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When an employee has body odor

Q: I don’t know how to say this delicately, so I’ll get right to the point. A staffer at our practice has terrible body odor. Her B.O. is so bad that several other staffers have approached me, saying they don’t want to work with her. Also, they have asked me to do something about the situation. I’m usually good at counseling employees, but this particular problem has me stumped. How do I talk to someone about such a personal issue?

A: First, take a step back and look at the situation. You refer to the matter as a “personal issue.” While hygiene is indeed personal, the situation is not. The fact that staffers don’t want to work with this person makes it an employment issue.

What’s more, because you’re the manager, finding a solution to the problem falls to you. This is definitely one of those “it’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it” situations. Nevertheless, it’s a situation you must address, and promptly.

Before you have a conversation with the employee, however, it’s important to realize that body odor may be caused by a medical condition. If this is the case, the individual may be protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Body odor itself is not protected under the ADA, but it is possible that a medical condition covered by the ADA has been a factor.

Similarly, a diet may result in body odor. If this diet is related to the person’s ethnicity, she could claim discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights if you don’t handle the conversation properly.

Therefore, the conversation with the employee must be approached delicately, and with respect.

Sometimes it is obvious that an odor is due to dirty clothing or poor hygiene. This kind of situation is actually easier to address, especially if you have a dress code and appearance policy that specifically refers to cleanliness and hygiene.

When grooming is the issue, you can advise an employee that she is not following the practice’s dress code and appearance policy. You should then reference the policy and discuss the sections about cleanliness and hygiene.

Assuming this is the first time you’ve addressed the matter, let the employee know this is a verbal warning and that you expect her to correct the problem immediately. You should let the person know that adherence to the policy is a job requirement. Include a note in the employee’s file, with the date of the conversation.

After counseling an employee for cleanliness and hygiene, you will most likely see an immediate improvement. That’s the good news. The bad news is the transformation may be temporary.

A second conversation, if required, should include a written warning that states the employee has been counseled in the past and is once again in violation of practice policy. Advise the employee that if the situation is not corrected, if she lapses again, the practice has grounds for termination. Both the manager and employee should sign the written warning.

But let’s talk about how to handle possible medical or dietary issues. Since your policy doesn’t address these issues, you have to confront the problem straight on.

Begin any conversation about body odor by giving the employee the benefit of the doubt: “I don’t know if you’re aware, but you have a body odor problem.”

If the issue is clearly related to cleanliness and hygiene, you should then reference the policy.

If you don’t know the cause or suspect it may be related to a medical condition or diet, simply pause and give the employee time to respond.

Depending on the response (“Yes, medication I’m taking is causing me to sweat profusely”), you can then recommend that the employee talk to her physician to address the issue.

Emphasize your interest in resolving the situation by saying something like, “Please let me know how it goes.” You can then add, “I hope I didn’t make you uncomfortable, but this is something the office needs to address.”

Note the phrase “needs to address.” In other words, we have to fix the problem.

One final piece of advice: Never say, “It’s been brought to my attention that you have a body odor problem.” This will immediately put the employee on the defensive, create further embarrassment for the individual, and make her aware that coworkers are discussing the situation. As a result, the employee could get angry.

Similarly, you don’t want to say, “I’ve noticed that you have a body odor problem.”

Keep the observation neutral, “I don’t know if you’re aware, but you have a body odor problem,” and remain respectful. Treating employees with respect gets results—and leads to fewer lawsuits.

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