As all employers know, there are inevitably times when you need to have difficult conversations with employees. One of the most tricky situations of all is where you have to talk to an employee about their body odour or poor personal hygiene. Usually this is because you have received complaints from colleagues, or they are customer-facing.
Personal hygiene issues can cause significant problems in the workplace. Not only do they make the environment unpleasant for others, they can also cause difficulties for businesses where staff are interacting with the public. However, it is important to remember individuals are not necessarily aware they have a personal hygiene problem until brought to their attention. Also, often poor personal hygiene or body odour can be a sign of an underlying issue, such as a personal problem or medical condition.
Speak to the employee in private
Obviously this is a situation that needs to be addressed promptly. But understandably many managers and HR professionals may feel uncomfortable about addressing this type of issue for fear of offending the person, or prompting formal complaints about bullying and in some cases discrimination.
However, it is best for the situation to be dealt with professionally as soon you become aware of it. If not, you might find colleagues take matters into their own hands, which could mean the situation isn’t handled as sensitively as it needs to be.
The first step is to have a word in private. It is best to get straight to the point gently, tactfully and clearly. There is little point beating around the bush, so inform the employee what the issue is directly in a non-judgemental manner, i.e. complaints have been received about their hygiene. However, it is also very important to be sympathetic to the feelings of the employee during the conversation, and aim to put them at ease as much as possible.
Make clear what needs to happen and what the consequences could be If the situation doesn’t improve.
In many cases, a discreet conversation is all that is required. However, if the problem persists, you may need to have a further conversation, during which you need to make clear what the expected standards are and what improvement is expected within a reasonable timeframe. If that second conversation does not bring about any change, then unfortunately it may be necessary to commence formal disciplinary action.
As always, you should keep notes of the conversations with the employee in case of any issues later on, as this will assist you if you do have to take disciplinary action further down the line. Notes should also be kept of any complaints received from colleagues (or customers or others) about the issue.
Sometimes employees can raise health or cultural issues as an explanation, and if disciplinary action is taken against them they may claim the employer’s actions relate to a protected characteristic (for example, disability or religion) and are therefore discriminatory. To try and minimise the risk of this, it is always best for employers to carefully consider the points the employee makes, and take advice if necessary.
Challenging conversations like this are never easy, but it is important issues are addressed directly and as soon as possible so they don’t get out of hand. It is also important to act consistently and reasonably to avoid allegations of discrimination. So it is worth taking advice before progressing with formal action. If you are uncomfortable about having conversations like this, some external training or role-play practice with colleagues may help.
Nicola Brown is a partner at Pure Employment Law