By: Ron Guest, Senior Partner, TwoGreySuits www.twogreysuits.com
Body odor can be a very serious matter in the workplace. We have had several calls to our TwoGreySuits HR Hotline in past years asking for help in how to deal with offensive body odor in the workplace. I have experienced this first hand (not as the offender!) and believe me when I say it is no laughing matter, in fact it can make employees outright furious. Perhaps the worst thing managers can do (which many do) is to make a joke about it, in an attempt to try and lighten things up to be able to have a conversation about it.
On a somewhat related matter, I was recently on vacation in Melbourne, Australia and upon checking into a hotel room we called maintenance to come and fix something and the person who came had such offensive body odor, we could not stay in our room afterwards, so we opened all the windows and left for the day, stopping by to speak with the hotel manager about it, who apologized and reassured me the matter would be taken very seriously, including offering us a new room.
Body odor situations can get serious real fast, with employees refusing to work or go to meetings or converse with the offender. Essentially, people’s livelihoods become involved. Employees with body odor, those who regularly doesn’t wash their hands after using the restroom, and workers who don’t wear deodorant or who don’t properly launder their clothes present scenarios that can trigger significant morale and productivity issues. Employee odor issues generally come to management’s attention because someone complains that their colleague smells. The person emitting or causing the odor often isn’t aware of the problem, but research suggests that most want to know about it.
What Is a Polite Way to Talk With an Employee About Body Odor?
Let’s face it – nobody likes to be told that they smell.
It is your responsibility as a manager to have the uncomfortable conversations with employees about delicate matters, such as offensive body odor. The key is to politely alert the employee about the problem and initiate a solution while minimizing the embarrassment to the employee. To avoid possible further employee conflicts with other employees, ‘good’ managers should own the responsibility of telling the person that they notice an odor vs. naming employees who might be raising the concern.
Before the Talk
Gather as much information about the problem as possible. Familiarize yourself with the circumstances surrounding any complaints made and the employee’s file for clues about the cause of the odor. Schedule a closed-door meeting or sit down with the employee in question in a private space to avoid embarrassing them. Depending on your company’s human resource policies, you may also need a member of the HR department to sit in on the meeting.
What to Say
When it’s time to talk to the employee about their odor issue, be direct yet tactful. Explain that they may not have realized but you have noticed their body odor. Do not list the names of people who have complained about it because that will likely embarrass the person. Assure them that you understand that it may be the result of a medical issue. However, be firm about the fact that it’s important to the company that they attend to the source of the odor. Close the meeting by asking them if you can do anything to make it easier for them to rectify the situation.
After the Talk
Always follow up with the situation the very next workday and a week or two later. Determine whether the body odor situation has been solved. If it’s a medical issue, consider that the employee can only do so much to fix it. Consider moving their work area or transferring them to another position if they must deal with employees. Research suggests that employees with body odor issues are often repeat offenders, so it is important to closely monitor the situation going forward. If the problem persists, as a manager you may need to venture into such questions as to frequency of deodorant application, bathing and cleaning of clothing. If the problem gets resolved, it is appropriate to offer the person positive feedback and appreciation for addressing the situation. If the problem persists you may get into disciplinary action or if proven to be medically related you should seek legal counsel on your duty to accommodate in such circumstances or the possibility of human rights claims or claims based on possible discrimination claims of some sort.