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What can we do about a coworker’s messy desk and body odor

Dear Office-Politics,

I work in an office which is made up primarily of cubicles. One of our co-workers has worked here for a very long time (more than 20 years), and keeps her cubicle distressingly messy. There is no surface which is, without exaggeration, less than 10 inches thick with miscellaneous paper and garbage. Old food wrappers are strewn about, along with old documents and personal belongings.

Even more disturbing is that this person has very poor personal hygiene. While working, most of us within a four-cubicle range can smell her body odor almost continuously throughout the day. She appears to suffer from depression, because her hair is rarely washed, her clothes are often stained, and her health is poor.

Personally, I do not think it is my place to say anything to her about my concerns over her mental health. However, the state of her cubicle is a problem since all of our work is heavily integrated and sometimes we have to enter her cubicle to find critical documents while she is away. Even more distressing is the issue of the body odor, which makes the work environment highly unpleasant.

Is there any way that I can address this? Should my superiors be addressing this issue? Or, should I let it be and suffer in silence out of concern for her silent suffering?


Dreaming of Anosmia

timothy johnson

Dear Dreaming of Anosmia,

A Drake University colleague of mine had a similar situation posed to her. Dr. Delaney Kirk is an expert in classroom management and is the author of Taking Back The Classroom. The situation posed to her was that one student’s body odor was causing others to avoid him in class projects. The key point to pick up from her advice is that there may be extenuating circumstances covered by either the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Civil Rights Act.

There are a couple of different issues at play here. The first and probably most difficult is the offensive hygiene. If you’ve determined that the problem is not covered by ADA or Title VII, you probably would be wise to pull in your supervisor if direct feedback is involved. He or she may be aware of the problem but be unsure of how to handle it. You and some like-minded co-workers could start by scheduling a meeting with her superior(s). Share with them your observations (even possibly share the letter to Dr. Kirk from the link above). Don’t present this as a lynch mob, but in the spirit of concern you addressed in your letter. If there are personal problems or depression involved, she might be a candidate for an Employee Assistance Program and need to receive counseling.

Another possibility for addressing this issue is to pool your money and treat her to a makeover outing with one or two other women from the department. Present it as a way to say thanks for her many years of service (or whatever other reason you want). Sometimes a gentle nudge in the right direction can do wonders for helping people take ownership on these issues. A makeover could help her see herself in a new light, and it could provide her with a sense of pride that might perpetuate new behaviors.

Now, the easier issue to address is the messy office. Because of recent privacy and security legislation, as well as business resumption and disaster recovery plans, many companies have enacted and enforce “clean desk” policies. This is just a good business practice, as it ensures that critical files are treated appropriately and that those who have a business need can access files when necessary. The desk hygiene can be treated as a performance issue once the policy has been communicated.

Best wishes in addressing these situations. Thanks for writing to Office-Politics.

Best wishes,

Timothy Johnson, Author

Timothy Johnson is the author of Race Through the Forest – A Project Management Fable (Tiberius, 2006) as well as the upcoming GUST – The “Tale” Wind of Office Politics (Lexicon, 2007). In addition to writing, consulting and coaching, he teaches MBA classes at Drake University on Project Management, Creativity, and Office Politics.

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