Nobody likes an awkward conversation. And they don’t get much more awkward than having to tell someone that they smell.
Whether an employee has bad breath, stinky clothes or strong body odour, it is not a pleasant situation for their colleagues or any customers or third parties they come into contact with.
Managers may feel that they are in a serious dilemma. If they don’t step in, it is unlikely that the problem will miraculously disappear and it could even get worse. If they do take action, there’s a risk of personally insulting the employee and the potential for grievances.
It is not a nice conversation to have, but unfortunately it is a necessary one. So here is an outline of what you can do to address the problem.
Reminding everyone of the rules
Some employers may wish to send out a memo, just reminding people of the dress code, the expected levels of hygiene and the requirement to present the right company image. This can act as a way of compelling people to think about their clothes and the way they present themselves at work.
Lead by example
The memo may set tongues wagging as employees try to work out who it is referencing or what situation triggered it. Managers should not make inappropriate jokes or indulge in pranks involving the employee and must make it clear to others that this is not acceptable behaviour.
You should lead by example by ensuring that you practice good hygiene standards in the workplace, for example providing hand wash to encourage employees to wash their hands.
Talking to the employee
The first step is to have a private and confidential chat with the employee, setting out your concern about how their poor personal hygiene is affecting colleagues and clients, giving them the chance to respond and trying to find solutions to the problem. When talking it through, ensure you are sensitive to the fact that different cultures have different customs in relation to clothes, bathing, general appearance and eating habits.
The timing of the meeting is key too. If you have a chat with the employee at the start of the day, there isn’t much they can do to rectify it and they may feel self-conscious throughout the day. Pick an appropriate time for the chat, for example before they leave their working day or shift.
If things don’t improve…
If the initial talk has not achieved the desired aim, you will need to have another discussion with the employee, clearly explaining what needs to be improved, setting them a time for this to be reviewed and outlining what possible actions you can take against them if they continue in this vein. If there is no improvement, you will be left with no choice but to commence disciplinary action.
Remember the employee’s poor hygiene could be as a result of a medical condition that falls within the scope of the definition of “disability” in the Equality Act. If this is the case, you must ensure that you are not treating them less favourably and you will need to consider what reasonable adjustments can be made.