Dealing with an employee with body odour
Having a conversation with an employee about an issue as personal and sensitive as body odour can be very difficult. It is something that may need to be addressed as it can negatively affect other employees or third parties. It will often come to an employer’s attention because another person has raised a complaint. As well as having to navigate the issue without it being taken as rude, you’ll also need to ensure you are aware of any potentially discriminatory elements and deal with them appropriately to avoid claims.
The issue should be dealt with informally. The meeting should be held with a manager, and it should be done privately. There’s no need to have a note taker in with you – it’s likely that the employee would prefer as few people involved as possible. Remember that, although it’s an uncomfortable topic for you to bring up, the employee will likely also feel embarrassed or upset.
Having advised a number of managers who have had to have these conversations, we have set out some tips below on how to deal with this:
- Don’t rush in. Consider the matter and what action needs to be taken. Also consider what you already know about this particular employee and how you believe this can best be addressed.
- Consider your timing. Have the conversation at the end of the working day, so that they don’t have to stay in work whilst feeling self-conscious.
- Keep it private. Assure them that the conversation will remain confidential and no-one else will know about it.
- Be direct (but as tactful and kind as possible). Don’t just try and hint at what the problem is, tell them. However, think about the words you are using and don’t go in unnecessarily strong. For example, saying someone has a ‘noticeable odour’ will go down better than using words like ‘repulsive’.
- Take ownership of the issue. Although in the moment it may be tempting to say you’ve had to have this conversation with them because other people have complained, the employee will not want to feel as though their body odour is a talking point in the workplace. Tell the employee that you have noticed that they have had a noticeable odour.
- Be prepared for pushback. If the employee is unwilling to address the issue, you should be prepared to discuss with them why you need this to be resolved. Speak about the potential impact on the business and other people, and that you are also concerned for their wellbeing.
- Ask if there is a reason. Open up a discussion about whether there is a reason behind this. For example, there may be a medical issue, a cultural difference, or personal issues which you need to take into account. Exploring the reason will be key to ensuring that you are dealing with the matter appropriately and avoiding claims.
- Discuss how this can be resolved. It may be that the employee genuinely didn’t realise and can make small changes to address the issue. It may that you can offer some advice or support, or it may be best to encourage them to see their GP as a starting point.
- End the conversation positively. Reassure the employee that this isn’t a big deal and is fixable. Thank them for being so understanding, ask if they have any other questions, and make sure they know they can speak to you about any assistance they require going forward.
Once you have had the conversation, you should be in a better position to know how to tackle it going forward. In many cases, the conversation will be enough to resolve the matter. If the employee deliberately doesn’t take steps to address the issue and there doesn’t seem to be a good reason for it, this could escalate to disciplinary action. However, for example, if there is a health condition, you may need to consider adjustments and support to help them with the issue.
Something that a business can do pre-emptively and which may assist if any particular issues arise, is have a clear policy on personal appearance, which highlights the importance of good hygiene. This can then be referred to in initial meetings, and sets a clear standard for all employees.
Author: Anna Nelson, Employment Law Advisor at Howarths