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Employee’s Poor Personal Hygiene Puts You in a Difficult Situation

by on
in Human Resources

Telling a person they have bad breath or body odor is difficult to do. Just having to tell them at all is difficult enough. That's why so many managers toss this employee problem HR's way. You need to toss it back to the managers and make them responsible for handling their own employee problems.

Anyone who lands in this difficult situation can use these best practices to address an employee's personal hygiene problem tactfully and effectively, and minimize the employee's embarrassment.

  • Quietly and discreetly call the employee away from his/her workstation because if co-workers complained about the hygiene problem, they'll know exactly why you're pulling the employee into the meeting.
  • Hold the meeting before the employee goes home for the day because there's no sense in telling him/her first thing in the morning, causing him/her to feel self conscious all day, especially if the employee can't go home to shower and change clothes, for example.
  • Think about how you would want to be told about this problem. Role-play with a colleague or supervisor to practice.
  • Empathize. Acknowledge that you understand this is difficult for the employee to hear, but you would be neglecting your duties as a manager to ignore it.
  • Stick to the topic of work. Tell the employee about the negative effects on the work environment (e.g., lack of teamwork because co-workers avoid him/her). Don't try to guess why the employee has this problem.
  • Don't give off the scent that the employee is guilty of wrongdoing or this is a disciplinary session. But be clear that the employee needs to take care of the problem.
  • Give the employee a chance to respond, if he/she wants to. The employee may tell you the odor is a result of a medical, cultural, or religious issue. Showing you're willing to help is better than standing ground on a "change, or else" demand. Suggest that the employee visit a doctor or dentist, if they tell you that they already practice good hygiene habits. But if the employee denies there's a problem at all, you may have to get him/her to face facts, for example, by telling the employee that co-workers spray air freshener after he/she comes around.
  • Set goals, a timeline, and consequences for not reaching those goals. You may require the employee to show immediate improvement, but a better tactic is to expect the employee to show he/she is taking steps toward improvement, such as by making a doctor's appointment. Follow through with the consequences if the employee fails to improve.
  • Recognize that the employee might be embarrassed or upset, and end the conversation abruptly. If that does happen, just follow up with the employee in a few days to check whether he/she got the message and has taken steps toward improvement.
"We need to talk..."

Sexually offensive behavior ... inappropriate attire … tardiness … poor work habits … personal hygiene. Managers and HR professionals are routinely forced to discuss those uncomfortable topics with employees. But most never learned how.

Now you can—with
Tough Talks: Scripts & Strategies for Difficult Employee Discussions.

Get the audio guide here...

A manager's job is difficult enough without these disruptive situations — an employee's poor hygiene, resistance to change, or tardiness, among others — cropping up on a daily basis. More often than not, managers dodge or mismanage these situations because they are uncomfortable to handle. And sometimes they end up in your lap, as if they're any less difficult for you to handle.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Tea August 30, 2012 at 3:50 pm

Thanks for the insight in to a difficult topic…by the way in your 6th point you say “Don’t give off the scent that the employee is guilty” I dont really think you meant “scent” in an already smelly topic…lol


Valeria T April 11, 2012 at 7:44 pm

I’d gone into a bit more detail on this in a similar thread; so I don’t have to
repeat myself, I am sending you the link to it here:



shaun c April 8, 2012 at 7:04 pm

This is entirely the wrong tack to take in this situation. Personal hygiene is, or should be, just that: PERSONAL. That means simply:

It is NO ONE ELSE’s business. Not the manager’s, not the co workers, no one else’s.

I as a manager would never bring up this subject with any employee. If other employees came to me with comments about one of their co workers along these lines, they would get a very short and to the point lecture on the subject of what is or is not appropriate discussion in the workplace. (A discussion of ANYONE’s *PERSONAL HYGIENE* falls quite definitely into the “not appropriate” category)


shaun c April 11, 2012 at 12:34 pm

Unfortunately Valeria T in reality this is one of the most uncomfortable conversations an Employer sometimes has to have. When an one individuals body odor is literally making the workplace ill something has to be done. This article outlines a bit of a brash approach, but the idea that one person fouling up the entire workplace is their personal choice is not reality. If an individual wants their person to smell then they are the one making the choice that their personal hygiene no longer personal. They may not even know there is an issue and as difficult and embarrassing as it may be it’s better to tell someone that they could be damaging their reputation.


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