How To Approach Employees With Poor Hygiene
Published July 19, 2005
Air conditioning in the office may alleviate rising summer temperatures, but it has no way of masking unpleasant body odor. An employee might have a body odor problem that you are well aware of, or co-workers have complained about it. The employee may not be aware, however, that he/she even has a problem.
The odor offender could be someone with poor hygiene and who is oblivious to how that can affect co-workers and the workplace. You must also consider that the employee might have a medical condition or takes medication that causes bad body odor. In any case, know the proper way to address this issue with the employee.
It is a conversation you are not looking forward to having, of course, due to the awkwardness and personal nature of the problem. You're likely embarrassed about having to bring up an employee's body odor problem, want to avoid the conversation if at all possible, and hope the problem just goes away. But you need to put that embarrassment aside and address the problem. It's possible the employee will be grateful you did.
Delivering the "sorry, but you smell" message must be done delicately, tactfully, and in private. Keep the following in mind.
Be candid. Don't dance around the issue or avoid directly saying what the problem is. Tell the employee upfront that he/she has a body odor problem that must be dealt with.
Be sensitive. You don't want to come off as though you are criticizing the employee. Acknowledge that this is an awkward conversation for you as well, and you don't mean to make the employee feel awkward or embarrassed. Break the news gently by saying, "You may not realize..."
Be supportive. Ask the employee if there is anything that he/she needs or that you can do to help. Example: short breaks during the day to freshen up; a fan for his/her workspace.
Be considerate. Initially, tell the employee that this is a problem you have noticed. You don't want to make the employee feel worse by giving the impression that the whole department is talking about him/her. If the employee refuses to believe you, then tell him/her that you have received complaints from other employees.
Be understanding. The employee may tell you about a medical condition for which he/she may need an accommodation. Also, be prepared if the employee is so embarrassed, he/she ends the discussion quickly and leaves your office. If that happens, follow up with the employee a few days later to see whether he/she has done something about the odor problem.
If the employee's offensive body odor continues even after you've discussed it, inform him/her that coming to work unclean or unkempt is unprofessional and disrupts productivity. Put the employee on notice that he/she must come to work clean smelling and appropriately groomed immediately. If he/she doesn't, take appropriate disciplinary action. For instance, you could send the employee home (with pay) to freshen up and issue a written warning.
Related Topic(s): Discipline & Performance Issues