employee body odour

What’s the most dreaded employee conversation?

If you said having to address an employee’s bad body odour then you’re certainly not alone! 

The first time I heard this example from someone, I was struck by the terror they felt at getting it wrong. They hadn’t started the day to cross socially acceptable boundaries like this let alone with an employee with protections from a poorly handled insult to their dignity!

Given I recently heard this as yet another example of the worst conversation to have with an employee, I decided it’s time we tackle the employee who seems oblivious to their personal hygiene.

*A caution*: as you read this, don’t mistake a once off matter for an ongoing pattern of poor personal hygiene. Someone forgetting their deodorant once is not the same as months of bad body odour. Patterns need to be addressed whereas a once off needs to be understood for what it is.

First, why risk ‘the chat’?

On the assumption that we’re dealing with a recurring and ongoing pattern of poor hygiene, some key reasons for not leaving the matter alone include:

  • Less-than-tactful colleagues doing their own chat may expose you to a claim of harassment or bullying. This ultimately becomes the employers problem (and cost).
  • The impact to overall employee engagement. For example, other employees may fail to bring the employee into important meetings or decisions to avoid the discomfort of the odour.

Either way, your business efficiency is being dragged down by not addressing this very personal matter.

Plan the chat

We’re firm believers in having any difficult conversation after a little planning and introspection.

The emphasis here is to clearly articulate why this is impacting the business. Otherwise you risk it being seen as personal and therefore possibly discriminatory.

Planning how you will address and discuss the following initial points will help in this:

  1. How would you feel if the situation were reversed (how would you want your dignity preserved)?
  2. How will you ‘own’ the feedback so it is relevant, specific and yours?
  3. What is the effect of the issue on the business and clients?
  4. Where can you hold a private and confidential chat?
  5. If the employee simply doesn’t care, what do your policies allow you to do and how will this be eventually communicated to the employee if required?
  6. How will you close the conversation?

Start the chat

Starting the conversation might actually be the hardest part of all this – so here’s a simple technique to remember. Start by naming the un-comfortableness you feel right up front.

  • For example, ‘Thanks for meeting with me – I’m a little uncomfortable about this matter so please excuse me if I seem nervous – but it’s important enough that I wanted to discuss this with you personally and privately.’

On the whole, keep first and foremost in your mind that you want to treat the employee with respect and dignity at all times. This will help you in the choice of your language.

  • From there, you can perhaps consider some wording such as ‘I’d like to try and understand an issue I’ve noticed in recent weeks… this is to do with the personal deodorant you’re using and it not hiding your body odour effectively’.

At this stage, you should be able to enter into the planned conversation about the impact this matter is having on the business.

Uh-oh, there’s a good reason?

Let’s say the employee doesn’t take the opportunity to say they didn’t know about their deodorant and it won’t happen again because they actually have a medical reason (for example) for the personal hygiene issue you’ve raised?

These are matters potentially moving into areas protected under law and your company policies.

The focus should remain on how the matter is affecting the business but now include how you and the employee can find an arrangement to meet everyone’s needs. Perhaps there is a way for the employee to work remotely or at certain times?

In any event, it is best to seek some further advice before doing anything else.

Phew, now how to end the chat?

Sometimes, this isn’t on your radar but planning how to end the conversation will be helpful.

Recognising that the conversation has probably been embarrassing for one or both parties, allowing the employee some ‘alone time’ with a walk outside or extra time at lunch in a private spot might help. And if you’re thinking compassionately, remind them the conversation is private and that you’re there to help when they want to talk again.

And if the problem persists?

If there is no good reason the employee has for the issue and it doesn’t get resolved after another timely and ‘just-curious’ conversation, this is where your dress codes and Workplace Health and Safety policies will be of use.

Noting the move to your formal process for discipline in a fair and consistent manner should be an option only after trying to compassionately resolve the matter at least once more (and depending on the circumstances).

One final note

We know this is one of the most difficult conversations you might face as a manager, but not having the conversation is worse in the long run for everyone involved.

And it could just be that your courage to raise the topic is the first step in the employee’s development and growth… and they may even thank you for your help.


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