My Best Mistake: Not Telling My Boss He Stank

My boss stank. And I mean, he literally smelled bad. At the start of the day, he’d be freshly showered, but by the end of the work day, a horrible body odor hung around him. I knew I wasn’t the only person noticing this as other people in the office began mentioning it to me. The worst part: he was a really awesome boss and no one could bring it upon themselves to tell him.

I stressed about this for days — and then weeks had gone by. All the time, the gossip kept building. I finally got up the courage to tell him during an upcoming check-in meeting. We spent most of the meeting going over things we each needed to do, and he then asked, “So, is there anything else that we should discuss?”

The moment had finally come. I cleared my throat and said. “Yes, there is one more thing. At the end of the day, you have really bad body odor. I realized you didn’t know this, or you would have done something about it.” Then I sat there, absolutely mortified.

Without missing a beat, my boss said, “Well, that’s good to know. I’ll put on my list to pick up a really strong deodorant.”

And that was it. The next day, no more body odor.

On the surface, this doesn’t seem like a big mistake, only a highly embarrassing professional moment both for me and my boss. My colleagues and I stressed about it for weeks, leading to who knows how many hours of lost productivity. My big mistake wasn’t telling my boss that he stank, but waiting so long to finally getting around to it.

This is a mistake that I’ve continued to make throughout my career — waiting far too long to deliver bad news to people. I find it hard because it feels like I let people down when I have to tell them that they aren’t good at their jobs. This odiferous affair taught me that people are far more resilient than we give them credit for, and that we are all so much better to be forthright with each other than to avoid hard truths.

At my firm, Altimeter Group, we use StrengthsFinder as a foundation for our culture. This means focusing on what we are good at, and using those strengths to shore up areas where we are weak. It also means that we have to be able honest with ourselves and each other when the job we are in is not a good match with our strengths. Life is too short for us not to be maximizing our strengths, and our culture gives me courage to deliver the hard truths to dear and trusted colleagues on a regular basis.

I hope you learn from my big career mistake and take it upon yourself to tell share quickly something that you’ve been meaning to say. You’ll be a far better friend and colleague for doing this, and I’ll bet you’ll kick yourself for not having brought it up sooner.

Photo: ©