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What’s that smell? Oh, it’s you

EverythingHR Staff | 09/11/2018 | Blog

Photo by Jeremy Dorrough

By: Matthew Bartosiak, Senior Helpline Consultant

Who likes being told they smell bad? Even worse, who likes telling someone else that they smell bad? 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 B.O. once or twice a year!

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

Follow these 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.

Do an investigation and observation

Verify the legitimacy of employees’ complaints through investigation and observation. Interviewing coworkers 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, confidential meeting should take place. 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. 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 issues.

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 (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, and no hopeful remedy is being offered, consulting an employment attorney may have to be the next step. You may or may not have to endure the situation, but the problem should not 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 coworker teasing. Watch for mistreatment that may lead to ostracizing the worker that had the problem.

For more help on dealing with B.O. in the workplace call our Helpline Consultants at 833-448-9111!

Updated by EverythingHR Staff 9/11/2018