Dear Career Sensei – How do I tell my Colleague that His Breath Stinks?

How do I tell a coworker he has bad breath?


Dear Career Sensei,

I am the only woman in a team of 3 and get along quite well with both of my colleagues. One of my colleagues whom I would refer to as “A” is very hardworking, helpful and is a team player whereas the other whom we shall call “B” is equally hardworking but tends to spend a lot of his free time on unproductive activities like water cooler conversations.

“A” has very poor hygiene habits,  he comes to work looking unkempt, wears the same outfits for days on end without washing them leading to a BO and has the worst breath I’ve ever been unfortunate to experience.

“B” avoids interacting with “A” thus making my job more complicated than I’d like. When I raised it with him, he told me that he would rather be reassigned to another team than work with “A ” as he finds him repulsive (his words) and if reassignment was not a possibility he would rather quit his job than continue to work with him.

I feel bad for “A” because he seems to be completely oblivious of his shortcomings.  Several colleagues make fun of him behind his back and our manager once ‘joked’ about giving him a ‘corner office’ to which “A” laughed with the rest of the department, not realizing that the joke was a subtle dig at him.

I have never been one to offer unsolicited advice but the situation with “A” is affecting the quality of our work. How do I tell him about his shortcomings without hurting his feelings and alienating him further?


Concerned Colleague


Dear Concerned Colleague,

I was in a similar position as you are 10 years ago. The office jester who had an absolutely lovely personality and whom I was very fond of suffered from an undiagnosed case of halitosis.

Everyone would talk about how bad his breath was behind his back but would turn around and laugh at his jokes and tell him how good of a storyteller he was. That was until a new guy joined the team and chose to drop an anonymous mean-spirited note on his desk informing him that he wasn’t really funny and the only reason people laughed at his jokes was to get as far away from him as possible owing to his bad breath.

Needless to say, the letter didn’t go down well with its subject; who felt that it was written to spite him and took it up with our boss who launched a full investigation to determine who authored the letter and the motive behind it.

While there is never an easy way to tell someone about their poor hygiene habits, leaving an anonymous note is worse as it is impersonal 

Ask A for a convenient time for both of you to have a one-on-one chat. It’s preferable to choose a time after work so that you don’t ruin his day and disrupt his output.  

Start the conversation by telling him about his strong points and how valuable he is to the team and how much you enjoy working with him then gently let him know that working with him is becoming increasingly difficult owing BO and bad breath. Your tone when you relay the message is very important so be sure to speak as quietly as possible.  It’s also a good idea to offer solutions such as recommending a dentist since bad breath is often not as a result of poor hygiene but might be caused by a more serious underlying health problems or telling him about a stronger deodorant he can use.

Even if he doesn’t take kindly to the message, it would register in his head and as no sane professional likes to be seen as anything less than clean and presentable, he would take the necessary steps correct the bad impression just like that my former colleague did. 

All the best!

The Career Sensei

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