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Body Odor in the Workplace: How to Address an Employee's Personal Hygiene Issues
Christine McDade is an experienced human resources manager.
What is that smell?
You know the employee. I am referring to the one with the personal hygiene problem that repulses those who are forced to work with him or her. The employee that comes to work with a foul smelling cloud as a result of poor hygiene, dirty clothes or lifestyle activities that travel with them to work after a night of partying at the local bar for a "Happy Hour" celebration. For a supervisor, addressing this sensitive employee issue can be a daunting, uncomfortable task to perform. Counseling an employee for being late or failing to call in when they do not show up to work are much easier topics to discuss with a stinky employee.
Complaints roll in.
As a supervisor, it is easy to look or "smell" the other way when you have an employee in your workplace that has a body odor problem. You hope it is a "one day" or temporary situation that will correct itself on its own without your intervention. After all, who wants to have to tell someone that they smell?
However, there comes a time when a coworker or even worse, a customer, approaches you to discuss their impression of this employee. Suddenly, you are in the spotlight to get an unfortunate, yet important, situation corrected immediately. The pressure is on, for you, the supervisor, who must do something about this smelly situation. Failure to address the situation will lead to further complaints and your managing capabilities will be scrutinized for your inaction.
Address the employee issue as soon as possible.
To tackle this very sensitive situation, it is important to handle it delicately and with tact. Regardless of the employee or the situation, addressing the issue is going to be embarrassing for you and the employee. My advice to supervisors in this situation is to stick to the facts. Remind the employee that while he or she is at work, they represent the company to the public, other departments, customers, etc. It is, therefore, not in the company's best interest for an employee to come to work in dirty clothing and have poor personal hygiene. Explain to the employee the company's policy on uniforms, business apparel, etc. A component of the policy should be to have clean, wrinkle-free, clothing, etc. You can refer to the policy and the need for all employees to adhere to it.
In addition, you expect the employee to be ready to work when they arrive each morning. Being ready to work means that they are clean (showered, hair washed), properly clothed (clothes laundered), with no foul smelling odors. You can let the employee know that their poor appearance has been noted by you, and you demand immediate attention to this concern. Remind the employee that the situation must be corrected and you are there if they have any questions about your expectations. This important discussion should be in a private, quiet place in order to maintain confidentiality of the matter. Be professional at all times. Tell the employee that you support them and want to see them succeed in their job. To do so, however, the employee must show more respect for their personal appearance and their representation of the company immediately.
Some Closing Thoughts
While no one wants to deal with body odor issues in the workplace, employees whose appearance does not meet the expectations required of an employee in your company must make immediate improvements to ensure that they will still have a job. Supervisors who handle this issue in a professional, yet sensitive manner, will likely have the buy-in from the employee under scrutiny who will make changes that correct the issue. Such situations may result in an employee who appreciates your professionalism and tact in approaching the problem head on with them. While there may be a slight sting of embarrassment on the part of the employee with the issue, they will make the need corrections because they understand that continued employment requires immediate cooperation for change.