You Stink! How to Have the Hygiene Convo at Work…

Okay, maybe that’s not the best way to start a conversation with an employee who reeks of body odor, has bad breath, or is using so much cologne that their scent lingers long after they has left the area…

Talking with an employee about their personal hygiene can be uncomfortable and embarrassing for both the manager and employee. But, with a little planning and preparation, a manager can effectively handle the situation by taking the following steps.

  • Ask the employee to come with you into a private conference room or office to discuss the situation. Usually, an employee’s lack of hygiene is brought to the manager’s attention by co-workers.  To minimize embarrassment, try to be as subtle as possible about asking the employee to come with you.  Additionally, try to schedule the meeting for the end of the day so that the employee doesn’t have to spend the rest of the workday feeling self-conscious.
  • Be specific about the problem. “Jane, we’ve received complaints and I have observed body odor coming from you.  It seems as if you haven’t bathed or used deodorant recently.” Be sensitive to the issue and think about how you would want to be told if you had the same problem.  Consider role playing with another manager before you have your meeting to help determine the best way to approach the subject.
  • Keep the focus on how the employee’s lack of hygiene affects work. The employee’s odor can impact productivity if employees’ ability to work together is affected. Also, it can hurt sales if customers or clients refuse to deal face-to-face with the individual. Express your concern about the negative affect their behavior has in the work environment and state that you would be remiss in your duties as a supervisor to not address the situation with him/her.
  • During this meeting, the employee should be reassured that they are not being accused of wrongdoing and that this is not a disciplinary meeting. However, you do need to state that you expect the employee to take care of the problem.
  • Give the employee a chance to respond;
    • If the employee tells you that this is a result of a cultural, medical or religious issue, consider providing time and assistance rather than a “change or else” directive.
    • If the employee says s/he already practices good hygiene habits, avoids certain foods, etc. and doesn’t know what else to do, suggest that the employee visit a doctor or dentist. However, you should avoid assuming there is an underlying medical condition.
    • If the employee denies there is a problem, continue with the discussion. You can restate the fact that you’ve received complaints and that you have observed the condition yourself.  Be specific.  If co-workers say they have to use air freshener whenever an employee walks by, tell the employee that. Just because the employee disagrees with the discussion doesn’t mean we can’t continue to enforce our standards of hygiene.
  • Give goals with timelines and consequences. Depending on circumstances, you may require immediate improvement or at least see that the employee is making an effort (such as scheduling a doctor’s appointment). Be prepared to follow through on consequences if the employee refuses to make the effort.
  • An employee may be very upset and/or embarrassed by this meeting and will end the conversation abruptly. If this happens, schedule a  follow-up meeting with the employee in a few days to make sure s/he is taking steps to correct the hygiene problem.

Addressing poor hygiene issues is not without risk.  There have been cases in which employees have filed lawsuit against employers for discrimination because there was an underlying, documented medical condition that wasn’t accommodated.  There have also been lawsuits based on national origin because a supervisor automatically assumed the reason for the person’s body odor was related to the ethnic foods the individual ate. That’s why it’s better to let the employee tell you that there’s a medical condition or that it’s related to food they eat rather than you suggest that could be the underlying cause to them.  Instead, the manager should presume the issue is related to lack of hygiene rather than a medical condition or ethnic foods.

Additionally, we haven’t addressed the issue of those employees who work in labor-intensive jobs and who just by virtue of their work may perspire and develop body odor.  For those employees…especially those who interact with customers…it may be suggested that they bring one or two clean shirts to work to change into when the clothes they are wearing become soiled.  For example, if your company is in the business of providing residential pest control, you may ask your employees to keep one or two clean shirts in their vehicles to change into when the clothes they are currently wearing become soiled because the individual had to crawl under a house or into an attic.

Earlier in this article, we mentioned strong scents of cologne.  Although this isn’t as embarrassing or awkward to discuss, wearing of perfumes and colognes also needs to be addressed.  Many of our employees and customers have sensitivity to fragrances. For those with severe allergies, certain scents can trigger an allergic reaction. Initially, employers may want to adopt a policy restricting the use of heavy or strongly scented perfumes, lotions, soaps, etc. And by “heavy” or “strongly scented”, if a person’s scent can be smelled at a normal personal distance of 3-4 feet, it is too strong.

Language addressing both personal hygiene and perfumes/colognes can be included in your companies Dress & Grooming Policy.  Sample language may state: “Employees must adhere to common standards of hygiene and be free of bodily odor. Cologne and similar fragrances must be used in moderation. Consideration for coworkers should be kept in mind with respect to use of perfumes and lotions, as well as the maintenance of personal hygiene and body odors.” Alternatively, some companies completely prohibit the use of fragrances in the workplace: “This is a fragrance free workplace.  In order to accommodate our co-workers and customers who are chemically sensitive to fragrances and other scented products, employees may not wear perfume, cologne, scented body lotions, etc.”

Personal hygiene is a touchy subject. However, with a little planning, the company can address the issue promptly and effectively before it gets out of control.


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