How to deal with an employee who has a personal hygiene issue

Author: Lynda Macdonald

Summary

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Introduction

Dealing effectively with an employee who has a personal hygiene problem is one of the most difficult and sensitive situations that a manager is likely to have to face. The problem may be one of body odour, dirty or stale-smelling clothing, dirty hair or bad breath.

It is advisable not to ignore a problem of this nature as, the longer the matter is allowed to continue unresolved, the more difficult it will be to raise the issue with the employee. Unless the issue is raised with the employee, it is likely that the problem will continue and other employees may become hostile towards the problem employee and disillusioned by management's lack of willingness to tackle the problem.

Whether a problem of this nature is brought to management's attention informally by one or more of the employee's colleagues, as a result of a formal complaint, as a result of comments overheard by chance, or by evidence that colleagues are avoiding the person, the issue needs to be tackled promptly and firmly.

Open communication

The only effective method of dealing with a problem of lack of personal hygiene is through honest, open, two-way communication with the employee in question. Plain language should be used to explain the problem. Dropping hints, for example making comments about bad smells, putting a bar of soap in the employee's desk drawer or leaving a stick of deodorant in a prominent place, is unlikely to work, and may create further problems such as ill-feeling or upset.

It will be important for management to bear in mind that a problem of body odour or bad breath may be rooted in the employee's health and may not always be due to a lack of personal hygiene. The manager handling the matter will therefore need to have an open mind and be careful not to be seen to accuse the employee of poor personal standards.

Discussion guidelines

To handle the matter, the manager should arrange to talk to the employee privately, bearing in mind that an interview of this nature is likely to be difficult and possibly embarrassing for the employee. The manager will therefore need to be sensitive, understanding and patient during the interview. Clearly, discussions with the employee should be held privately and kept confidential, and it will be important for the employee to be reassured that this is the case.

The manager may open the interview by making a statement along the lines of: "There is a problem I would like to discuss with you. It's a delicate matter, and I would like to see if we can agree a resolution to it."

He or she should proceed to specify the problem factually and in plain language. For example, the manager might say: "I have noticed sometimes that you have quite a strong body odour and I feel that this is something that needs to be addressed" or "I have noticed on occasions that the clothing you wear to work has a stale smell and I feel that this is something that needs to be addressed."

After allowing a pause, the manager might ask the employee if he or she is aware of any reason for the problem, for example an underlying medical cause. If this is the case, the manager should not pose intrusive questions into the employee's state of health, but move on to discuss what can be done to resolve the matter.

The manager should be quick to reassure the employee that the aim of the discussion is to help and encourage him or her to recognise and solve a problem. It may be helpful for him or her to say something like: "I thought you would prefer to have this pointed out to you rather than to remain ignorant."

The manager should not tell the employee that other people have commented on the problem (even if they have), as this is likely to cause unnecessary embarrassment. A better approach is for the manager to take ownership of the matter and to use an expression such as "I have noticed that...".

Action agreement

Having pointed out the problem and allowed the employee adequate time and opportunity to respond, the manager should move the interview forward and ask the employee what solution he or she thinks would be feasible. Depending on what the employee's given explanation is (if any) for the problem, the solution may be, for example, for the employee to:

  • see his or her own doctor to explain that the problem has been highlighted at work and ask for (further) medical intervention;
  • agree to be seen by a company-nominated doctor at the employer's expense to discuss the matter and seek a solution;
  • undertake to bathe more frequently and/or to wash his or her hair more frequently and/or to launder his or her clothes more frequently; or to
  • undertake to brush his or her teeth and/or use a mouthwash more frequently.

If the problem is one of lack of personal hygiene, the manager should inform the employee clearly and firmly that an improvement is required so as to avoid further difficulties. This should, however, be put across to the employee in a supportive way, and not in a manner that implies criticism or threat. However, the manager should not be afraid to stress the importance of improvement and may be able to justify a requirement for improvement along the lines of "providing an acceptable working environment for all, given the close proximity in which colleagues have to work" or "creating a positive image on the part of the organisation when dealing with the public". The manager should endeavour to secure the employee's agreed commitment to change and a date should be set for review, perhaps in a month's time.

Dealing with a personal hygiene problem in the workplace is certainly no easy matter, but the employee may, in the longer term, benefit from the sort of frank feedback that will be necessary in such a situation.