How to Talk with a Worker About Body Odor

By Alison Curwen May 17, 2018
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​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. Here are some do's and don'ts for addressing this problem.

Do have a dress code that also addresses hygiene.

A dress code "typically requests that employees exercise good judgment regarding their appearance and hygiene," said Joseph H. Harris, an employment law attorney with White Harris in New York City. "Additional language may express the employer's expectation that employees will use deodorant or antiperspirant to minimize body odor." But these policies also should ask employees to refrain from wearing fragrances that might offend or affect those with allergies, recommended Devora Lindeman, a partner with the employment law firm Greenwald Doherty LLP in New York City.

Expectations and standards take the guesswork out of many situations. "If you are [discussing body odor with a worker], it is very helpful to refer back to a policy," said Danielle Urban, a partner in the Denver office of Fisher & Phillips, a national labor and employment law firm.

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Other opportunities to set workplace expectations are during orientation and onboarding. Ideally, these expectations should be communicated in person, not electronically, because the former tends to be more effective, said Steve Browne, SHRM-SCP, vice president of HR at the Cincinnati-based LaRosa's restaurant chain and a member of the Society for Human Resource Management's (SHRM's) board of directors.

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

Urban and Browne agree that whoever handles the problem should first investigate the circumstances to ensure that those complaining have a legitimate reason for doing so.

"Sometimes people are mean or petty," Urban said. Browne added, "Don't overreact and fly into this."

But 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," Browne said.

"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," Lindeman said.

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," Harris said.

Do approach the person.

If the complaint is legitimate, Browne said, 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.

Browne said that 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. Having a conversation about body odor is a tough topic, and nobody likes to talk about it, Urban said.  

"It is something you should think out before blurting out," Urban said. "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."

One approach is to say something along the lines of "I want to let you know that your deodorant isn't working. You may want to try another brand," Lindeman said. "This way, the speaker comes across as presuming the person already takes steps to deal with body odor but lets them know they need to try something else."

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," Harris said.

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," Lindeman said.

In such circumstances there should be "reasonable accommodations for disabilities and religious beliefs," said Harris. Can the person work from home? Work in a different office or workspace? Does the workplace need better ventilation?

Alison Curwen is a freelance writer based in Mercersburg, Pa.

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