Talking to Employees About Personal Hygiene and Body Odor

Employees with body odor can cause a disruption in the workplace; other employees may feel uncomfortable and, in extreme cases, be unable to perform their jobs. Employees may also begin to talk about the problem in the workplace, which disrupts work even more.

So what should you do?

The bad news is, there’s no guaranteed way to bring up personal odors without causing embarrassment. The good news is, most people would rather be a little embarrassed in private than be avoided by clients and coworkers.

Given the personal nature of the problem, managers should handle the matter with sensitivity. Body odor may be caused by a medical condition, poor hygiene or a specific diet, to name a few options. If the issue is not addressed appropriately, it may run afoul of the Americans with Disabilities Act or lead to claims of discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

Depending on the strength of relationship with the offending employee, HR or the manager should meet with the employee to bring the matter to the employee’s attention.  Don’t jump to conclusions, but don’t avoid the situation either.

Once you’ve decided to have the conversation, sending the message in the most empathetic way is the main concern.

A good way to begin is to say, “What I have to say is difficult, but if it was me I would like know.”

Using a term like “unusual odor” is more appropriate than “smell” or “stink.”

Gently pointing out the strong odor and asking for a response from the employee is critical. If appropriate, HR or the manager should reference the company’s dress and grooming policy and the negative effect on the employee’s contributions can be discussed. The employee should be allowed an opportunity to discuss the matter and to provide possible solutions. In the event the employee states that he or she has a medical condition, HR or the manager should reassure the employee and discuss reasonable accommodations.

Issues such as this one may cause employees to be distracted and disgruntled. Because is it inappropriate for employees to handle these situations between themselves, managers must deal with this situation as soon as possible.

Here are some do’s and don’ts:

  • Do make sure you have a dress code policy that includes personal hygiene.
  • Don’t jump to conclusions, investigate.
  • Do address the matters quickly and discreetly
  • Do be sensitive to cultural norms and medical conditions.

Remember it’s normal to worry about hurting or offending employees by having these discussions. But if you handle it with discretion and diplomacy, you are actually doing them and their colleagues a kindness. More to the point, you’re doing your job as a manager.