Employers Group Blog Connection

A Sensitive Issue for HR: Dealing with Personal Hygiene

Posted by Nicole Vierzba on Thu, Jun 9, 2011

One of the most sensitive issues to address in the workplace is body odor.  This problem can be unpleasant and awkward for all concerned—the offender, other employees, and Human Resources.  And it’s not a rare situation—some HR managers have to deal with the matter once or twice a year in offices as well as in manual labor settings. 

Nevertheless, it’s a problem that has to be dealt with.  Even if the problem person not in contact with customers, potentially diminishing sales and leaving co-workers to tolerate the situation can tangibly effect productivity.

The following are key steps and concerns in handling this touchy problem:

Face the issue

While confronting this situation may be uncomfortable, ignoring or dancing around it won’t make it go away.  Employee complaints will heighten and tension will rise exposing the supposed offender to workplace ostracism or more.  

Bad Breath at Work

Do an investigation and observation

Verify the legitimacy of employees’ complains through investigation and observation.  Interviewing co-workers may reveal ulterior motives and other underlying workplace problems.  Spending time with the employee in question to reveal if an odor problem truly exists is an imperative first step. 

Be tactful but direct

When the problem is verified a private meeting is in order.  Confidentiality must be promised and ensured.  The best approach is to treat body odor like any other job performance problem.  Be direct, but sympathetic.  Tell the employee that there is a problem and that he or she should fix it.  Before the meeting is held, be prepared to deal with various responses including flat denials or the employee’s inability to change anything.  The best approach is to let the employee own the problem and the solution.  Helpful suggestions may be made like seeing a doctor, showering more often or bringing a change of clothes to work, but these should be of a generic nature to avoid potential legal tangles. 

Avoid legal problems

Don’t ask about the cause of the body odor nor offer a diagnosis of the cause.  This could lead into an American with Disabilities Act of 1991 (ADA) related conversation where special protections and reasonable accommodations are claimed.  If the employee brings up a medical condition, stop talking and listen carefully. Employers have the right to have a physician’s confirmation that the claimed medical condition exists.  Because of privacy rights, be careful in California not to request detailed diagnosis or prognosis.  Once protection under the ADA is established, an analysis of reasonable accommodations is in order. 

Again, if the employee volunteers that the body odor is caused by a medical condition, it is permissible to ask them for a letter from their doctor or some other documentation to prove the medical condition is causing the B.O.  If this happens, an no hopeful remedy is being offered, consulting an employment attorney may then be in order.  Depending on the particular situation, you may or may not have to endure the situation, but under no circumstances should the problem be tolerated if the employee is in contact with the public or with customers. 

Another legal pitfall to avoid is mentioning cultural differences related to diet and suggesting diet changes.  Such statements could foster discrimination claims under both federal and state law. 

Ensure no harassment

An important component in closing this issue is to avoid any co-worker teasing.  Watch for ill treatment that may lead to ostracizing the worker that had the problem.

Did you know that if your workplace has more than 50 employees, your managers are required to participate in Harassment Prevention Training.  Harassment includes bullying, retaliation, sexual innuendoes, etc.      


Topics: workplace, human resources, Employers Group, management, employee relationship