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Dealing with foul-smelling workers: 6 tips for ‘The talk’

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For many HR professionals, hosting a termination meeting may be easier than having to tell an employee that he or she has offensive body odor. But a surprising number of HR pros are forced into such discussions.

Participants in the HR Specialist Forum of our HR Weekly e-letter discussed the issue recently. Based on their suggestions, here are six tips for handling the issue in your workplace:

1. Discuss it privately and in person. Don't skirt the issue by sending an e-mail or by leaving an anonymous air freshener on the employee's desk. Meet with the employee privately. Document your discussion.

"The worst thing you can do is nothing while awaiting inappropriate confrontation by others," says Rhonda, an HR director at an Illinois company. "Talk to the foul-smelling employee when no one else is around. Don't make a big deal out of it."

2. Focus on work-related disruptions. Don't make it a personal issue; explain that the odor is disrupting the workplace and must be dealt with.

"Rather than blaming the person, I'd focus on what effect it's having and some solutions to improve it," says Kathy, an HR specialist in Minnesota. "We've had to do this several times because we have an un-air conditioned warehouse. It always ends up a friendly conversation and the problem goes away."

3. Let employees handle the "how." Don't be drawn into a detailed discussion of showering methods, deodorants, etc. That will only serve to embarrass the person. Explain the problem, and ask the employee to fix it.

Example: Here's how the HR director at a New York City manufacturer handled an odor issue with an employee: "I said to him that I'm not sure if it was something in his culture regarding eating or use of deodorants, but several people had indicated an unpleasant odor. Over a two-week period, the problem went away. I did not ask, or care, how he did it. We never spoke about it again."

4. Realize that medical conditions or diet could be the cause. In addition to hygiene issues, offensive body odor could stem from certain medical conditions, such as diabetes, kidney disease or even a defective gene condition (fish-odor syndrome). You may suggest that the employee visit a doctor.

5. Check in a few weeks later. "I followed up after a couple weeks to reinforce the importance of our previous discussion and show appreciation for the changes made," says Ronda, the HR director from Illinois. "Always keep in mind the value of the employee while preserving his or her dignity."

6. Steer clear of writing an "odor policy." Instead, draft a grooming policy that sets general standards for appearance and hygiene.

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