[Ask HR] How to deal with body odour in the workplace?

We take questions from both employers and employees. If you have a question, let us know below. In the meantime, take a look at this week’s question:

I received complaints about an employee’s body odour. How would I address this issue with the guilty party?

Being around anyone with body odour is awkward and embarrassing, and when it is someone you interact with regularly – almost impossible to ignore.  It is very difficult when you need the problem to go away but don’t want to bring it up.   HR is not immune to the awkwardness and sensitivity of this issue; it is very difficult for us to talk to employees about their hygiene practices (which vary greatly across individuals and cultures).  While HR has no magic wand to make this problem go away by itself we can offer the following advice on best ways to address the issue:

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  • Encourage self correction; address all staff via huddles, memos or meetings regarding use of heavy perfumes/colognes, wearing clean clothes and practicing good personal hygiene.  In other words, address the issue rather broadly and see if the problem goes away.
  • If you do have to have an individual conversation; go into it committed to the task.  Being vague and only giving ‘half the message’ likely means you’ll need a follow up meeting.  It’s no less painful the second time so let’s try and get this over with in one shot.
  • Be sensitive.  Being committed to the message does not mean being cruel; you need to balance sensitivity with bluntness.  It’s an art and one a seasoned leader needs to have.

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At the end of the day, it’s not a message anyone want to deliver or receive.    But workplaces are group settings and therefore individual hygiene practices should not be those that make others uncomfortable.  While you cannot, and should not, tell someone that they should shower more regularly you can tell them that there have been concerns with the odour and that it is affecting the team.

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