How to handle an employee with poor hygiene

Talking to an employee about their poor personal hygiene is always uncomfortable

How to handle an employee with poor hygiene

by Edward Cranswick 

How to deal with a ‘smelly’ employee
It’s more likely than not that most of us have had the displeasure of working with a co-worker or employee who was just a touch too on the nose, literally speaking. When you’re an HR manager, the problem is even more acute. How do I resolve this issue without reducing my employee to a ball of anxiety and self-consciousness?

The conversation can be treacherous terrain, emotionally speaking. So here are important dos and don’ts for dealing with a malodorous employee.

#1 – Don’t leave a deodorant on the desk
While the old deodorant-on-the-desk trick is usually a much-discussed and often-touted solution to a workplace’s olfactory woes, don’t succumb to it! Poor hygiene might be bad manners, but lacking the courage to talk face-to-face is worse.

At least they aren’t hiding anything.

Don’t take the coward’s way out. Be a leader. Talk to them in person, in a kind and compassionate way. And don’t think you can get around your conscience by writing a thoughtful, yet still anonymous, note, either. This will still likely leave the person feeling isolated and embarrassed, and have them looking over their shoulder all the time wondering if everyone is laughing behind their back.

#2 – Just have the conversation (and do it in private)
It’s important to keep in mind the big picture. While having such a conversation may be uncomfortable, it’s better that the issue is resolved promptly than that it linger as a source of tension and discomfort in the workplace. Handled properly, a careful intervention will be of benefit not only to others in the workplace, but also to the employee concerned – as poor hygiene is often an obstacle to successful social integration with co-workers.

Michael P. Leiter and Cary L. Cooper, professors of organisational psychology and editors of The Routledge Companion to Wellbeing at Work (2017) emphasise the importance of managers possessing both the confidence to withstand confrontation as well as “a refined degree of empathy”. Without these qualities, disruptions to workplace cohesion may be swept under the rug, or alternatively managers “will fail to conduct the conversation in a way that employees perceive as fair and respectful.”

Invite the employee to have a private talk in your office. Be clear and firm, yet compassionate and understanding. Your employees will respect you more if you are both frank and fair. And don’t give the game away that this is the conversation that you’re having. Make sure no one else can hear, and no one else knows that this is what you’re talking about. If other staff have come to you and complained, don’t let on precisely when or where you are going to stage an intervention. You don’t want to make the employee unnecessarily self-conscious.

#3 – Don’t jump the gun
Donna Flagg, author of Surviving Dreaded Conversations: How to Talk Through Any Difficult Situation at Work Definitely, cautions employers to delay intervention until a consistent pattern has been established. The concern needs to be well grounded and not based on one-off instances of poor hygiene. Proceeding prudently with such sensitive issues will ensure that social discomfort between manager and employee is kept to a minimum, and builds trust amongst employees that the manager won’t act out unfairly on a whim.

#4 – Think about how you frame the conversation (be empathetic)
The manner in which such conversations are handled will depend in large part on the temperaments of manager and employee, as well as the prior success of their relationship up until that point. Framing the conversation in a non-accusatory way may be a helpful strategy for increasing the likelihood an employee will positively receive constructive criticism.

Try to draw on an analogous experience from your own life (even if it’s fictional). Describe how you once suffered a similar problem, and the steps you took to resolve it. In this manner, you can soften a potentially embarrassing discussion by framing it as a shared concern rather than a problem peculiar to the employee in question.

However, the primary purpose of such a conversation is the resolution of a workplace problem. Therefore, regardless of the approach you feel is most context-appropriate, it is vital that the issue be named, explained and clarified, and that the employee understands the necessity of its being resolved. Downplaying the gravity of a personal hygiene issue in an effort to protect the employee’s feelings may result in a failure to resolve the issue at all – and resolving personnel issues is part of your job description.

#5 – Actually have practical advice ready
Excess smelliness is often the result of cheap polyester shirts, or ineffective deodorant. If it’s the former causing the issue, then recommend that your employee switch to cotton or linen.

If you think simply that your employee’s pungency necessitates a deodorant more up to the challenge then be sure to have done your research, and to make recommendations.

#6 – Make sure there isn’t an underlying concern
People often sweat when they are anxious, nervous, and self-conscious, and this may be contributing to the issue. If you suspect the employee feels socially isolated, then focus on integration as a greater part of your strategy (in addition to the above suggestions). Organise some fun office activities and make sure any isolated employees know that they’re part of the team.

Also query whether this is a new problem or has always been an issue. If it’s a new problem, then their poor hygiene might be symptomatic of trouble in their personal lives or a worsening psychological condition. Tread carefully and if possible tactfully get to the bottom of any such concerns your employee might have. If there is an underlying emotional or psychological problem, then it might be appropriate to recommend counselling or time-off to deal to deal with the issue.

#7 – Have a follow-up
When you have the conversation initially, tell your employee that you’ll have a follow-up with them in a week’s time or so – to give them an opportunity to reflect and to adopt new strategies for emitting a more pleasing air.

Having a follow-up chat is essential for two reasons. Firstly, if the problem doesn’t get resolved then it will allow you both to discuss what actions were taken, and what new strategies might be more effective in solving the issue. Secondly, if the problem has been solved, then you’ll be able to thank them for making the effort, and to put their mind at ease that all is once again well in the universe.

Don’t leave a poor employee hanging. Or smelling.

For those of you who are wondering whether it’s actually all that bad, and whether perhaps we should all just get-on-with-it and stop-paying-attention-to-such-petty-things-as-how-a-person-smells, here are some real numbers to let you know that yes, poor hygiene does in fact have a deleterious effect upon employees’ happiness and office productivity.

Poor employee hygiene and its effects on the workplace
When thinking about employee hygiene, it’s important to address both its obvious and less obvious components. An employee with particularly bad body or foot odour is a problem that will become quickly apparent to most. But it’s also important to address the less visible elements of hygiene – things like proper hand washing and general workspace cleanliness – because poor performance in these areas dramatically increases the likelihood of employees contracting an illness as well as illness spreading to co-workers. Needless to say, this can significantly dampen workplace productivity.  

A 2013 poll conducted by Employment Office revealed the extent to which obvious signs of poor co-worker hygiene affected employee job satisfaction and workplace productivity. The results of the poll showed that three out of four Australian workers had been impacted by the poor personal hygiene or bodily habits of their fellow workers, resulting in a loss of concentration while working. More alarmingly, one in five employees surveyed asserted that there was a negative impact on their productivity due to the poor hygiene of some colleagues.

Other figures from the poll illustrate the prevalence of workers’ concerns regarding workplace hygiene:

  • Difficulty working alongside someone with offensive body odour was reported by 75% of respondents
  • A colleague’s bad breath contributed additional difficulties according to 64% of respondents
  • Persistent coughing by a co-worker has caused 60% of respondents to experience trouble concentrating
  • 48% of respondents claimed to have had to endure a colleague’s excessive flatulence

While it is difficult to calculate and attribute precise losses in productivity caused by the above factors, the high ratio of those reporting a belief that poor co-worker hygiene contributes to a loss in personal productivity indicates that this is an area in which meaningful interventions by HR managers may yield positive results – not only in terms of employee satisfaction but potentially in increased economic output. 

In 2014, the Centre for Economics and Business Research (Cebr), working on behalf of Initial Hygiene, put together a report entitled The Economic Impact of Office Hygiene: An International Perspective. The focus of the study was the impact of poor office hygiene on major economies of the developed-world (including Australia). In contrast to the above study, this report focused more on the less conspicuous aspects of employee and workplace hygiene, and demonstrated in more quantitative terms losses in workplace productivity resulting from poor hygienic practice.

Among the developed countries considered, this report indicated that a large share of Australian workers were dissatisfied with the hygienic conditions of their workplace. According to this report, roughly 40% of Australian office workers agreed with the statement: “My level of job satisfaction would be better if the hygiene at work was better”.

The report (based on data and predictive modelling running through 2013) emphasised that as Australia was among the most technologically developed countries in the world, it is particularly reliant on the continued expansion of the services sector and increasing numbers of office workers. Therefore, poor hygiene in the workplace was likely to create a greater drag on Australian economic productivity than in countries where the services sector comprised a lesser portion of the national economic pie. The overall impact was summarised as follows:  

Each year, substandard hygiene in offices causes office workers in Australia to take 1.6 days off sick and [to lose] a combined 2.2 days while at work. Because office workers tend to contribute more to the economy than other employees, by causing office employees to fall sick or [lose] time in the office, poor office hygiene is estimated to cost the Australian economy some $11.4b in 2013.

Based on their modelling, poor office hygiene was assessed as having reduced Australian GDP by 0.7%. The cost to GDP was attributed roughly evenly to two circumstances: 

  • Poor office hygiene causing employees to lose time at work
  • Employees having to go home sick due to illness induced by poor office hygiene  

The authors of the report provide a stark practical illustration of what this loss meant for Australia in terms of tangible production and growth:

The GDP loss associated with poor office hygiene in Australia is equivalent to a sum substantial enough to cover a very significant amount of infrastructure provision. Specifically, if the Government of Australia had had access to an additional $11.4b in 2013, it would have been enough to pay for 95 new airport terminals or six state-of-the-art hospitals. In the private sector, it would have been enough to pay the annual wages of 211,000 office staff.

What is particularly interesting is the report’s finding that the average Australian office worker would be happy to have their annual salary reduced by $240 per year in exchange for more hygienic office conditions. As the authors state: “This implies that, by improving office hygiene, employers could reduce wage bills, provided some of those savings are spent on improving the office conditions the office worker is in.”

So what lessons should be drawn from such studies?

It seems that we would all do well to implement more effective strategies for dealing not only with the isolated cases of specific employees with poor hygiene, but also to devise more proactive approaches to improving workplace hygiene in general. That is to say, we must think macro as well as micro when it comes to office hygiene.

Getting on the front foot when it comes to tackling workplace hygiene is one of the best things an HR manager can do. Creating a participatory framework that works towards an ongoing culture of health throughout the workplace can nip many potential hygiene concerns in the bud, before they have time to grow into genuinely disruptive issues. This is the case for both obvious examples of poor hygiene (people’s body odour and the like) and less visible but more harmful instances of poor hygiene (e.g. poor hand washing leading to outbreaks of illness).

So what can you do to develop a positive culture of health in the workplace?  

It’s all about practising the fundamentals, as well as effective communication. The 2014 Cebr report noted that their international research showed one in four workers don’t wash their hands every time they go to the bathroom. And toilet hygiene isn’t even the biggest concern:

the average desk has four hundred times more bacteria than a typical toilet seat and hands contaminated with bacteria can transfer them on to seven different surfaces, where they can live for up to forty-eight hours.

The Cebr report focuses on hygiene practices that commonly lead to workplace illness, and what can be done to prevent illness spreading and disrupting productivity and employee wellbeing. The report offers five “top tips” to improving this aspect of organisational hygiene by targeting “risk hotspots”. Here they are:

  1. Bathrooms: Toilets, flush buttons/handles, cubicle handles, and even the doors in and out of the bathroom are all potentially rife with harmful bacteria: “The spread of infection can be minimised with surface and flush sanitisers and toilet cleaners.”
  2. Reception and entrance areas: With people coming and going throughout the day, door handles can transfer bacteria from surface to hands that “can cause skin infections, food poisoning and respiratory diseases. Hand and surface sanitisers will kill germs and help prevent the spread of infection.”
  3. Communal spaces and corridors: The high level of foot traffic makes these places obvious “germ hotspots”. While hand to floor surface contact is unlikely, bacteria spread via foot traffic can produce a malodorous atmosphere (which is unlikely to impress guests and clients). The report suggests using scenting products to help clear and freshen the air.
  4. Desks and meeting rooms: “Door handles and desk surfaces are risk hotspots in meeting rooms, housing Rhinovirus. It is transferred from surface to hands and causes the Common Cold.” Surface sanitisers should be frequently utilised.
  5. Kitchen and lunch areas: “Food preparation surfaces in kitchens can be home to pathenogenic strains of E. coli. It can be transmitted from surface to hand, hand to mouth or by infected food and can cause Gastroenteritis and urinary tract infections. Good hand washing and drying products can help to minimise the risk of infection.”

Nailing these fundamentals, and consistently reiterating their practice (through instructional posters and semi-regular reminders at staff meetings) is an essential starting point. But there is more for us proactive managers to do.

Prepare to be equipped with practical advice for solving more personal hygiene issues troubling particular employees. HR might consider including as part of their initial employee induction procedures the mandatory reading of a personal hygiene advice handbook, with a follow-up quiz to confirm retention of the information – much in the same way that workplaces regularly utilise OH&S readings and quizzes. Many people are unaware of simple causes of poor outward personal hygiene, so such induction materials could include information on:

  • Grooming and presentational standards
  • How frequency and quality of showering and bathing practice affects their own health and others’
  • How different clothing materials may contribute more readily to body odour problems (for instance synthetic shirts are often more problematic than cotton or linen varieties)
  • Measures to alleviate common problems such as body odour and bad breath

Modern workplaces have employees from all kinds of cultural backgrounds, countries, and prior workplace contexts – and we can’t necessarily expect a uniform standard of hygiene care unless employees are directly informed. Working hygiene education into standard employee induction has the additional benefit of being fair, impartial, and universally applicable to everyone – reducing the chance that an employee will be resentful at being singled out at a later stage.

Finally, make sure you’re always building and maintaining a positive rapport with employees that will help all of you work together to a achieve a positive culture of health, as well as to ease the tension of difficult conversations if and when they have to happen. It’s important for workplace hygiene standards to be conceptualised as part of a broader holistic framework of health. As earlier noted, it might be the case that an employee’s deteriorating standards of personal hygiene are actually an outward manifestation of another underlying problem – personal troubles, or the onset of a mental illness, for instance.

By demonstrating an active concern for all aspects of an employee’s emotional and physical wellbeing, you can more effectively monitor unexpected changes in behaviour and work proactively to maintain employee wellness with compassionate and targeted interventions. An added benefit will be a mutual development of trust between yourself and employee, opening up lines of communication necessary to solve all manner of workplace issues – including but not limited to personal hygiene.  

As with almost everything in HR, there is an inextricable link between effective operations and effective discourse. When looking at a precise problem like employee hygiene, you should always keep the big picture well within your field of vision.



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