Body Odour – the Most Difficult Conversation to Have with an Employee?
I don’t want to work with him/her again because…
An issue around personal hygiene is a difficult one. Quite often the person with the problem is totally unaware of their problem and they think the person talking to them about their hygiene is making it up. One employee I know just masked the odour with perfume and came back to work.
Some suggestions to keep in mind – let’s pretend you are my supervisor, speaking to me about my hygiene. This is how I’d like to be treated. Above all, I want you to treat me with the utmost respect and with dignity, with all sincerity, as you would treat your most beloved friend.
The first thing is the timing. If we can have the conversation first thing in the morning, and I have an opportunity (and the means) to go home, address the issue and come back to work, all the better. If I don’t have the means to go home right away (you could send me home in a taxi), I want you to save the conversation until the end of the day.
The next thing to consider is whether you and I have a trusting relationship. If we don’t, and there is another person in the organization that is in a leadership position, and willing to have the chat, they may be the best person to do it. This is a difficult conversation to initiate and an uncomfortable conversation when you are the recipient. When we are uncomfortable we usually respond with silence (shutting down, working to rule, absenteeism, etc.) or violence (leaving the room, slamming the door, shouting, etc.). The more I know, like and trust you, the less uncomfortable I will be with this conversation.
No matter the closeness of our relationship, you will bend over backwards to help me feel safe while we are having this conversation. You clearly explain that this is not discipline. This is just a conversation that is meant to help me be successful in my job. My co-workers and our clients/customers are being impacted in a negative way and I am too. You may be kinder to me if you gently mention that my co-workers and our customers may be impacted by my body odour, but only if I am the type of person who can take that gentle hint. You may have to be more assertive in order to get my attention and state that there have been complaints from co-workers and/or customers. Needless to say, you are only going to say this if it is the truth and you are never going to name names.
You explain that there are some things that we just presume that anyone and everyone will do when they are hired as an employee. We don’t necessarily tell people these things – we just presume. We presume I will come to work on time, on a regular basis. We presume I will do the work I have been hired to do, and do it with the spirit of cooperation. We presume that when I come to work my appearance will be professional and suitable to our work environment. We presume that my personal hygiene and the quality and appearance of my clothes are up to our standards. When any of these things fall short, then it is your responsibility as my supervisor to hold up the mirror so I can see what I need to do differently for my success in my job.
You will not belabor the message -you will tell me the “bad” news as quickly as possible. “Your standard of personal hygiene is not high enough in this work environment. Your body odour is strong and not pleasant (or whatever – being as specific as I can so you know how to change). This could be related to your personal hygiene habits or there could be a medical reason for this. Were you aware of this?”
You will then keep quiet and listen to what I have to say. You will ask me who can help me with this. Is there a friend or medical professional who can help?
You will encourage me to do everything possible to improve my personal hygiene. You invite me to let you know if there was something you could do to help (this may depend on whether there is a medical issue here).
You tell me that you want to meet with me when I get back to work (later today or tomorrow morning) to ensure this has been addressed, and every morning for the next 3 – 5 days. Then you’d like to meet with me weekly for the next 2 weeks. And then a monthly chat after that. If it still does not improve, tell me that this is jeopardizing my employment relationship. This may seem harsh but on the other hand if you do not get my attention with this reality after a month of meeting and talking to me, my co-workers and/or our customers are continuing to suffer. After a month, they may take things in their own hands and leave the organization!
And if my body odour issues still don’t improve, whether this is a performance issue or a medical issue, you will ask for additional help from an experienced HR professional.