How to Talk with an Employee About Body Odor

May 21, 2018

A colleague needs a shower. A co-worker should wear socks. A manager is asking if someone on your HR team might have a word with a particularly smelly associate. As summer nears, how to address the issue of body odor is a real concern in the workplace.

Do have a policy that also addresses hygiene.

A dress code typically requests that employees exercise good judgment regarding their appearance and hygiene. Additional language may express the employer's expectation that employees will use deodorant or antiperspirant to minimize body odor. These policies also should ask employees to refrain from wearing fragrances that might offend or affect those with allergies. Expectations and standards take the guesswork out of many situations.

Don't jump to conclusions, but don't avoid the situation.

Whoever handles the problem should first investigate the circumstances to ensure that those complaining have a legitimate reason for doing so. When body odor is strong, it can be very distracting. People may not want to work directly or even communicate with a person if they feel odor is a problem. If the employee is not aware that the body odor is the reason people cringe when they enter a room, the employee could incorrectly blame their co-workers' or manager's reactions to them on something else completely. This is one reason this should be addressed as soon as possible. If issues are allowed to linger, that only increases the risk that the employee with the body odor problem may be subject to ridicule by their colleagues.

Do approach the person.

If the complaint is legitimate, it's important to address it quickly. An employee with bad hygiene can reflect poorly on a company, particularly if the worker interacts in person with clients, customers or the public. HR or a manager should handle the issue because peer-to-peer conversations about the matter can be less effective and can lack the gravity of a supervisor-to-subordinate conversation. The most important thing to remember when approaching a worker is to treat him or her with dignity. This could be very embarrassing, and you need to be empathetic. Such conversations should always take place in private.

Think about how you would want to hear it, then discreetly take the person aside and address it. At the same time, you are also trying to get the message across that the person needs to do something about this or disciplinary action could result.

Do be sensitive to cultural norms and medical conditions.

A company policy should recognize that an employee's religious, ethical or moral beliefs or an employee's medical condition or disability may prevent them from complying with the policy as written. If there is an underlying medical condition causing the odor, ask the employee to "obtain a doctor's note regarding the condition and the doctor's recommendation for handling it. In such circumstances there should be "reasonable accommodations for disabilities and religious beliefs.