How to speak to an employee about their 'body odour'

Talking to an employee about their smell doesn't have to be so awkward

How to speak to an employee about their 'body odour'

Earlier this week, Brazilian footballer Marcelo was dropped from the Lyon first team – with media outlet L'Equipe reporting that it was due to his behaviour in the dressing room, including passing gas and laughing at his teammates. Marcelo has since come out to deny these allegations - however it does raise some pertinent questions for employers around how to deal with questionable body odour in the workplace.

How broach the subject

An earlier study by Employment Office found that 75% of employees find it nearly impossible to work next to a colleague with bad body odour – with 64% working poorly when a colleague has bad breath. Despite the prevalent issue, broaching the topic with an employee can be awkward. As HR leaders, it’s important that you’re empathetic, discreet, and kind when speaking to a worker about their body odour. Remember, there could be an underlying medical issue – and any mishandling of the situation could lead to a harassment or bullying lawsuit.

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HR leaders need to approach resolving hygiene issues before colleagues do it in a non-tactful way. This can escalate the issue into a harassment complaint. Speak to your people and create an environment in which communication is clear. This will help to deal with delicate topics.

“This is ultimately a bigger discussion on how to have a difficult conversation, which many people are uncomfortable doing,” Jim Frawley, executive coach told HRD. “When we think about communication, and feedback, we have to think about positioning the participants in a way that makes it productive. So, first step, is to make sure that the receiver of the feedback is open to receiving that feedback.

“This takes work - it’s about bringing people to level playing fields so that we take the emotion of the individual out of it and just discuss the situation. There’s a number of items that may influence the discussion - work environment, culture, dietary reasons, medical reasons - so they should be accounted for.”

Firing an employee over bad body odour

After you’ve broached the topic, and found out the underlying causes of the smell, it’s time to make an action plan. Is it a case of poor hygiene? Or is it a medical issue? Is it something, essentially, that an employee has the power to change? If the answer is no, then look at making accommodation requests. If it’s a yes, and the employee wilfully refuses to change, then it may be time for some disciplinary action.

There was a case in British Columbia in 2017 which dealt with a food-packing employee. There were several complaints made about him by colleagues – alleging he spat on the floor, blew on products pre-packing, and that he had a strong body odour and passed gas.

The employer, in this case, handled it with care. They made a corrective action policy, offered counselling and coaching, before moving to corrective action. His hygiene did eventually improve however he was later fired for poor performance.

“The worker said he was terminated due to body odour, which in this case was actually caused by a medical issue,” Shana French, lawyer at Sherrard Kuzz LLP, told HRD. “However, the employee did not disclose his medical ailment to his employer, despite the organization giving him repeated opportunities to do so.

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Above all, respect the worker’s dignity. Ensure that you’re dealing with things in private and you’re not allowing the employee to be harassed because of the situation or ill-considered attempts by management or co-workers to address the issue.

Be open, honest, and transparent

Whatever the issue, be it bad body odour, excessive gas or even inappropriate workplace outfits, having these conversations with colleagues doesn’t have to be so awkward.

“It’s important to note that the purpose of feedback is not to let an employee know what’s good or bad – it’s about helping them become self-aware so that they can develop or make changes on their own,” added Frawley. “Feedback should be specific to their situation so they can internalize it, digest it, and translate it into something actionable on their own.

“However, much like I would want someone to tell me I had parsley between my teeth at a networking event, this person would probably want that information as well - so remember that you are doing it to help the person out.

Key takeaways for HR

If you’re dealing with an employee that has bad body odour, try following these steps;

  • Start with a soft approach to set the employee at ease
  • Tell the employee directly what the problem is as you perceive it
  • Attach the feedback to a business issue, such as the impact on the team
  • Advise that the behaviour is not just affecting the company and the employee's co-workers but could affect their career

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