How do you confront an employee with bad personal hygiene?
Body odour is cited as the biggest bugbear for 70% of employees. So what should HR do to tackle this awkward and personal situation?
In the first instance, you should not ignore the situation. Sitting next to, talking to and working with a colleague who has consistent objectionable personal hygiene can be an intricate concern for employers to deal with.
You should consider the hefty impact this may have on relationships between colleagues, clients, and customers. For example, working with a colleague who has body odour or bad breath may affect morale and productivity in the workplace. If the employee is in a customer facing role, it may even result in a business losing clients.
How do you broach the topic?
First thing’s first, check that personal hygiene is addressed in your Employee Handbook – and if it isn’t, it’s time to update it. As with any allegation, you should also investigate if the claim is indeed true. Once you’ve done the ground work, you can approach the person for a conversation.
We’d recommended to keep your initial discussion informal and, of course, private. Speaking to an employee with poor personal hygiene should be done diplomatically with empathy and sensitivity, taking into consideration their feelings. The aim of your chat should be to agree on a resolution to move forward.
Discuss with the employee if there is a reason behind the issue, such as a medical condition, their living situation, religious beliefs or mental health, all of which may impact someone’s personal hygiene. If there is a reason for the unfortunate body odour, consider how the business may be able to assist the person and discuss your options with them. In some instances you might be able to directly influence the route cause of the issue, which may have a positive knock-on effect for the employee in other areas of their life too.
Avoiding discrimination claims
Be mindful the employee may consider this confrontation rude, and there is a potential for discrimination. In February 2022, The Daily Mail reported a case headlined “female tutor wins £5,000 pay out after judge rules she was harassed by bosses who repeatedly asked her to speak to elderly student, 94, over complaints he smelt of urine”.
In this case, the embarrassed tutor was selected to have this difficult discussion with the student by her bosses, because (the tribunal ruled) they assumed as a woman she’d be better able to discuss hygiene issues. As a result, the tribunal ruled her bosses had harassed her and discriminated against her. This case reminds us it’s wise to carefully consider not only what to say to the employee, but who has the conversation with them, and why.
Other helpful ways HR can manage bad odours
It can be uneasy speaking with a colleague with a significant body odour concern. Dealing with these concerns discreetly before speaking with the employee directly can also be effective. For example, placing deodorant in the toilets, along with other personal hygiene products and mints etc. with a note to say, ‘please feel free to use’ may help people stay fresh during the day.
If the concern continues then follow the above advice delicately and thoughtfully. In our experience, the employee is often grateful as they were unaware of the problem and want to rectify it. So it’s always important to remember by speaking with them, you’re doing them a kindness.