how to talk to an employee about body odor

A reader writes:

One of my direct reports is a woman who is absolutely kick-ass at what she does, but I don’t think she bathes frequently and I suspect she’s wearing dirty clothes to work sometimes. She often has a pungent aroma about her. It isn’t body odor exactly, but there is a definite funky smell that lingers even after she walks away. Someone mentioned that he hates having her come see him in the morning because he’ll be smelling her in his office all day. And he LIKES her. I can only imagine what those who don’t are saying.

People are also commenting on her unkempt and/or torn clothes (and not fashionably torn). Our office culture is pretty laid-back. Jeans and t-shirts are okay here. You really have to be working at it for your slovenly appearance to be noted and commented on. She did not dress this way when her previous manager hired her; she seemed more pulled together then, and I don’t remember her smelling, either.

I believe she is being treated for depression. If this lack of self-care is part of a bigger mental health problem, is it right for me to meddle? I think her self-esteem is shaky and I’m terrified of saying something that would make that worse. If it were me, I would hope someone would have the guts to say something. But the fact that she does not seem to be taking care of herself generally—hair, makeup, clothes, hygiene—makes me think maybe she just doesn’t care, or does not have the emotional strength to do so at the moment. Scary.

I sought help from HR but got only links to articles (one of which said pointedly that HR people should refuse to handle these issues and kick them back to managers). Meet with the employee, one said, and allow the worker a chance to offer an explanation. Good so far—but then it went on to say the manager should suggest action steps (get a physical, see a dentist) and explain there will be “consequences” if the employee does not make headway. And how do we measure that? By critiquing their appearance or smell every day, or grilling them about whether they went to the doctor? This does not seem to be an area where a manager should be butting in, even if people are holding their noses.

Yes, it really is an area where a manager should speak up. You should speak up because it’s affecting the way she’s perceived (and it will potentially affect the way your company is perceived if she deals with clients in-person or even just with other visitors to the office). You should also speak up because it’s affecting her coworkers and her relationships with them.

It’s reasonable for an employer to to set clear expectations for dress and hygiene at work, and to enforce those standards when people are falling short of them. And while I understand that you’re hesitant to interfere if it’s related to her depression, it’s really quite reasonable to expect people to adhere to office dress codes and hygiene standards even when depression might be in play.

And at this point, the issue is harming her at work; people are talking about it, and even dreading her visits to their offices. Please do her a favor and talk to her about it.

Now, this is going to be an awkward conversation; there’s no way around that. But you have plenty of awkward conversations as a manager; it’s part of the job. This one is more awkward than most, because most of us have very little practice at this kind of thing — but it has to be done.

The best thing you can do is to simply be honest, direct, and as kind as possible. I’d meet privately with her at the end of the day (rather than doing it earlier on, since she’d then probably feel self-conscious the whole rest of the day). Get the clothing part out of the way first because it’s the easier piece, and then address the odor. Start by saying something like, “I’ve noticed that lately you’ve been wearing clothes that fall outside of our dress code — things that are ripped or unkempt. As you know, jeans and t-shirts are fine here, but they do need to look put-together – no holes or (fill in here with specifics about what she’s been wearing that’s a problem).”

At this point, most people will say something indicating that they’ll comply with the dress code moving forward. (But if she doesn’t, then explain that while the dress code is informal, it’s not anything-goes, and you do need to require her to adhere to it, just like any other office policy.)

From there, say something like, “I want to mention something else as well. It’s awkward, and I hope I don’t offend you. You’ve had a noticeable odor lately. It might be a need to wash clothes more frequently or shower more, or it could be a medical problem. This is the kind of thing that people often don’t realize about themselves, so I wanted to bring it to your attention and ask you to see what you can do about it.”

Note that there’s nothing here about telling her there will be “consequences,” despite what that article that you read recommended. That’s overly harsh at this stage, when there’s no indication that it’s warranted. Let her know it’s a problem and ask her to take care of it. If she doesn’t and you continue to notice the problem, then yes, you would need to talk to her again and let her know that she’s expected to come to work showered and with her clothes laundered, and that you’re concerned that the problem has continued after your earlier conversation. But in most cases, a one-time conversation is going to take care of the problem and you won’t need to get into consequences or warnings or so forth.

If she does indicate to you that it’s related to depression —  for instance, that it’s hard to get out of bed in the morning and so she’s been skipping showers — you can certainly be empathetic (and refer her to your EAP, if you have one), but explain that you do need employees to come to work smelling clean.

However, keep in mind that it’s possible that there is a medical reason for the problem (meaning a physical condition that causes an odor, not as in not showering because of depression). If she tells you that’s the case, then at that point there’s not much further you should do, other than thanking her for telling you. But whether she volunteers that or not is entirely her call; you should not be asking her whether she’s seen a doctor or what might be wrong with her. Your job is simply to require her to come to work with appropriate dress and hygiene until/unless she tells you there’s a medical issue preventing that — just like you require people to come to work on time, not fall sleep at their desks, and other basic requirements of showing up ready to work.

Needless to say, this is not going to be an easy conversation. But you can’t let that be a reason not to do it — your HR department is right that as her manager, this is your responsibility to handle.

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