Question: How do I handle a complaint from an employee that one of her co-workers has offensive body odour, poor hygiene or bad breath?
Answer: We have been asked this question several times and it’s frequently cited as an example of perhaps the most awkward and uncomfortable question that makes its way to HR.
It’s also a prime example of the kind of petty, transactional issues HR professionals would rather not have to handle.
The standard answer to this question involves HR having a quiet conversation with the employee or asking the individual’s manager to intervene. But how do you actually have such a conversation? And should HR approach the person based on one person’s complaint?
Just how badly does the person smell?
In some ways, my initial reaction to something like this might be to (politely) tell the complainant to “get a life.” We as North Americans tend to be so obsessed with cleanliness and smelling “fresh,” we’re somehow offended when people actually smell like human beings.
I’m not suggesting employees have to endure sitting next to a colleague who smells like a dung heap or like they haven’t bathed in months. But, in this day and age, how many people in a work environment actually smell that badly?
Is the smell so bad it’s unbearable? Somehow I doubt it. Therefore, my opinion is such whiners often simply need to suck it up.
In many cases, unpleasant odours can be caused by a condition beyond the person’s control and could even be considered a disability. Chronic halitosis (bad breath) is one example. And I’ve heard of people whose natural body odour is extremely unpleasant even if they shower three times daily.
Chances are someone with such a condition is well aware of it. The person is likely doing everything she can to alleviate the problem and is probably self-conscious about it to begin with.
One former colleague told me a story about when she worked as an agency recruiter. Apparently, one of her clients was really pleased with the work of one of the candidates she had placed there — so pleased it wanted to hire him on full-time.
However, several people had complained about the employee’s excessive flatulence so, unfortunately, my colleague had to have a gentle “coaching” session with him.
After that, the employee was so embarrassed, he abandoned his job and they never heard from him again.
It also may be worth reminding employees they shouldn’t expect everyone to wear heavy perfumes or other scents to mask body odours. The fact is many people have allergies or environmental sensitivities to perfumes and, as a result, many employers have adopted scent-free workplace policies to help accommodate such employees.
In some cases, a person’s standards of personal hygiene may be slipping due to a mental illness or a traumatic event in his personal life. The employee may have even become homeless and, therefore, has fewer opportunities to bathe and launder his clothes.
There can also be cultural reasons why people smell a certain way — or they may just like certain foods. Again, employers have a duty to accommodate and complaining about someone’s smell because of her ethnic background or the foods she eats is racist and offensive.
Frankly, I’m suspicious of people who come to HR with complaints like these. In many cases, they’re just being mean-spirited and hurtful.
Particularly egregious violations
But what if several people have complained and the person really does stink to high heaven? And what about food production facilities or customer-facing roles where personal hygiene is of the utmost importance?
The first step in such situations is to develop and communicate a policy governing standards of appearance and personal hygiene at the workplace. Particularly egregious violations of such policies could result in disciplinary action.
But before resorting to disciplinary sanctions, it is necessary to determine whether odours or other issues may be the result of a protected ground.
Assuming complaints are well-founded and there are no known human rights issues, it is best to get the employee’s manager involved in such sensitive conversations since she knows the person better than HR. The manager may also be able to give you some idea of whether or not there’s any substance to the complaints.
Such conversations need to be handled in private in a dignified manner. Without prying or directly asking the employee, it might be best to adopt a perspective of legitimate concern and suggest there could be some issues such as a medical problem.
It’s also a good idea to inform the person that people often aren’t aware such issues exist, so you (or the person having the conversation) thought the employee would like to know.
If issues such as mental health, substance abuse or financial problems arise or are suspected, you may also want to remind the person about your employee assistance program (EAP), assuming such a program exists. Remember the duty to accommodate.
However, before having such a conversation, it’s a good idea to ensure there’s substance to such allegations and the complainant isn’t making a complaint that’s frivolous or vexatious.
Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell in Toronto. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, visit www.consultcarswell.com.