Dealing with body odour in the workplace

Talking to an employee who has consistent unpleasant body odour can be a difficult issue for employers to tackle. Vicky Schollar provides some advice

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Confronting anyone about such a personal issue as body odour has the potential to come across as rude, and, in certain circumstances, discriminatory. However, the issue can have a significant impact on relationships between colleagues and/or third parties, affecting their morale and productivity in the workplace. It may even result in a business losing clients if an employer does not adequately address the issue. In dealing with this there are several key points an employer should consider.

Initial conversation

The employer should first discuss the issue informally with the employee. It is absolutely imperative this is done sensitively, being empathetic to the employee's feelings, while setting out the issue clearly to agree a resolution.

Determine who is best placed to have this conversation, and the existing relationship they have with the employee – as there are risks to all parties. A part-time female French tutor was recently awarded £5,000 injury to feelings for harassment related to sex where she had been repeatedly asked to approach an elderly male student regarding his involuntary release of urine. The managers involved had assumed she was better suited to speaking with the student because she was a woman, whereas a manager of either sex would have been more appropriate than a tutor. Whoever is selected, it should be a one-to-one conversation in a private setting, to prevent the employee feeling embarrassed or humiliated in front of others. 

Explanation

Is the employer already aware of a potential medical reason? Could this qualify as a disability under s 6 of the Equality Act 2010? If so, care should be taken not to act in such a way that could amount to unlawful discrimination. If not, employers should explore with the employee what the reason for the condition might be.

Disability, race (including ethnic origin) and religion or belief are protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010, so an employer should tread cautiously where these characteristics may apply.

Treatment by other colleagues

Employers should ensure the individual is not being bullied or ostracised as a result of their condition. If there are signs of this, employers should take steps to investigate thoroughly and potentially discipline the employees concerned. 

Dealing with the issue promptly can help prevent this. If not addressed by the employer, the employee's mental health may suffer and they may raise a grievance.

If the issue continues 

If the issue is not resolved, employers should consider a further conversation, clearly setting out the company's policy on hygiene issues and the impact this could have on other employees/clients. If the employee is unable to resolve the issue themselves, the employer could suggest they see their GP or refer them to occupational health.

If it still persists, formal disciplinary action may have to be considered if the employee deliberately fails to take action to address the issue.

As with any disciplinary issue, detailed notes should be retained from each meeting, to show the employer has acted reasonably and sensitively throughout. Consider taking legal advice before starting any formal disciplinary proceedings to ensure the correct steps have been taken.

Policy

Having a clear relevant policy about personal appearance, covering hygiene, could go a long way to assisting employers, and even help avoid the situation arising in the first place. Employers would be able to share this with employees on induction, thus avoiding singling out any employee and embarrassing them, and refer to it in any initial meetings, clearly setting out what is expected in the workplace. 

Conclusion

In many cases, a clear policy on expectations of personal appearance/hygiene and a discreet conversation can resolve the issue. However, should it persist, the employer will have to consider whether disciplinary action is appropriate in the circumstances and whether doing so could be deemed discriminatory.

Vicky Schollar is a senior associate in the employment law team at Blake Morgan