How to tell an employee they smell

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Approaching the bad habits or poor hygiene of an employee is a difficult area, as HR runs the risk of offending the employee in question. However, bad breath, niggling coughs and foul body odour are all drains on productivity, a new survey from Employment Office has found.

The poll found 75% of workers find it difficult to work alongside someone with bad body odour, and 64% work poorly when a colleague has bad breath. Other drains on concentration included persistent coughing (60%) and excessive flatulence (48%).

“It is important for an employer to resolve any personal hygiene issues before other staff members do it in a non-tactful way. If this happens the problem can easily escalate and become a bullying issue,” Tudor Marsden-Huggins of Employment Office, said.

Marsden-Huggins suggested that HR must address problems with hygiene as soon as possible and in private. The topic needs to be approached directly, but considerately so that the employee understands it isn’t an attack of them but a move to increase comfort across the organisation.

“The best thing to do is talk to your staff – create an environment where one-on-one communication is encouraged between employee and manager. This will go some way to dealing with delicate topics,” Marsden-Huggins said.


Key HR Takeaways

Susan Heathfield, US-based HR expert, previously outlined key points for HR to keep in mind when approaching the issue:

  • Start with a soft approach to set the employee at ease, but don't beat around the bush.
  • Tell the employee directly what the problem is as you perceive it.
  • Whenever possible, attach the feedback to a business issue, such as the impact on the team.
  • Advise that the behaviour is not just affecting the business and the employee's co-workers, but may affect the employee's career.
  • Be 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.


Have you had a staff member with bad breath, body odour or other problems with hygiene? Did it disrupt other workers and how did you deal with it?

  • Nic on 19/09/2013 2:53:20 PM

    I find it ludicrous that it is suggested that HR must address these issues. Managers should have the skill and confidence to raise these issues informally with a worker before it becomes a HR issue. Whilst I agree with the approach outlined in the article, it is not a HR function to have this conversation, it is a Manager/Supervisors role.

  • Deborah on 19/09/2013 3:25:31 PM

    Nic - I agree with your comment. HR has become the "go to" dept for just about any issue that nobody else wants to tackle.
    Organisations want HR to be strategic but still take care of the time consuming "stuff" that nobody else wants to deal with?
    Managers should be provided the training to address these and other sensitive issues instead of dumping them on HR to sort out.

  • Bernie Althofer on 19/09/2013 3:30:48 PM

    I agree with Nic regarding putting the onus on HR. If managers and supervisors are being paid to manage or supervise employees, discussions and conversations about workplace standards, codes of dress etc come into this area of responsibility.

    It might be the case that these matters are being referred to HR because the manager or supervisor does not have the knowledge, skills or ability required to have the conversation. If this is the case, then the organisation should be providing appropriate learning opportunities for the manager or supervisor.

  • Ann-Marie on 19/09/2013 3:40:22 PM

    Agreed that the matter needs to be addressed sensitively, timely and privately, however, I believe that it is the role of the manager rather than HR, as they have the established relationship and ideally trust with the employee. In some organisations, the HR manager may not be well known to the employee. HR should be available to provide advice and support to the manager if this is the first time they have had to address this issue, or if it is an ongoing concern.

  • Jenny on 19/09/2013 4:02:02 PM

    Managers and Supervisors should be the ones with the relationship with the employee and it needs to be done by them. We do not have a HR dept - the leadership team are it from recruitment to performance management. I have to speak to several people a year at each season change. I have had tears and denials but each person has thanked me for being honest and up front with them. It's not fun but it needs to be done to help that person and the team.

  • HC on 19/09/2013 4:06:31 PM

    As with all management issues, this starts with the Manager/Team Leader then if they need help it moves to HR. Its the same as staff member conflict in the team.

    There was a story a while ago about an employee who's flatchulence caused the manager to fire him. The result was a law suit. A good example of where HR could have interviened.

  • Nick on 19/09/2013 4:41:32 PM

    I respect everyone's views and comments above, but, and there is always a 'but'. I believe matters like this should be addressed to the manager and the manager should seek HR assistance in formulating a general message (i.e. an email to the whole team/group/department) and address the issue and give advice without offending any particular person. Once the message is passed, colleagues can refer to that message as a backup and by being diplomatic they can approach the offender and bring a positive twirl to the issue before it gets escalated to the manager to get involved.
    In a nutshell Manager/HR/Colleague affected should be involved in a sensitive manner towards this issue, respectfully and tactfully.

  • Judy on 19/09/2013 4:52:44 PM

    I agree with Nic and this is exactly the case in the small organisation where I work. I've had 3 people come and complain about the odour of an individual, and one of those was the person's manager! When I asked the manager if they had addressed it, he asked, "Can't you?" I see HR's role as documenting the workplace standards around cleanliness and hygiene and to provide guidance and assistance to the manager in dealing with the issue, but not necessarily to deal with it directly!

  • Dash on 19/09/2013 4:53:20 PM

    Ann-Marie - You've hit the nail right on the head with that one. If it were me, I would prefer that my manager, someone who I work with on a regular basis, speak with me rather than someone I barely know.

  • Jena on 19/09/2013 8:52:22 PM

    It sure is a tricky one ... I was unfortunately in a situation where I shared a very small office with a person who had hygiene issues. I approached my manager and she said she would handle it. Colleagues who sat nearby would use an oil burner to try and disguise the smell. And visitors to the office would often make comments. After not much luck to resolve the issue I made a formal complaint with HR - end result my role as made redundant a few weeks later!! Interesting..

  • Lisa on 20/09/2013 9:03:34 AM

    I am dealing with the same situation at the moment, myself and the employee manager have spoken to the employee on several occasions, and the problem persists. If talking to the employee fails, what next?

  • Bernie Althofer on 20/09/2013 11:12:42 AM

    Here are some questions to ponder:
    Is this a work health and safety issue (either for the individual, work colleagues or the organisation)?
    Are there personal reasons why the individual is not addressing personal hygiene (e.g. financial, personal beliefs, medical condition, lack of understanding about impact)?
    Does the organisation have a Code of Dress etc (is personal hygiene covered in this Code of Dress)?
    Is the hygiene factor evident all day (e.g. it is only present at certain times of the day i.e. after the person walks to work, exercises)?
    Does the organisation have facilities that the person can use to freshen up?

    If there is someone in the workplace that the person looks up to, perhaps this person can have a heart to heart about hygiene.

    Dropping subtle hints or placing deodorant on their desk may lead to allegations being made, so it would be better to be upfront in discussing changes required.

  • Nic on 25/09/2013 2:57:08 PM

    Consider that this may be a medical condition, and however frustrating it may be for colleagues, it is a living nightmare for sufferer's. It is quite common and can be associated with anti-depressant medications, so it may not be as simple as improving hygeine if there is an underlying issue.

  • Dazza on 25/09/2013 4:11:12 PM

    I worked with a group of Caravan Park Managers on this very problem. They had itinerant workers who came in during peak periods and whose personal hygiene was poor.
    They decided to approach it by calling their workers together and saying :"Hey guys, its a new season and we want to be the most professional Park team. So, I expect everryone to wash regularly and ensure your uniforms are neat and clean." In this way they weren't picking on any one individual and put the responsibility on the whole team. It worked.
    Another manager decided after a team meeting (where the hygiene issue was discussed) to give the workers a hygiene pack of deodorant and aftershave. It also worked well.
    The key was to not single out individuals.

  • Darryn on 12/12/2013 1:32:15 PM

    I have a Sri Lankan woman working for me. She is lovely but she has a very strong odour. I am unsure if its a cultural thing or that she just doesn't use deodorant. She dresses tidily and her appearance is absolutely fine... its just the odour is so strong. Does anyone have any ideas regarding the cultural thing? If it's not cultural then I am just going to have to tell her.

  • Matt on 20/12/2013 8:36:53 PM

    I'm having this issue with a new employee that is doing an amazing job, and I looked up this article. I am a manager at a restaurant so it is very specifically written into our employee handbook about hygiene practices. This article is helpful for going about it in a tactful way, but I agree with the other posters that HR is the wrong way to go with this issue. That would humiliate the employee further that corporate had to get involved with his hygiene.

  • Bernie Althofer on 14/01/2014 11:56:53 AM

    I recently spoke with a now retired lady who used to work as a hotel cook some years ago (during the hippie era). From time to time, she had reason to speak to some of the employees about hygiene issues.

    She told me that her approach was pretty simple. She would come up beside them and tell the person she wanted a quiet word with them in the office. She would talk with the employee about hygiene, whether the person could afford deodorant etc and suggest that the person might feel better if they were a bit more 'spruced up', and then would leave it at that. She told me that invariably the person would come to work the next day, showered, having used deodorant and generally neat and tidy. In addition, there was much more positive comment coming from customers who had been served by this person.

    Some people don't realise the impact of personal hygiene and treating people with respect and dignity can ensure they are not humiliated.

  • Cameron on 14/01/2014 1:05:43 PM

    Thanks for that comment, Bernie! That sounds like some sound advice - although some may interpret the conversation as a bit harsh.

    You do wonder if in some cases employees have simply been over-stressed and so let their hygiene fall by the wayside. In cases like this, a quick pep talk might be just the ticket, and it could also uncover deeper problems.

  • Dan on 16/01/2014 2:55:39 PM

    I had a Designer candidate who I had to give "the smelly talk" to. He (and his partner) had given up using deodorant years ago, and he honestly thought he had no smell. Thought nature had neutralised his odour poor bugger. If only ...

  • Harry on 17/01/2014 4:13:00 PM

    I work with a person who has a very bad flatulence problem. Have spoken about it to him but all he says is not aware he has done anything or has an upset tummy. He sits opposite me so not sure what else can do as I have to constantly leave my work area and go outside as it reeks and lasts a long time due to the aircon. and the smallness of the office. I cannot move my workstation. Any advise would be great

  • Graham on 3/02/2014 9:48:16 PM

    Most of the posts on here deal with the problem of how to inform a person of their odor. The biggest issue with people who have chronic odors is that they cannot do anything about it or they would have long ago. A breath mind or bar of soap are not really going to do anything in most problem cases. You could be a billionaire if you invented something that actually soved the problem. So - after you made sure the person knows about thier problem and it doesn't go away - what can be done?

  • brian on 6/03/2014 11:05:43 PM

    I'm on the other side of the table at the moment. I'm getting complaints from one manager, despite showering, changing clothes at work, using deodorant- which he complains about the smell of-, and trying to maintain a pool of clean clothes. It's escalating to HR level- how much support is available for me? I'll make an effort if there's a problem, but I'm worried I might be flogging a dead horse for one individual.

  • Debi on 11/03/2014 10:09:36 AM

    It's hard to inform someone that you can't help but notice an odor. I Recently had to inform someone they smell. I would just inform them quietly that you would like to talk to them.Do it later in the day. Start with a soft approach like your a great employee and enjoy working with
    them. Then tell them directly what the problem is but be gentle. Inform them your not saying this to insult them or anger them. Since I work in a Surgeons office I informed them how important good hygiene is in the healthcare field. Be sensitive. It may be a Health issue. Let them know it may affect the business, other employees, or clients.

  • Angela on 16/07/2014 5:38:12 AM

    We have a man in our warehouse that has really bad odor. It makes me nauseas as well as others here. We are a fragrance free workplace, because fragrances give this one lady headaches. so we aren't allowed to wear or spray anything. which makes it unbearable. we (employees) have talked to all managers, and no one is willing to step up and say anything to this man. they act scared?! or like they don't care. so we have to take it into our own hands and say something our selves.

  • Mary on 16/07/2014 3:39:06 PM

    I agree with Nic, this could be related to a medical problem or the result of some medications. I know of one case where the person was taking medication to help give up smoking and this induced body odour. It was raised with the employee as they weren't aware but they were encouraged to continue with the medication given the better outcome in the end.

  • Kev on 1/08/2014 6:05:27 PM

    I work n a double office with a man who smells like old sweaty gym under wear ! I can't take it I raised the issue with my boss he did nothing but ask me to
    Move to a cubicle if I can't stand it , I'm tired n I love my office why should I move because this asshole doesn't know how to clean him self . I'm so tired it's been a year and now people tell me his smell is sticking to my
    Clothes I hate it !!!! I actually thought of quitting but I love my job my productivity had shot down because I'm always walking around the office to avoid the smell of him .. It's turning into hate and I feel I'm gona blow up in his face one day and start telling him how badly he smells and to go home and shower ... Someone please tell me what to do

  • Lars on 10/09/2014 11:39:22 PM

    Hey for the record they suggest you go to HR so the employee doesn't say the manager/supervisor is bullying them, or being discriminate. It's to protect the company and their employees from potential law suits. It's 2014 people. God for bid you say "bless you" out of habit when someone sneezes. You'll get fired for "forcing" your "religious beliefs" upon fellow employees!

  • J Wagner on 16/09/2014 12:17:02 PM

    I agree with Nic's and others comments, this is not a value add, strategic HR matter. Last time I looked, we were no longer a Personnel Offcers!

  • Helen on 10/12/2014 12:48:37 AM

    I've been approached by a Manager recently with a request for me to speak to an employee about his BO. He has been spoken to previously three times that I know of by various managers, and I know his colleagues have told him too. Do you think the time for subtlety has passed...?

  • Dr Singleton on 4/01/2015 2:13:19 PM

    I have has patients referred from workplaces to help identify cause of and change Body Odor problems.
    these have been happy and gratefull people once the problem is solved- very often it has been medications prescribed by another doctor!
    a good practice builder for me!

  • mitch on 26/02/2015 10:23:25 AM

    Just had same thing come up at work. My Co worker had foul odor I drive in car with them 2 hrs a day other workers were complaining to me to say something ( I guess I just try to be tolerant) I told them they need to tell the boss not my job! So they did and he had a talk with them . They left crying now they are mad at me because they said I should have said something! I have already had several problems with this Co worker flying off the handle on me I was not broaching that subject!

  • Janice on 7/02/2014 11:24:25 AM

    Endorsing the comments of others ... Managers and direct supervisors have always reserved the right to manage their own staff without interference from HR. However, when the tough issues arise some then see issues such as these as HRs responsibility. In the interest of maintaining the relationship between an employee and their manager/supervisor (employees want to hear it from their direct manager/supervisor), it is the role of manager/supervisor to discuss this issue with their employee with coaching and support from HR. Oxford Dictionary defines a manager as “person responsible for controlling or administering an organization or group of staff”.

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