Hygiene at Work: How to Talk to an Employee About Body Odor

By Jeanette Coleman, SPHR & SHRM-SCP on Oct 25, 2019
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We’ve all been there, most of us on both ends. There’s a pungent smell, a missed patch of stubble, or rip in some clothing. It can be an awkward situation to deal with even among the best of friends, so when hygiene issues come up at work, they can be a manager’s nightmare.

Even though the situation is awkward, workplace hygiene is important to address. Employees with customer-facing roles need to leave a good impression consistent with company values. When customers aren’t involved, poor hygiene can still be a distraction to fellow coworkers, hindering productivity. In the worst cases, poor hygiene practices such as those causing strong odors can conflict with ADA protections of employees with asthma, COPD, or allergies.

But the situation doesn’t have to be dramatic. If you follow the advice below, addressing workplace hygiene issues can be easier for everyone involved.

RELATED: When Work Stinks - What Employers Need To Know >>

The Conversation

Upon receiving a complaint about an employee’s personal hygiene, take the matter seriously. Don’t dismiss a complaint without investigating it first. Ignoring a complaint can lead to legal consequences, like those suffered by a North Carolina company when they did not conduct an “individualized assessment” upon receiving a request to telecommute from an employer complaining of workplace scents aggravating her asthma.

Instead, investigate the situation with your own eyes and nose. Follow up with those who made the complaint and get more information from employees who know about the situation.

Then, sit down with the employee the complaint concerns. Be compassionate and hear their side of the story. It could be that there is a simple resolution to the issue and the employee is more than willing to make a change. This seems to be the case with many employees—few people want to intentionally smell bad, for instance.

RELATED: Six Keys to Effective Employee Discipline >>

Keep the conversation short and private. Since many employees in this situation aren’t aware that they are doing something wrong, it is important to keep the atmosphere relaxed and amicable. Be compassionate. However, make sure you are clear about your hygiene expectations going forward.

If the problem repeats itself, remind the employee of your conversation. When several reminders are given and the employee still does not address the issue, it might be time to consider termination. Consult with your HR personnel or legal counsel to avoid any unforeseen pitfalls moving forward.

dress code

Proactive Steps

Of course, the best situation would be to never have to worry about workplace hygiene at all. While this might not always be possible, taking proactive steps with your implementation of dress code and grooming policies will help ensure that you get as close to that ideal, clean work environment as possible. We’ve included a handful of useful tips to keep in mind down below.

  • Include Hygiene Education in the Onboarding Process 
    Even if a prospective employee shows up to an interview well-kempt, take the time to spell out workplace expectations about dress code and hygiene. Do not assume that a prospective employee already knows exactly how they should conduct themselves. Point out the location in the employee handbook where new employees can go to review the information.

  • Be Open
    If you require customer-facing employees to shave daily because much of your customer base is conservative, say so. Explain that excessive cologne or perfume use might aggravate asthma, allergies, or simply be a distraction. Employees will be more likely to follow policies if they understand the logic behind the rules.

  • Focus on Problem Areas
    Make sure locations like break rooms that see lots of food use are frequently cleaned. The same goes for bathrooms. If many of your employees smoke, make sure they know where smoking is and isn’t acceptable. It’s a good idea to identify a discrete location where smoking employees can go to avoid agitating others.  RELATED: Employees Who Smoke Cost Employers Big >>
  • Avoid Discrimination
    Stay as gender-neutral as possible to avoid policing one gender more than another. Allow for dress code exceptions in religious cases. Be consistent about how you enforce policies across different racial or ethnic groups.

  • Routinely Review
    Update policies as trends change. Certain grooming practices such as shaving are becoming less widespread as they once were, so consider removing these practices from your list of expectations if you don’t want to ward off prospective employees. No one can fully predict where fashion trends will go in the future, either, so make sure to routinely review policies to make sure that they are aligned with contemporary values.

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