Career Woman

You’ve got this: How to deal with a coworker’s smelly food


Dr Froswa’ Booker-Drew answers your questions, putting her years of experience and practice into the goal of solving those knotty problems that beset us, and assuring us: ‘you’ve got this’. If you’d like Froswa’ to look at your particular problem, email it to

Question:  My coworker at the next desk eats really smelly food at her desk — and I mean really, really smelly. And sometimes the scraps end up in the shared bin nearby, which means the smell lingers all day. I’m finding it a bit stomach-turning, but don’t know how to approach her. Maria.


In 2008, I had the most amazing experience. I was selected to be a part of a documentary entitled, “Friendly Captivity”. A group of 7 women went to India to discover the things that imprisoned us despite coming from a place of many freedoms in the United States.  We had been held captive by our beliefs, lifestyles and experiences that we were unaware of but had limited our possibilities.

One of the first things that struck me when I landed in Mumbai was the smell.  It was different than anything I had encountered before and yet, millions of people lived and made it their home.  In that moment, I had to deal with my own issues of other and difference.  It was something I wasn’t accustomed to and in my moment of cognitive dissonance, I had to step back and reflect.  I am encouraging to you in this moment to do the same.

I believe that there is a real opportunity here for you and your co-worker.  Because I have limited information based on your note, I am probably going to make a few assumptions.  More than likely, this is more of a cultural issue.  If your co-worker is from a different culture, the smell is probably one that is unique to you and others who are not accustomed to it.

As our countries become more diverse, these experiences will happen more and more.  Can you use this as an opportunity to learn her story?  To ask more about what she is eating and what it means to her?  I’m sure that this is a part of who she is and her background.  This can become a real chance for understanding and enlightment for both of you.

Now to deal with the smell, do you have a relationship with your coworker where you can gently address it?  This is a delicate issue and can result in more offense if you are not careful so if you don’t have established trust, don’t do it.  If there is no relationship, maybe it is a conversation with HR to address food and smells in the office—and not just hers.

Burnt popcorn is a rancid odor as well in addition to some of those darn candles that might give woosahs to some and woes to others. Even if candles are not allowed, my point is that we all process things, including smells, differently.

Is there a common breakroom that everyone can eat in or is there a specified trashcan that food can be dumped in that is away from everyone’s desks, or even the purchase of one that can better contain odors?  How does your organization handle the cleaning of microwaves, refrigerators, etc, used by staff?  Some clear guidelines could help.  I don’t think she should stop enjoying her lunch and what makes her happy.

I also believe that there is a common ground that can be reached for both of you and with the help of HR, some boundaries can be created that provide safe spaces for ALL—please make sure that she isn’t targeted and embarrassed, either.  Thank you for being sensitive to this issue and trying to find a resolution instead of being callous as many can be in these challenging situations.  Ultimately, I hope that this is the beginning of an effort led by you for understanding and tolerance in your office as being a place that embraces the healthy respect of cultural differences.  You. Got.  This.

About Dr. Froswa Booker-Drew

Dr. Froswa' Booker-Drew is a Partnership Broker. Relational Leadership Junkie. Connector. Author/Speaker/Trainer. Co-Founder, HERitage Giving Circle. She been quoted and profiled in Forbes, Ozy, Bustle, Huffington Post and other media outlets around the world. In addition, she has been asked to speak on a variety of topics such as social capital and networking, leadership, diversity, and community development to national and international audiences. This included serving as a workshop presenter at the United Nations in 2013 on the Access to Power. One of the most impactful life events for her was being a part of the documentary, Friendly Captivity, a film that followed a cast of 7 women from Dallas to India. Honors for her work include: Semi-finalist for the SMU TEDx in 2012, 2012 Outstanding African American Alumni Award from the University of Texas at Arlington, 2009 Woman of the Year Award by Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. and Diversity Ambassador for the American Red Cross. Graduating with a PhD from Antioch University in Leadership and Change, she also attended the Jean Baker Miller Institute at Wellesley for training in Relational Cultural Theory and completed facilitator training on Immunity to Change. She has also completed training through UNICEF on Equity Based Evaluations, and is the author of 2 workbooks for women, Ready for a Revolution: 30 Days to Jolt Your Life and Rules of Engagement: Making Connections Last as well as a writer for several publications around the globe. WFAA Attention Series: Froswa Booker Drew on Vimeo

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