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How to be Radically Candid about B.O.

In an article about Radical Candor in the Financial Times recently, Mrs. Moneypenny described a Dreaded Moment for a boss. This is an experience that anyone who’s been a manager for over 10 years has had: the employee with extreme body odor.

When I taught a class called “Managing” at Apple, I would bring up the awkward case of body odor as a case study, and in each class I taught, several managers would describe how they handled the situation, and one brave soul would tell of the time when they had been on the receiving end–when they had been the person who stank, and their boss had told them. At first I was surprised at how many B.O. stories there were. But I found when I started raising the subject, they were everywhere. This situation was not unique to Apple, a result of Steve Jobs’s legendary B.O. It happened at Google all the time. And it’s not unique to tech. It happened when I worked as a bank teller in Memphis, when I worked at a diamond cutting factory in Moscow, when I worked at a pediatric clinic in Kosovo.

I was talking to a friend who worked in an open office in Australia. There was one section of the office he avoided even walking by because somebody in the vicinity smelled so bad. When he had to meet with people who sat over there, he IM’d them and asked them to come over to his desk. Relieved to get away from the stench for a moment, they came with alacrity. People avoided being assigned desks anywhere on that part of the floor. Why did nobody just tell the person?

Mrs. Moneypenny has a lot to teach us about getting creative when handling this delicate issue. She came up with an ingenious solution: she bought an employee with B.O. a white sea island cotton shirt and warned him that excessive perspiration would ruin it. In this context, she asked him which antiperspirant he used, and he explained to her that he used deodorant but not antiperspirant. She suggested he start using both. He did, and the problem was solved.

Some people when reading this story will condemn the purchase of the white shirt, saying that they would prefer a boss who just told them plainly. Certainly, buying clothes for employees is itself risky. I once had a boss who didn’t approve of my baggy Levis and purchased a pair of skin-tight jeans for me. That didn’t go over so well. But it seems to me the purchase of the white shirt was an act of kindness on Mrs. Moneypenny’s part.

While some people would prefer a boss who’d just come out and tell them if they stank, others wouldn’t. It seems clear that Mrs. Moneypenny had an employee who would not have reacted well if she’d simply told him his body odor was making it hard for his colleagues to work with him. While some of us would prefer to get the white shirt, others would prefer that our boss just say it. And while some of us would prefer to give the white shirt, others would prefer to just say it. The tricky thing as a boss is to adapt to how people will best hear your criticism without putting yourself in an unbearably uncomfortable situation. In general, the onus is on the boss to adapt to saying things in the way that it’s easiest for the employee to hear them. Clarity gets measured at the listener’s ear, not at the speaker’s mouth.

Some might even call the purchase of the white shirt manipulative. I wouldn’t, though. Manipulative implies unscrupulous control of a situation or person for one’s own ends. Mrs. Moneypenny was just trying to help this guy, she wasn’t trying to get him to do something that hurt him but helped her. Somebody here will raise the health concerns of aluminum in antiperspirants. I think this conversation happened before these risks were so well-publicized. The conversation would be even trickier today….

Bottom line: by buying the shirt, Mrs. Moneypenny showed she cared. And by being brave enough to ask her employee which antiperspirant he used, she was “Challenging Directly.” She was raising a difficult issue to talk about directly. So I’d put the way she handled the situation in the “radical candor” quadrant, but I’d call it “deft candor.”

Generally we think of candor as blunt and somewhat harsh, saying something like, “When you start to stink after lunch every day, your colleagues find it hard to work with you.” However, as Mrs. Moneypenny showed, candor can be delicate as well as blunt. It may not always sound as nice as when delivered by Mrs. Moneypenny, but, when combined with caring personally, it is kind.

Towards the end of her piece Mrs. Moneypenny raises a difficult question: what happens if you don’t like an employee? It’s hard to Care Personally about somebody you just don’t like. I’ll take that one up soon too…

Kim Scott

Kim Scott is co-founder of Radical Candor, LLC and has been an advisor at Dropbox, Kurbo, Qualtrics, ReelGoodApp, Rolltape, Shyp, Twitter and several other Silicon Valley companies. She was a member of the faculty at Apple University and before that led AdSense, YouTube and Doubleclick Online Sales and Operations at Google.