Shari's Solutions: Body Odor, Children At Work, Sick-leave Abuse

Advice on all things HR from Shari Lau, SHRM-SCP, SHRM’s knowledge manager.
E-mail your questions to Shari at AskShari@shrm.org.

By Shari Lau Jul 1, 2016

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How should we address complaints about an employee’s body odor?

The smells of summer are here—and I don’t mean the roses. In warmer weather, employees might bike to work more often, go for walks on their lunch break or just perspire more in general. 

Having a conversation with an employee regarding offensive body odor is always awkward and, if not handled correctly, could even lead to allegations of unlawful discrimination. So as trivial as the problem might seem at first whiff, make sure to prepare before raising the issue.

Beginning with the mindset that this is a temporary, fixable issue may help put both you and the employee at greater ease. This approach might feel less intrusive to the employee and more respectful of his or her ability to resolve the issue. 

For example, you might say, “Joe, this is a bit awkward, but you’ve had a noticeable body odor lately. Often, people aren’t aware when this is an issue for themselves, so I wanted to bring it to your attention. Is there anything you need from us to help get this issue resolved?” 

A tactic like this is both professional and empathetic, and it leaves the door open for the employee to bring up any medical or other issues that might be causing the problem. Perhaps he uses a colostomy bag and doesn’t have time or a place to change it as frequently as needed. Or maybe a new medication is causing excessive sweating or increased flatulence. Or she could be allergic to antiperspirant.

If the body odor results from a disability, ensure that the employee is given reasonable accommodations to help address the issue. Such adjustments could include offering more-frequent restroom breaks, providing an office with an air purification system, or allowing the person to work from home or move to a job that doesn’t involve direct contact with the public. Work with your attorney to determine what accommodations would be considered reasonable. 

Be sensitive to other personal, cultural or religious reasons that might be behind the issue. You might discover that the worker has recently become homeless and is living out of his car. Or the employee may share that people of her culture bathe less frequently, in which case you might discuss what the expectations are in your workplace. Foods from different cultures could also lead to different body odors. In those situations, encourage co-workers to be more tolerant.

While you most likely will hear complaints about body odor from the offending party’s co-workers, it’s better to keep others out of the conversation. Check out the problem yourself. You can help minimize uneasiness between co-workers by citing only your personal observations. If you aren’t able to visit the work location, a supervisor acting on your behalf is the next best option—preferably someone of the same gender as the employee.

It can also be helpful to have this kind of discussion at the end of the day. That way, the employee can leave soon after the conversation and won’t have to feel self-conscious the rest of the day.

Should we prohibit office employees from bringing their children to work?

Many employers opt to do so, with an occasional exception such as an annual Bring Your Child to Work Day. A ban can make sense: Visiting little ones can disrupt their parents’ concentration and lower their productivity, annoy the parents’ co-workers, and increase the organization’s liability risk. If a prohibition on kids is working well for you, there’s no reason to change. But what if it isn’t? 

School holidays and breaks can be difficult times for parents who have little or no paid leave available. An unexpected loss of child care can also put employees in a tough situation. And new parents may want to return to work early to help meet deadlines or special project goals but feel hesitant about leaving their infant. If your employees are asking for a little leeway, what are some of your options?

You can draft a policy that offers employees a reasonable number of visits a year, with proper notice or good cause. Or you could allow children to come in on a case-by-case basis. Some employers are implementing “bring your infant to work” policies, which help parents get back to work earlier by being able to have their newborn with them at the office. 

To minimize disruptions, make sure to set clear rules. Parents should find a co-worker willing to watch their child when they need to attend a meeting. Or they could ask an older kid to be responsible for younger siblings as they sit quietly with plenty of art supplies or books. This isn’t a permanent solution, but it could work on an as-needed basis.

Employers that offer such flexibility often find that parents are extremely grateful and may be willing to work later since they don’t have to rush to pick up their child from day care. Or they might put in extra time on other occasions. 

Wherever your policy falls on this wide spectrum, always check with your attorney to discuss liability issues before implementation. 

What can we do about employees who frequently call in sick before holidays or after vacations?

It’s a common misconception that employees who take paid sick leave and who still have vacation time left are untouchable in terms of discipline. Not so. 

While a few states and cities mandate that employees be offered paid sick leave, no employer is required to allow employees to abuse the benefit. 

Employees and their family members get sick. Sometimes they need to go to the doctor; in other instances, they just need to rest. And, of course, sickness isn’t something one can schedule, so sometimes it happens before weekends or holidays and after vacations. The availability of paid sick leave reduces stress because employees know they won’t lose pay—or their job—when they are ill. 

But is their job protected simply because they have available sick leave to use? Not necessarily. 

​In situations where the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) ​or a state leave law is applicable, employers must comply with relevant job protection requirements. Proving abuse of these protections is best done in consultation with your attorney.

However, if your company or the employee isn’t covered by any job protection law, you can discipline an employee who calls in sick every third Friday without a serious health condition, even if he or she has leave in the bank.

Gather some information first. Does Amy call in sick a few times a month, but only on days when there is a home baseball game? And does she always seem to return to work with a sunburn? Does Jason regularly call in sick on Fridays or Mondays? If so, there may be a reason to have a chat. 

Remind these kinds of employees that paid sick leave is a benefit that’s meant for them to use when they are actually sick. Let the worker know that you’ve noticed a pattern in the sick leave he or she has taken, and then let the individual respond. If he or she indicates that there is a medical problem, you’ll know to either offer FMLA leave, provide an accommodation or refer the worker to the employee assistance program. Otherwise, reminding the employee of the intended use of the sick-leave benefit is likely enough to get your message across. If the abuse continues, you can discipline the worker and communicate that his or her job won’t be protected if the behavior doesn’t stop.  

Illustrations by James Smallwood for HR Magazine

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