My bad

April 24, 2007, 8:25 PM UTC

I’ve been involved in controversies, in fact there is rarely a day that goes by when somebody isn’t honking my beazer. But I really stepped in it when I answered you guys, perhaps somewhat glibly, about the Stinky C0-Worker. The question and answer were posted last week and generated what I could only call a storm of outrage.  If you don’t believe I’m repressing the desire to field a lot of smelly jokes on the subject right this very minute, you’re wrong. But this turns out to be a serious issue, and one where I’m afraid I might have, as Hamlet said, shot the arrow over the house and hurt my brother. In my answer, I implied that a smelly person at the workplace might be avoided or chided for his or her malodorousness. I posited two types of stinkers. Type A was careless. Type B was mean. I offered a brief strategy for both. It turns out that they is, in fact, a Type C out there, and they are not shy about voicing their outrage at the way the world treats them. They also have spokespeople, it turns out. I figure that having maligned this group of suffering business people, it’s the least I can do to acquaint you, as I have myself by made aware, of their situation.

The first whiff that something was wrong came from a guy I’ll call Chet, because that’s not his name. “I’m the stinky worker,” he writes.

I had stomach bypass surgery and have lost 70 pounds and kept it off. It has been a life changing event. It has also created a problem with gas since the surgery. What am I to do? Run to the men’s room every 5 minutes trying to hold it in while in route? I realize the depth of the problem and am not unsympathetic but this just does not seem to be the solution. Forget about products like Beano, they haven’t helped. I would love to have a private office with exhaust fans but haven’t found that opportunity yet. 

Okay, I thought. That’s sad. I’m sorry I offended Chet. He seems to have enough problems without people making fun of him. But Chet was just the first to aerate the issue. The worst was yet to come. “Dear Sir, ” said my next correspondent, an author on the subject, it turns out.

You need to look up “Trimethylaminuria” under (The National Institutes of Health) or (National Association of Rare Disorders)…because it is obvious that you are not well-informed concerning the fact that there are some that, despite fastitious grooming and excellent personal hygiene, may still suffer with bad breath and body odor;  it is a condition caused by the liver’s inability to produce the necessary enzymes to be able to metabolize foods that are high in Choline and Lecithin.

The author then went on to suggest that I recommend his book on the subject, an idea that offended me deeply, since in this space I generally intend to plug many books, but only my own, unless the author is dead or can do me some personal good. I don’t think that’s unfair. Isn’t that what blogs are for?

My next critic was a bit more cordial. “Dear Mr. Bing,” he wrote: 

On the stinky co-worker issue, you inadvertently left out Type C. There are those rare cases who are afflicted with genetically founded metabolic problems resulting in almost unbearable body odors. When I was a grade-schooler, there was one such in my class, Alfred T.  I just ignored it, as he shared my interests.  I lost track of him but heard later that he had been killed while piloting a military jet in exercises. Can you imagine the problems he must have experienced in his brief lifetime, especially in that situation and, of course, with women?  It could be that this — fifty years ago — was not an accident. At any rate, your suggestions may not work or may not be humane in such cases.  This is, I imagine, a very difficult problem for all concerned.

Now I felt really, really bad. The problem, it seemed, had led his friend Alfred to self-immolate during military exercises a long time ago, leaving my correspondent with a rancid memory that had tormented him for more than half a century! He suggested that I send you here. I figure it’s the least I can do. It’s not a full entry in Wikipedia, but it does link you to some really heart-rending stuff. 

Another woman I will call Betty, because she does not, wrote in quite cordial fashion to say that she too had suffered from a unduly-scented co-worker, had studied the situation, and learned a few things. “In the first place,” she wrote,

… body odor can have serious physical causes, as well as be an indicator of mental illness (i.e., fear of bathing or water, for example). I do not think that an ad-hoc committee of colleagues has either the skills or the responsibility to confront the person and help resolve the problem. For one, they may inadvertently exacerbate the situation through lack of diplomacy or insight. And going behind the person’s back to a buddy may be the worst tactic of all.

Secondly, placing the onus upon colleagues to seeks resolution also mandates follow-up and places them in a potentially adversarial “oversight” position. This is not helpful to anybody, and can lead to resentments on the part of both the stinker and the stinkees. The potential for both emotional damage and for untreated illness could even have a deleterious impact on the company itself. Did you know there are physiological problems that can cause halitosis and body odor, including cancer? 

“This is a management responsibility if ever there was one,” she concluded. “An effective manager should be able to present the problem discreetly, and then help the employee find the source and address it. Most people who are competent enough to be hired also want to fit in well and succeed in their jobs. They would be horrified if they knew they were offending. People can actually become oblivious to their own strong odor, since they smell it all the time. All this is different, of course, from somebody who purposely wears strong perfume or aftershave — another situation entirely.” Why hadn’t I thought of that? Pass the problem along to the Human Resources Department. That should have been one of my options, for sure; also the idea that the department head should be given the job of resolving the situation seemed far more humane and thoughtful than that which I proposed. 

My next email was far less pleasant. I had clearly angered at least one of my readers. “If you’re going to pontificate on a subject perhaps you should actually inform yourself beforehand,” this guy yelled at me. “There is a group C, people who cannot control their odor. Maybe your recommendation for an “intervention” would work, but in most cases a one on one conversation would be the way to go.” He then called me a name usually reserved for the part of the body that is often a source of the problem under discussion. 

Not everyone was so churlish. “I saw your article and thought you might find this amusing,” a more friendly fellow offered.

Years ago, I was managing a software development team of about 8 people.  Late one afternoon, two of the women in the group came up to me and asked, “Have you been around Jane lately?”  I replied that I just seen her in the lab.  They said, “No, we mean have you been up close to her lately?  She smells really bad.  We went to the site nurse and she said that if you (her supervisor) reported the problem to the health center, they would get Jane in on some sort of a pretense and then discuss the problem with her.”   I arraigned to get close to Jane a bit later and the smell was really rank. It was late, so I decided to take the night to decide whether to talk to Jane myself or involve the health center. (Older and a bit wiser, I wouldn’t hesitate now to go to the health center.)  Immediately when I came in the next morning, the two women approached me and asked if I had talked to Jane.  I confessed I hadn’t yet, and they said, “Don’t! The smells gone.” Happy to be off the hook, I let the situation drop. Years later, I finally heard what had happened.  Jane was mad at her husband and so had stopped bathing, thereby punishing him and everyone else who got near her, including her co-workers and two teenage sons.  Guess they made up that night. . .

At this point, I was just relieved that nobody had committed suicide by plane, or suffered from some arcane disease not even found in Wikipedia.

My sense of well-being was short-lived, however. “I’m really Appalled that sometimes people are so ignorant about diseases that cause body odor,” wrote a very angry woman I’ll call Arlene.

There’s not a lot of attention paid to medical conditions that include maple syrup disease and TMAU. With these two conditions; no amount of washing can take away the odor. People with this condition as ostracized for something they have no control over. This condition is not classified as a disability so people have to go out into the workforce and make a living making other co-wokrkers very uncomfortable. Granted there are people who purposely refuse to bathe but the people with odor causing conditons shower up to seven time s a day and use numersous bottles of deodorant and spend tones of money on teeth cleaning products. I have tmau which is caused when the liver cannot metablolize choline a precursor of protein, most foods have choline so its almost impossible not to cnsume some choline in your diet. People with this condition are known to have attempted suicide because of the shame and misery associated with it. I’ve been able to live a normal life inspite of the pain this condition brings on my life. Please bring attention to this condition. We are not dirty we are just sick.

Arlene then thanked me. You’re welcome, Arlene, even though that is not your name.

Well, folks, that’s about it for now. There are other missives that have crossed my transom on the subject of disgusting co-workers, but those are just about people who have spinach between their teeth. Unless they’ve formed a self-help organization, I’ll get to that in the Ask Bing section of this site. Keep those cards and letters coming.