Q: I have a co-worker, “Gus,” who smells really bad, like laundry that is dirty or has sat too long in the washer and become mildewed. My co-worker “Jane” thinks the smell is urine. Sometimes Gus attempts to cover the odor up with cologne, which makes me physically ill.

A year ago, Jane told our manager she was struggling with Gus’ smell. Our manager apparently talked to him, and the problem mostly went away, then came back with a vengeance a few months ago. Since then, my manager has said flat-out that she would not handle it and would not go to HR at my request, telling me I’m too “sensitive.” She told Jane to talk to Gus herself. We do not feel at all comfortable talking directly to him, especially because he suffers from sometimes-debilitating depression and shame. If we go to HR, it will get back to our manager, and we fear retaliation. Suggestions?

A: At minimum, this is a matter of one employee being allowed to disrupt working conditions, intentionally or not, for multiple colleagues. You don’t want to embarrass or gang up on Gus, but you also can’t pretend the problem doesn’t exist: You can’t work effectively with or near him because of the smell. The simplest solution to this problem would be for your manager to move either Gus or you and Jane out of each other’s airspace.

But I think you’ve buried your lead — or maybe it’s just hard to detect under the mildew/urine/cologne miasma. For you, Gus’s smell is the problem — but it could also be a telling symptom of his “sometimes-debilitating depression and shame.” If that’s the case, then Gus’ depression is probably affecting his own performance as well — which means your manager, by refusing to take action, is allowing three employees to suffer disruption. And while changing offices would solve the immediate problem for two out of three of you while saving your manager a hard conversation, isolating Gus might make matters worse for him in the long run.

As I see it, your manager’s prior success in addressing this problem laid solid groundwork for a follow-up conversation with Gus: “Last year, I mentioned that there was a smell coming off your clothes. You agreed to make some changes and address the problem, and it worked for a while, but lately I notice the smell has come back. Has something changed to prevent you from keeping up with what you were doing?” If Gus brings up his personal struggles, that opens the door for your manager to suggest he seek support from your company’s employee assistance plan or a medical professional. If there is no deeper cause — he’s just refusing to comply with his manager’s request — that’s another matter altogether.

Check your company’s policies on chain-of-command, but I doubt your manager can prevent you from going to HR yourselves about a workplace problem she has been made aware of but is unable or unwilling to address. You might even give her one last chance to be part of the solution — and help her save face — by mentioning your additional concerns about Gus’s well-being and suggesting that HR would be better equipped to handle that topic appropriately.

Karla L. Miller offers advice on surviving the ups and downs of the modern workplace. (Courtesy of The Washington Post)
Karla L. Miller offers advice on surviving the ups and downs of the modern workplace. (Courtesy of The Washington Post)