Usually, employees gripe that the job stinks. On occasion, the odor is real and it’s not coming from the job. It’s wafting off a co-worker.
And when numerous employees are complaining to you about it, it’s time for you to take charge. Whether it’s bad breath or body odor, 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 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 first thing in the morning, causing him 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 because co-workers avoid him). Don’t try to guess why the employee has this problem.
- Don’t give off the impression 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 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 he tells you that he already practices good hygiene habits. But if the employee denies there’s a problem at all, you may have to get him to face facts; for example, by telling the employee that co-workers spray air freshener after he 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 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 happens, just follow up with the employee in a few days to check whether he or she got the message and has taken the initiative toward improvement.
Warning: People may have body odor for various reasons, including disability. If body odor results from a disability, employers should consider whether reasonable accommodation is appropriate.