Nuts-and-Bolts: “The Body Odor Talk”

Last week we discussed the all-too-familiar and uncomfortable reality of distracting odors and scents in the workplace, but that begs the question: How does one address this specific, awkward issue with an employee who has unpleasant body odor?

First off, be aware that body odor can be caused by either poor personal hygiene or by a medical condition, but regardless of which, it is paramount to discuss the problem with confidentiality and sensitivity–be respectful of your employee’s dignity. We recommend taking the following steps should the need arise to have “the talk” with an employee about their body odor:

  • Arrange a private meeting with the employee to bring the problem to their attention. Again, use a soft approach to begin with to ease into a possibly-embarrassing conversation.
  • If necessary, refer to the company’s dress and grooming policy to highlight workplace expectations regarding personal hygiene.
  • Use phrases that reflect the concerns from a business perspective, not a personal opinion.
  • Be courteous and listen to any comments or suggestions by the employee on how to improve the issue.
  • If needed, discuss permitting flexible restroom breaks for the employee to care for their hygiene needs throughout the workday.
  • Consider the possibility of reassigning the employee to another location in the organization if they have direct contact with customers or clients.

It is not an easy discussion to have with an employee, but if you are up front and direct with addressing the issue (do not beat around the bush), while being courteous and understanding of the sensitive nature of the topic, you can avoid the pitfalls of possibly offending the employee and creating a situation that toes the line of harassment.

Simply remember to state the facts in a tactful manner, be open and considerate, refer to policies as needed, and give the employee time to remedy the odor problem on their own. If the problem persists, you may need to pursue another alternative, such as medical counsel, relocation, etc. The employee needs to understand, however, that this could effect their employment status; as sensitive of a topic that it may be, it is still a violation of company policy. If not resolved in a timely manner, or continues to effect overall employee work performance or productivity, it could lead to further disciplinary action and even termination.