How to confront an employee with poor hygiene

HRD is here to guide you through the process, making it as painless and efficient as possible

How to confront an employee with poor hygiene

In the workplace, there are several topics that may be taboo – one of the top ones being employee hygiene. Whilst it’s HR’s role tackle the difficult issues, confronting a worker with bad body odour, messy clothes, or a dirty demeanour is probably not at the top of your to-do list.

Having said that, when colleagues start complaining that one of their fellow employees is kicking up a stink, it’s time for you to step in and resolve the situation. Don’t fret – HRD is here to guide you through the process, making it as painless and efficient as possible.

What are your legal obligations?
Setting aside the embarrassment of approaching such a sensitive topic, employers should be aware that any poor hygiene in the workplace could present a safety risk.

“From the employer’s perspective, personal hygiene is potentially a workplace health and safety risk,” explained Shana French, lawyer at Sherrard Kuzz LLP. “If an employee has bad personal hygiene, it can also end up taking a toll on the company culture and morale.

“Say, for example, there is an employee with poor personal hygiene working in a food processing facility. Then, it’s not only a risk to employee morale, but it’s also public health hazard, and could go some way in damaging the employer’s reputation.”

A study from the Employment Office found that 75% of employees struggle to work alongside a colleague with bad body odour, with 64% saying they would find it even more difficult if that worker had bad breath. In fact, sporting bad body odour was ranked as the worst crime in the office, with 43% of employees naming it the top offender. This was followed by not answering emails and not pulling your weight when it comes to cleaning the office kitchen.

How should you approach the situation?
Subtly is key here. Remember, as awkward this situation is for you as an HR leader, it’s one million times worse for the employee in question.

“When you do speak up, don’t ever say that several other people have ‘brought it to your attention,’” added Halley Bock, CEO of leadership development company Fierce Inc.

Instead, try to uncover if there’s an unforeseen underlying cause for the poor hygiene – don’t just jump to conclusions. When speaking to French, she cited a case from Canada concerning an employee worked in a food packaging facility.

“There were complaints about him with respect to his poor hygiene,” she told us. “He would spit on the warehouse floor, he blew on products that were to be packaged, he had very strong and offensive body odour and he repeatedly passed gas amongst his co-workers.”

The employer went on to approach the employee, offering counselling and coaching, all the while asking if there was an underlying medical issue. Eventually, the worker was fired. The employee claimed that he was fired because of his bad body odor, which was caused by a medical condition, French told us.

Despite this, the worker didn't actually disclose any medical condition to his employer even though they gave him ample opportunity to do so.

The decision to terminate was upheld – but it does show just how important it is for businesses to cover their back when approaching situations like this.

Call a meeting with the employee in question. Ask them questions, offer them guidance and see how you can help. Explain that productivity is being impacted by the poor hygiene and remind them that it’s part of their employment contract to present themselves well. Be direct – but not overly confrontational.

Dealing with the aftermath
Once you’ve confronted the worker in question, there’s no real guarantee as to how they’ll respond. One emotion may well be anger or tears. In this case, we recommend that you reassure the worker that they’re not being fired and explain how you want to work together with them to rectify the situation.

“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, commented.

In essence, try to create an environment where employees feel comfortable enough to open up a one-on-one dialogue with management. This means that when any uncomfortable topics rear their heads, workers won’t feel as awkward about debating them with their HR representative.

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