Agony aunt

February 18, 2000

Q A tutor in our department suffers from BO. We had ignored the problem, but a student has complained that seminars are intolerable. What should we do? A First, consider who has what problem. The student has a concern but the department head has the problem. The problem is student satisfaction. Not one to ignore.

The tutor who is contributing to your problem with body odour must be faced, and the interview may be uncomfortable for both parties. Accept that and get on with it - delay will not make the problem go away. The student may moan to others, and a problem of the image of the department will be added to the one of student disatisfaction.

One of the aims of handling a difficult interview is to ensure that you do not dent the other person's self-esteem. Achieve this and you have a good chance of success.

Invite the troublesome tutor for a chat. Explain that you have a problem and that it is important that it be solved. Recognise the tutor's strengths. Ask the tutor to help you resolve the problem. You will have to say what the student said, and if you agree say so. Offer your support in resolving the problem. (Your personnel department may be able to give advice). Agree some positive actions, with a review in a few days. Follow up with the tutor and with the student.

It may be that the tutor will deny their involvement in your problem, if this is the case, work out between you how to establish the facts - involve a colleague whose opinion both of you respect. Be prepared for several meetings.

David Shepherd

Associate lecturer

Open University

Most BO is the result of bacterial decomposition of sweat and other gland secretions rather than the gland secretions themselves. People vary in how much secretions they produce, and there are differences between people in the way the bacteria break down the secretions.

The strategies to reduce BO rely on frequent washing to remove the secretions, anti-sweating agents (anti-perspirants) and agents with fragrance to mask the smell.

There are also some rare instances whereby some individuals have a different metabolism resulting in a different spectrum of odourific compounds. People become acclimatised to their own smell and thus are often unaware of it. The advice in the first instance has to be to point out the problem, more frequent washing of person and clothes and use of anti-perspirants.

Jonathan Rees

Grant professor

of dermatology

University of Edinburgh

I remember an old Hollywood movie where George Peppard delivered the ultimate insult: "You," he hissed, "you're all armpit!" I would not recommend such directness unless one's colleague had objectionable personal qualities to match their BO.

More subtle might be to display prominently in the senior common room a print of Duccio de Buoninsegno's Raising of Lazarus. This picture shows not only the bystanders holding their noses to mask the smell of the putrefying corpse, but also Lazarus holding his own nose. But since both bluntness and subtlety will doubtless cause offence in equal measure, I suggest the following options:

Let personnel deal with it

Put deodorant in the offender's pigeon-hole, labelled "from your best friend"

Pluck up your courage, tackle them directly, and brace yourself for strained relations in an odour-free zone. Jane McAdoo

Lecturer in French

Goldsmiths College

London

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