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Hygiene in the Workplace: How to Tell an Employee They Smell

By Mariah Collins, SHRM-CP on Nov 18, 2022
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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 a hole in some clothing. Personal hygiene in the workplace can be an awkward situation to deal with even among the best of friends, so when hygiene issues come up at work, it can be a manager’s worst nightmare.

Even though the situation is awkward, workplace hygiene is important to address for the health and safety of everyone involved. 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 smells and hygiene issues can be easier for everyone involved.

RELATED: What Kansas City Business Owners Need to Know About the CROWN Act >>


Table of Contents

1. Don't Ignore Complaints

2. Have the Difficult Conversation

3. Five Proactive Steps to Take

Don’t Ignore Complaints

Upon receiving a complaint about an employee’s poor personal hygiene, take the matter seriously. Don’t dismiss a complaint without investigating it first. That can lead to legal consequences, as happened to a North Carolina company. In that case, an employee alleged that, by ignoring her repeated requests to telecommute as a means of avoiding offensive workplace odors, the employer violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The EEOC claimed the employee asked her supervisor on three occasions if she could work from home to minimize exposure to fragrances and other workplace smells that intensified her asthma and COPD. The employee’s job as a case manager for patients requiring home services could have been performed from home.

The EEOC held that the company’s ADA violation occurred when it rejected the request to telecommute without assessing the potential accommodation in light of the employee’s health and job duties.

zoom shirt with sweatpants

This situation provides two warnings:

  • First, if an employee says he or she is allergic or sensitive to certain workplace smells, take the claim seriously. Underlying respiratory conditions like asthma, COPD or allergies can heighten sensitivity to certain odors, and these conditions may constitute a disability under the ADA.

  • Second, after an employee requests an accommodation, never ignore it. Often, the requested accommodation – or some other reasonable accommodation that is agreeable to both the employer and employee – can be met without creating undue hardship on the employer. Ignoring the request and refusing to even engage in the “interactive process” the EEOC requires creates the risk that the employee could file a claim.

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

Then, sit down with the employee to talk about his or her concerns. Be compassionate and hear the employee’s side of the story. It could be that there is a simple resolution to the issue.

RELATED: When Work Stinks, What Employers Need to Know >>

Have the Difficult Conversation

When the situation involves an employee who exhibits poor hygiene habits, it’s time to have a thoughtful but tough conversation. Few people want to intentionally smell bad, so, as difficult as it is to initiate the discussion, those who do often discover that the employee is more than willing to make a change.

How to Talk to an Employee About Body Odor

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

If the problem persists, 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 your HR personnel, legal counsel, or Axcet HR Solutions to avoid any unforeseen pitfalls moving forward.

dress code

Take 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 you get as close to that ideal work environment as possible. We’ve included a handful of useful tips below.

Include Hygiene Education in the Onboarding Process

Even if a prospective employee shows up to an interview clean and well-dressed, take time to spell out workplace expectations about dress code and hygiene. Do not assume prospective employees already know how they should conduct themselves. Point out the location in the employee handbook where new employees can go to review the company’s hygiene and dress code expectations.

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 racial or ethnic groups.

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 or 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 having their smoke agitate others. 

Routinely Review

Update policies as trends change. Certain grooming practices, such as shaving, are becoming less widespread than they once were, so consider removing these practices from your list of expectations if you don’t want to put 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 they align with contemporary values.

RELATED: Employees Who Smoke Cost Employers Big >>
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