How to handle an employee with poor hygiene

by HCA10 Dec 2014
Telling someone they have to change their personal hygiene habits is always a tough issue to tackle but ignoring the problem puts other employees in an unpleasant work environment. So, how do you handle an employee who smells?

Be certain

“Wait for a pattern to emerge,” suggests Donna Flagg, author of Surviving Dreaded Conversations: How to Talk Through Any Difficult Situation at Work Definitely, “don't say anything the first, second or even third time you notice it.”

Halley Bock, CEO of leadership development company Fierce Inc., agrees. She says employers need to seriously consider whether the issue is affecting their work or the work of others.

However, several studies, including a 2013 survey by the Employment Office, have found that workers are significantly affected by colleagues’ cleanliness.

The 2013 study explored the effects of poor hygiene on productivity and found that 75 per cent of workers struggle to work alongside someone with bad body odour and 64 per cent find it difficult to work with a colleague who has bad breath.

So smelly co-workers do significantly impact productivity and potentially isolate themselves from other employees. The longer you leave it before telling them, the more damage is caused.

Be subtle

Flagg says it’s vital employers pick a private place for the conversation where they know they won’t be interrupted.

“When you do speak up, don’t ever say that several other people have ‘brought it to your attention,’” warns Bock. However, there will be some occasions when you’ll have to admit you’re not alone in your observations, especially if the employee accuses you of bullying or reports you.

Be clear

Nobody wants an awkward conversation to last any longer than it has to – especially the person on the receiving end. You don’t have to be blunt but you definitely can’t beat around the bush.

Bock recommends five steps: name the issue, give an example, describe it objectively, clarify why it's important, say you want to resolve it and then invite the person to respond.

Flagg suggests the following; "I'm sure you're not aware of it but thought you'd like to know that I'm noticing an odd odour. I think it might be your (fill in the blank.)"

Put it in perspective

You’re probably going to feel uncomfortable having the conversation but it might do you both good to pretend you’re not. “Don’t make it a big deal.” says Flagg, “It’s only as big as you make it.”

If you can give the impression that the conversation isn’t awkward or uncomfortable, the employee is likely to feel significantly less embarrassed and won’t assume everyone has noticed. It makes hearing the unwelcome news a whole lot easier.

Talking to employees about a hygiene problem might seem daunting but in the grand scheme of things it’s just a minor blip. Keep that in mind and remember that the outcome is of benefit to everyone – no matter how uncomfortable the brief conversation might be. 


  • by Catherine Cahill 10/12/2014 11:59:15 AM

    I found the very best way to deal with this subject is to take the "embarrassment" out of it. That is, you deal with this issue with the same level of honesty and objectivity that you deal with any other issue.

    I have created Grooming standards for organisations that specifically address the need for washing of clothes, regular showers, deodorant and (particularly for smokers) brushing teeth and the use of breath fresheners.

    The Policy includes the notation that if your manager brings one of these issues to your attention, it is for your own benefit.

    It works surprisingly well.

  • by Judy Apps 10/12/2014 12:00:45 PM

    Having been in this situation and having to deal with an employee who had a long standing issue in this regard, and I was not the first to have addressed the hygiene issue with him, it would be great to have strategy for someone who denies there is an issue and therefore refuses to do anything. The problem may be a symptom of something greater eg social isolation, mental health issues and a simple discussion alerting an individual to something you have noticed is not an adequate response.

  • by Robin 10/12/2014 2:37:00 PM

    I think the direct approach is best. Years ago a problem of smelly feet was brought to my attention by the employee's colleagues to the point where it had to be dealt with. Key to the successful outcome was, in advance of meeting, coming up with a few strategies to suggest to the employee. A somewhat mortified employee was very grateful for the suggestions which ranged from keeping a couple of spare pairs of shoes in her locker and changing them every break to ditching the plastic shoes to use of foot deoderant and wearing only natural fibre (cotton) socks - fresh pair daily. Often people have no idea there is a problem. Investigating another shocker whose parents had immigrated to Australia from southern Europe (where living conditions meant a bath was a rare event), revealed she only took a bath once a week and wore a lot of polyester - again an easy solution. For the bad breath scenario, I used to keep a supply of fresh mints but I love the idea of having Grooming Standards. We have policies for everything else so why not this area as well.

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