What to Do When Your Employee Stinks — Literally
Is there any conversation that is more awkward than having to tell someone that their body odor is offensive to others? Or that their bad breath is driving customers away? Personal hygiene conversations are never fun to have, but as a manager, when an employee’s personal hygiene and grooming habits are affecting others, it’s your responsibility to address the issue.
Not only is there a certain amount of etiquette involved in addressing personal hygiene issues — after all, you don’t want to be rude or hurt someone’s feelings — you could be treading into treacherous territory involving discrimination or disability issues. Not all personal grooming problems are due to negligence, and there is always the possibility that the offender knows that he or she has an issue, but can’t help it. Of course, there is always a possibility that the offending employee has no idea that their hygiene is affecting others — and a meeting could serve as a wakeup call.
As uncomfortable as such a conversation may be, you cannot simply ignore the issue and hope it resolves itself. According to one Australian survey, 75 percent of workers find it difficult to concentrate on work when a colleague has body odor, while 64 percent find bad breath distracting. Almost half find flatulence to be a problem at work. Clearly, odors are an issue in the workplace, so you need a strategy for dealing with them.
Develop a Policy
One way to keep odorous employees from becoming an issue is to include clauses regarding personal hygiene and grooming in the employee handbook as part of the dress code. It may seem obvious to stipulate that employees should come to work clean and well groomed, but having a written policy in place makes it easier to address violations. It won’t eliminate all potential problems, since each employee has their own interpretation of what it means to come to work smelling fresh and looking clean, but it is a starting point.
Initiating a Conversation
Whether the odor problem is something that you have noticed yourself, or something that has been brought to your attention by other employees or customers, it’s important to address the issue promptly and courteously. The best way to do that is to schedule a private meeting with the employee; never address their odor or habits in a public forum or in front of others.
When starting the conversation, it’s important to be as objective as possible. Starting with “Everyone says that you smell bad,” is not going to get the conversation off on the right foot. Instead, begin by acknowledging the awkwardness of the situation, and inform the employee of the problem in specific, non-judgmental language. For example, state, “I realize this is an uncomfortable situation, but several people have mentioned that your body odor is making it difficult to concentrate on their work.”
Don’t assume a cause for the issue or make judgments; for example, don’t say, “It appears that you aren’t showering every day,” or “You obviously don’t care about your appearance.” Not only do such statements put the employee on the defensive, they are potentially violating anti-discrimination laws. In some cases, body odor or grooming issues are a result of health issues (some medications can cause bad breath or flatulence, for example) or cultural or religious standards.
Because odors aren’t always due to lax hygiene practices, it’s important to give employees a chance to respond. If he or she didn’t know there was a problem, a gentle reminder about your company’s personal grooming policies should address the issue. If it’s a case of a cultural, religious, or medical issue, you may need to make accommodations for that employee to comply with anti-discrimination laws.
The only exception is when the accommodation creates an undue hardship on the business. In some cases, allowing an employee to maintain habits that lead to unpleasant smells for others will hurt your business, and you can legally compel an employee to comply with your hygiene standards or face reassignment or termination.
As when dealing with any type of employee issue or policy violation, documentation and follow-up are important when addressing hygiene violations. Communicate your expectations regarding hygiene to the employee both verbally and in writing, and document the consequences for failing to follow through on the prescribed remedy. If accommodations are in order, document both the accommodation and the plan for implementing it. Set a timeline for resolving the issue and a date for follow up, if necessary.
While addressing the problem with the offending employee is the most important part of handling a stinky situation, it’s also important to prevent any fallout. Remind the offending employee that the conversation is confidential, and that you’re looking out for the interests of the company. In addition, do not tolerate gossip or bullying among employees regarding someone else’s hygiene. If someone complains, assure him or her that you will handle it, with a reminder not to take matters into their own hands. If gossip becomes a problem, address it with the staff, with escalation as appropriate.
Above all, it’s important to handle hygiene-related conversations with compassion. While it may be awkward, someone who doesn’t know they have a problem will probably be relieved that someone kindly told them the truth and spared them further embarrassment.