Nothing strikes fear into the heart of even the most seasoned manager quite like the realization that they will need to meet with the “stinky employee”. It's not a conversation that can be avoided for long, and it is an incredibly awkward conversation due to the personal nature of the topic. Discussing an employee’s hygiene will always be uncomfortable but having a script and a couple helpful tips will give you some confidence should you need to ever address this with one of your employees.
Several years ago, a manager came to me about an employee on her team who drove his motorcycle to work every day. She said that he was a great employee and when she had interviewed and hired him, she had not noticed any odd smells or body odor. However, at least three people had come to her separately in the last couple of weeks to complain about the very strong body odor smell coming from the employee. In fact, she had noticed that morning and realized she was going to have to say something to him.
She suspected it was his riding a motorcycle to work. When she hired him in February, the weather had been cold. But we were now in the height of a Texas summer with temps over 100 degrees. She was sure that this had something to do with the odor and that he was unaware of how strong it was. We talked through how she would address the situation with the employee and came up with a simple plan and script that gave her the confidence to address the issue with this employee confidently.
I have since used this plan and script with multiple managers in similar situations and wanted to share it with you!
First, before having any discussion with the employee, try to observe the issue for yourself. This isn’t a conversation you should have based on someone else’s word. If you aren’t able to observe the smell yourself, you may need to go back to the complaining employee(s) and get more details or ask another manager to go chat with the employee and see if they notice anything.
Once you are certain that you need to discuss the issue, consider the timing of your conversation with the employee. You don’t want them to feel self-conscious the whole day. Always wait until the end of their shift or workday to have the discussion.
Make sure to meet with the employee somewhere private – your office, their office or an empty conference room, etc. Remember this is an extremely sensitive and personal conversation and we want to make sure the employee is saved as much embarrassment as possible. Trust me, they are going to be embarrassed enough.
What to Say
The best way to open the conversation is with the assumption that the employee is unaware there is an issue. This way, even if they do know there may be an issue, they can pretend that this is the first time they’ve been made aware. Again, this gives them an opportunity to save face. Open the conversation like this:
“NAME, I wanted to meet with you privately because I need to speak with you about a very sensitive situation that has been brought to my attention. I have had reports of a bad smell when coworkers are in close proximity to you. It’s becoming a distraction in our workplace, so I am bringing this to your attention in the hopes that you can help me come up with a solution. Do you have any ideas of what may be causing the odor?”
Then, allow the employee to speak. Let them suggest what they can do to fix the issue. Usually, they are super embarrassed and completely unaware of the issue. Note that if the employee asks who spoke to you or complained, do not provide the names of the individuals that spoke to you. This only causes hurt feelings on the team and can derail the conversation. You can simply respond with “That’s not important right now,” and keep going. You can then close the conversation with:
“I am here to help, so please let me know if there is anything you need. However, I am sure you can agree that this has been an uncomfortable conversation that neither one of us want to have again, okay?”
This script lets the employee know that there is an issue, ties it to the workplace (it's not a personal attack), and leaves it up to the employee to resolve.
In most cases, this will nip the issue in the bud. However, employees can throw you a curveball during these conversations and tell you that the odor is due to a certain medication they may be taking or something having to do with their personal health situation.
What if the Issue is a Medical Issue?
If the employee begins to tell you that medication or a medical condition could be the reason for the odor, you will want to steer the conversation back to the effects of the issue on the workplace and try not to get into causes. Employers are not obligated to accommodate a disability they are not aware of – so the fewer details you have about an employee’s personal medical situations, the better. Ask the employee if there is anything they can do to resolve the matter. A typical response from the employee would be to volunteer to go see their doctor to see if there is anything that may help – perhaps a different medication or taking the medication at a different time of day. You would then respond with “Great. Please let me know if you need to take any time off for that appointment or if your doctor recommends any special considerations, I can help you with, just let me know.” This will begin the process of fulfilling your obligations as an employer under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADAAA) to engage in the “interactive process” to determine an appropriate accommodation, if applicable.
Most of the time, with this plan and script, you will be able to handle those awkward employee hygiene conversations. As always, make sure to document these conversations! If you run into any issues or need to proceed with the “interactive process” required under the ADAAA, check in with your corporate HR, HR Consultant, or employment attorney.