How to Talk to an Employee Who Has Bad Hygiene
Let’s set a scene: You’re at your desk, removing your jacket as the early afternoon sunshine pours into your office, when several employees knock on your door, requesting a brief meeting. You invite them in. The last to enter slowly shuts the door while peeking back at a corner cubicle.
The group informs you that Jerry, a reliable and hard-working employee, has begun to exhibit bad hygiene and grooming. His hair is unkempt, his breath is foul, and his body odor is noticeably pungent to the employees seated around him.
You think that maybe Jerry hasn’t yet adjusted to the summer heat, but even as you consider this possibility, you know the problem is more serious and needs to be addressed. As the group exits your office, you thank them and ask for their discretion.
What do you say to an employee with bad breath and body odor? There’s no way the conversation can be anything shy of painfully awkward. Nevertheless, you should strive to minimize his embarrassment. Meet with Jerry in a private place, free of eyes and interruptions. Hold the meeting at the end of the day and allow him to leave the office immediately after your meeting.
You return to your desk, feeling anxious. Outside your window a bird chirps incessantly, but you hardly notice. After several minutes, you take a deep breath and check Jerry’s availability. Seeing he’s free, you pick up the phone, press his extension, and ask to see him a few minutes before he leaves.
So what do you say when Jerry arrives for the meeting? Begin the conversation by telling him that he is a valued member of the team and that his job is not in jeopardy—this may ease his mind a bit. When you bring up his hygiene, be compassionate and kind, but also direct and clear: Jerry’s bad hygiene is an issue and his behavior needs to change. Right now, you’re here to coach him, not discipline him. Focus on the company’s needs and expectations, and review the company policy with him.
During your coaching, Jerry seems receptive to what you’ve said, and the air of the room becomes less tense. You begin casually to speculate about the reasons for Jerry’s diminished hygiene. You’re on the verge of saying the words “health condition.” Stop! You have almost made a major blunder that could expose you to risk under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The ADA prohibits discrimination not only against employees with an actual disability, but also against employees who are “regarded as” having a disability. By suggesting that Jerry’s breath and body odor may be due to some health problem, you may be regarding Jerry as having a disability. Consequently, Jerry could claim that any action you take in response to his perceived disability is discrimination.
When addressing an employee’s hygiene or grooming issues, make no speculations or assumptions. Keep your focus on your company’s needs, requirements, and expectations. Make sure you apply them consistently and leave it to the employees to determine how best to comply with them. The next steps will depend on Jerry. He may feel ashamed and embarrassed, even angry. These feelings would be understandable. Remember, however, that most employees want to perform well and do what is expected of them.
You will likely see Jerry take steps to improve his hygiene, but if he doesn’t make the necessary improvements, you may need to take disciplinary action.
In the following days and weeks, also keep an ear out for office gossip and look for signs that Jerry is being alienated from the other employees. Jerry is responsible for improving his hygiene, but everyone is responsible for maintaining a healthy company culture.
This conversation probably wasn’t the highlight of your day, but by taking the right approach to it, you made it productive one—a win/win for your employee and your organization.