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Body Odor in the Workplace: How to Address an Employee's Personal Hygiene Issues

Updated on March 2, 2013
ChrisMcDade8 profile image

Christine McDade is a Human Resources professional (PHR & SHRM-CP) with over 18 years in the public sector.

Christine McDade is an experienced human resources manager.

It is important to remind employees that they are representatives of the organization.
It is important to remind employees that they are representatives of the organization. | Source

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.

While it may be tempting to give a bar of soap to the employee with offensive body odor, supervisors must address the issue with tact and sensitivity.
While it may be tempting to give a bar of soap to the employee with offensive body odor, supervisors must address the issue with tact and sensitivity. | Source

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.


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    • profile image

      Rozalyn Winters 3 years ago

      Yikes! I never had to deal with this one when I was a manager. I can imagine just how delicate the situation would be. I would guess that some people may not even realize that they are 'odorous' and may even appreciate being informed of it, because no one wants to smell bad.

    • Keri Machin profile image

      Keri Machin 4 years ago from Miami Florida

      aww thi sis awkward but sometimes it needs to be done!

    • ChrisMcDade8 profile image

      Christine McDade 4 years ago from Southwest Florida

      When the situation is handled without care for the feelings of the individual, the message is likely to be lost. Thanks for your feedback.

    • Alecia Murphy profile image

      Alecia Murphy 4 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      Thankfully this isn't a problem where I work but with so many different people, it's always a possibility. I just hope people don't take it too far and approach the person before telling HR or their supervisor.

    • ChrisMcDade8 profile image

      Christine McDade 4 years ago from Southwest Florida

      Thanks for your comments. Supervisors do not always know what personal struggles an employee is facing. Patience and a little effort can go far for getting to the heart of the matter.

    • moonlake profile image

      moonlake 4 years ago from America

      My son-in-law had to deal with this but he said he had to because he had to get in the car with the guy and something had to be done. Interesting hub voted up.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 4 years ago from USA

      You are so right about having the conversation in a respectful, private way. I've dealt with situations involving stinky employees only to find out in a one-on-one conversation with them that they have become recently homeless, are living in a shelter, are dealing with substance abuse/domestic violence/mental illness. Poor personal hygiene is a sign that there might be something significant going on with that person. It's humbling to know what some folks face. They still need to do their job and represent the company, but seeking to understand rather than judge is helpful. Good hub! Voted up and sharing.

    • ChrisMcDade8 profile image

      Christine McDade 5 years ago from Southwest Florida

      Addressing an employee's body odor can be a very embarrassing situation for both the employee and the supervisor. However, employee behavior and appearance make up how he/she represents the company. It is an isuue that should not be ignored. Thanks to everyone for the comments.

    • profile image

      deballen 5 years ago

      We have much diversity, and much of the odor thing to, people just tell me "that is how they are in their country" something about it being attractive to the opposite sex.........yuck

    • jpcmc profile image

      JP Carlos 5 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

      This nis really a sensitive issue. But still it has to be addressed properly. I do have my share of stinky employees. More than just body odor, foul breath is another concern. What's important to understand that they were in a customer service business. Every detail counts. We had to come up with workplace policies just to keep the place smelling fresh. Likewise, we had to talk to the person privately as it can be embarrassing. It has to be done.