work in the morning and changed into business clothes without showering. She and other workers joked about it but never told the man. Because they were tactful? Because he was a serial killer? No, "because he was a senior manager." Good advice. Don't tell company executives that they smell like crap.

Third, "if a co-worker's scent interferes with your ability to concentrate, you're entitled to speak up." But be nice. And get to the point; don't beat around the bush. Don't walk into his office or cubicle holding your nose. Instead, ask him politely whether it's possible that a dead rat is living in his office. When he says no, you reply, "Well, process of elimination means it's you."

Fourth, avoid situations that could "escalate into a shouting match or physical altercation." In the previous example, you should bring along a couple of street toughs so the smelly co-worker doesn't start anything with you.

Fifth, remember to celebrate diversity. The articles quotes a labor lawyer -- and I swear I'm not making this up -- as saying, "With so many diverse cultures in the workplace today, if you have something to say about body odor, do it in a way that doesn't suggest anything other than that this person needs to take a bath."

Sixth, remember that companies can fire someone who smells sufficiently bad, but it's got to be something like a 7.2 on the Richter scale. And someone with body odor might have a claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act. This is true. "If an employee can prove that his odor stems from a medical condition or that he is allergic to deodorant, for example, he would probably receive special consideration," an employment lawyer said.

Finally, don't forget that YOU YOU YOU might be the smelly one. As Bertolt Brecht put it, "der Furz hat keine Nase." (Roughly translated, "a fart has no nose.") And this is the altogether fitting way in which the article concludes, by suggesting deodorant "if you choose":
Q. How do you know that you're not the one offending noses?

A. You can take certain obvious precautions, of course. Bathe regularly and, if you choose, use deodorant. If you feel that you must wear cologne or perfume, do so in moderation. Joy Weaver, author of "How to Be Socially Savvy in All Situations" (Brown, 2005), says the easiest way to know whether your personal scent is disrupting to colleagues is to ask them. Just make sure you're prepared for the answer.
Which I am going to do by asking my readers who have made it all the way through this post: Does this blog stink?

Or what?

Unfortunately not related: An article about Hillary called "The Ascent of a Woman," which I read as "The Scent of a Woman."