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Handling 'Gross' Things Can Be Tricky for HR

A young woman is making a funny face.

When employees complain about “gross” things at work, such as body odor, bad breath, flatulence, throat clearing, coughing, nose-blowing or visible or perceived conditions such as bedbugs or head lice, HR professionals are often consulted for guidance.

It’s important for HR professionals and managers to know what they can and cannot do, legally, as well as how best to handle situations that can distract employees, lead to conflicts, and, in some cases, raise employee fears of exposure.

“The employer should not ignore the problem,” said Joseph H. Harris, an employment law attorney with White Harris in New York City. “If the gross habit is a distraction and is disturbing other employees, it needs to be addressed,” Harris told SHRM Online.

Lynne Sarikas, director of the MBA Career Center at Northeastern University in Boston, has heard about plenty of inappropriate workplace behavior, including employees clipping fingernails, snorting, burping loudly or making “other inappropriate bodily noises.”

“I hate to sound cynical, but you’re dealing with human nature,” Sarikas said. “You often spend more time with the people you work with than the people you live with, and it can be challenging.”

Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) members often share such challenges on SHRM’s online discussion boards. For example, one SHRM member wrote: “I have a (female) manager that brought to my attention that her (male) direct report is often ‘adjusting’ himself during business meetings with clients. How should this be addressed, if at all?”

Another asked: “How would you recommend handling an issue with someone who has a lot of issues with gas? ... I know for a fact [it is] not intentional, but it has gotten a lot worse and it is really bothering people around him.”

Steps HR Can Take to Address Employee Behavior

In most cases, Harris said, HR professionals should meet with the employee to determine whether the conduct is simply a disgusting habit or if there’s “something more serious going on” such as an underlying medical condition or disability, in which case accommodations may be appropriate.

For example, an employee who’s hacking and wheezing constantly might have a respiratory ailment.

Harris recommends starting such a conversation by saying: “We know this is an uncomfortable situation, but there have been some complaints about (whatever the behavior is) and we want to find out what’s going on and to find out if you’re OK.” If the person offers that he or she has an underlying medical condition, that’s fine, he said, but it’s not appropriate for the manager or HR to ask directly.

Assuming no underlying medical condition, the employee should be reminded of any policies concerning hygiene, as well as the organization’s code of conduct, which should prohibit disruptive behavior.

Depending on the severity of the situation—and again, provided the behavior isn’t the result of a medical condition—the employer might even find it appropriate to issue a written warning, acknowledged in writing by the employee, that the conduct violates company policy and that the employee might face further discipline, up to, and including, termination, if it continues.

The employer should work to ensure uniformity, Harris noted. Disciplining one employee, but not another, for disgusting or inappropriate office behavior might leave an organization open to discrimination or retaliation charges, he said.

In a previous job, Sarikas worked with HR to address an accountant who cleaned his fingernails with a pocketknife during meetings. “It was totally gross,” she said. Sarikas recommends that employees not confront the co-worker but first speak with their manager and to focus on how the problem is hurting productivity, “instead of just complaining.”

Paul Shanahan, regional vice president at Adecco in Chicago, said it’s important for HR to remain calm and professional, to “provide examples of how (the behavior) is impacting others around them,” and to focus on “the activity, not necessarily the individuals.”

Tara Walters, HR manager and accountant at Coalition Technologies, a Los Angeles Internet design and marketing company, said she once had to speak with a coworker who breathed very loudly, especially when listening to music with his headphones.

“All you could hear from his cubicle were deep breathing and panting sounds,” Walters recalled. Coworkers were uncomfortable and wondered “what exactly he was doing in there by himself,” Walters said. The employee now listens to music through just one headphone, so he can be more aware of his breathing.

“It was kind of an awkward conversation, but he took it very well,” Walters said.

Handling Bedbugs and Lice

Situations involving employees who have or are suspected of having bedbugs or lice pose unique challenges, particularly since employers have a duty under the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Act to keep the workplace free of recognized hazards, according to Danielle Urban, a partner in the Denver office of Fisher & Phillips, a national labor and employment law firm.

Employers need to be careful not to stifle any conversations related to possible infestations, since doing so may cause them to run afoul of the National Labor Relations Act.

If an employee reports that he or she has bedbugs or lice, the employer may ask the person to seek medical treatment, provide leave and allow the employee to return with proof the infestation has been treated. If the employee hasn’t disclosed the issue, but a colleague reports it, HR should ask for “credible evidence” to ensure it’s not a bullying or harassment situation, Urban said.

With credible evidence, HR should approach the employee in a “straightforward and discreet” manner to discuss the issue, Urban said.

Tips from the Experts

  • Make sure you have an up-to-date employee handbook and that all employees have signed an acknowledgement about company policies. This simplifies matters if, for example, someone wearing perfume or cologne needs to be reminded of the company’s “fragrance-free work policy.”
  • Consider simple solutions such as moving the “offending” employee to a workstation farther from others.
  • Remember that medical conditions might be the cause of certain issues. Someone with chronic bad breath, for example, might be on medication that makes them dehydrated. Certain medical conditions such as a bowel obstruction or Crohn's disease can cause gas, according to the WebMD site.
  • Avoid asking about medical conditions or recommending a medical evaluation, Harris said.
  • Approach body odor issues from a “violation of dress code” standpoint if possible, Harris said, but seek accommodation guidance if an employee discloses a disability.

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.


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