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Creating A Stink: Personal Hygiene Needs Attention - Is It Better Not To Mention?

Have you ever been tempted to ask job applicants questions about personal hygiene? You just wouldn’t, would you? But research by the University of Bristol into body odour shows that 0.5% of the working population of the UK smell, and that 109,500 UK employees do not use deodorant. And it is not just body odour that is a problem; bad breath and smelly feet are also common workplace gripes. Strong perfumes can turn the hardiest stomach, and let’s not mention flatulence!

Telling a person they have bad breath or body odour is difficult to do. That is why so many managers toss this problem to HR.  Addressing these personal hygiene issues requires finesse but, with diplomacy, it is possible to solve this difficult and delicate situation.

If possible, you should address any issues before your employees do so themselves in a less tactful manner. Leaving 20 cans of deodorant on a colleague’s desk in the hope that s/he “takes the hint”, or calling them into a meeting room and telling them that someone smells and “it isn’t me”, are likely to result in allegations of bullying rather than resolving the problem.  So, what can you do?

The Broad Brush Approach

Some employers prefer to make a broad company announcement before speaking with any employee individually. For example, you could compose an internal email that reminds all employees about dress codes. As a part of this, you could mention that some employees may suffer sensitivities to strong smells or odours. You could take the opportunity to remind employees that they should not wear strong scents to work and that everyone should strive to smell neutral to avoid offending others or making other employees feel ill.  Doubtless, however, the more astute employees will read between the lines and start gossiping about who the email was aimed at. You could of course offer training to all staff and hope the culprit gets the message, but more likely is that they will not take the hint, and everyone else will get irritated about sitting through the meeting when somebody else is the problem.

Private Conversation

Some employers prefer to be empathetic and understanding although the conversation should always be kept short to minimise embarrassment. Others prefer to tackle the problem head on.  This is a question of management style more than anything else. There are though some essentials when it comes to these conversations.

It is important to tell the employee what the problem is.  Try not to criticise them, or to tell them that other employees (or customers/clients) have been complaining. It is far better to state simply that you have noticed the problem and try to attach it to a business issue, for example the impact that it could have on colleagues and/or customers. Make sure that the employee understands the issue fully. When you are embarrassed about something, it is often hard to explain or listen properly. Be cognisant of the fact that the employee might be embarrassed or upset and may end the conversation abruptly. If this happens, it is worth checking in with them a few days later to check that they have understood the issue. If an employee reacts angrily, try to stay calm and diffuse the anger; again, anger can be a result of acute embarrassment. 

You should set out your expectations for improvement and set a date for you to meet again to review the situation. You should always reassure the employee that this conversation with them will remain confidential and will not be discussed with anyone else.  Keep a note of the informal conversation and then monitor the situation discreetly until the review meeting. Hopefully this approach will be enough to resolve the problem but, if not, you have a duty to your other employees to move it on to a more formal process.

Words of Caution

It is always important to ask the employee if they have any medical problem that you need to be aware of; there are, for example, medical conditions which can affect how much a person sweats, and poor hygiene can sometimes be a sign of depression.  It might be that they have an underlying disability and that you are required to make reasonable adjustments as a result. It is also worth asking the employee if there is anything in their personal life which could be causing the problem.

It is worth being sensitive to the fact that different cultures have different norms and standards for appearance, bathing and dress, and differences in cooking and eating traditions too.

Disciplinary Procedure

If there has been insufficient improvement by the time of the pre-agreed review, you will have to be more direct. We would recommend that you then have a further private conversation with your employee. If there is still no improvement, it might be that the only way forward at this stage is to move to a formal disciplinary process, in which case you would follow your normal disciplinary procedure which could, ultimately, lead to dismissal.

These can be difficult conversations to have, but they are important ones as well. Do it well though and you should have a harmonious, halitosis-free workplace.


This article was first published on 18 September 2015 as part of our Employment Law Update series. Register above to receive our updates as soon as they are published, directly to your inbox!

This article is offered for general informational purposes only, and does not constitute legal advice. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Solomon Taylor & Shaw.