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Sunday, March 16, 2008

telling an employee she has body odor

A reader writes:

Two new secretaries in my office have body odor. The other staff have asked me to talk to them about it as the acting manager. How should I tackle this?

I do not envy you. I'm interested to hear advice from others too, but I think the best approach is to think about how you'd want it handled it if it were you and have a short, to-the-point conversation with each of them (separately), likely at the end of the day so they don't need to sit there feeling self-conscious for hours afterward.

Be honest, direct, and as kind as possible. You can even admit that you're nervous about bringing it up. Start by mentioning that their work has been good (assuming that it has been) and then say something like, "I want to discuss something that's awkward, and I hope I don't offend you. You've had a noticeable body 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."

Likely, the employee will be embarrassed. But if they're combative, explain that they need to come to work clean because of the impact on the office. You might also suggest a visit to a doctor to find out if there might be a medical reason.

By the way, I'm assuming that the issue is one of not bathing/laundering enough, but if it's more along the lines of cultural differences in food that can lead to different body smells, I'd ask the staff to be more tolerant. I'm also assuming that you've verified the problem yourself, so that you're sure it truly exists (if you haven't, do, since it's not inconceivable that someone cranky on your staff just wants to cause problems for these women).

Also, there's an excellent podcast on this topic from Managers Tools on this issue here. (That's part two, where the real action is, but you can also listen to part one here.) It gives really detailed advice about how to tackle this.

17 comments:

HR Wench said...

Ah, the smelly co-worker. Who doesn't love dealing with this type of situation? AAM has given good advice, as always. Personally I have found focusing on the "I'm a manager and I'm concerned for you" part of it really helps. That being said, even as an HR pro with yards of experience in "uncomfortable conversations", I do NOT envy the writer's position!

Career Encourager said...

I also don't envy the writer's position either - and I have a follow-up question...how do you handle it if you are "frangrance sensitive" nd the offending odor is due to perfume, afteshave, lotion, etc.? Do you think that's any different than how you would handle a BO situation?

Anonymous said...

As an "individual Contributor",I was once issued a grievance on my brand of perfume (Chanel #5 for those curious noses). Needless to say both HR and the individual's manager were hard pressed to resolve the issue as several other bargaining unit representatives had grotesque body odor. So go figure - my Chanel aroma wasn't so bad after all.

Lisa said...

For both fragrances and odors, go right to the individual. I once tried the "whole group, working together in close quarters" approach and that backfired. The individual with the strong (not Chanel!) fragrance knew I was referring to her and was offended noone came to her personally. I have not had to have an odor discussion, but if and when I do, I will be right there beside HR Wench with the "I am concerned for you approach."

Jackie Cameron said...

As wearer of Chanel No 5 myself it never occurred to me that others might find it offensive. Overdoing any scent though is hard to accept. On the BO point when this was an issue on our team one suggestion was to discuss the various options for shower/ bath/ deoderising generally. Everybody except the person with the problem found it informative.It needs to be a direct approach. Good luck.

Anonymous said...

Having dealt with this on at least three occasions, I consider the direct approach to be the best. My first attempt of informing the employee of the BO problem was a disaster. Beating around the bush does not kill the odor. Even though the other discussions were uncomfortable for both of us, the direct approach was better by far and produced a desirable result - no odor.

Anonymous said...

What if your boss is the one with BO?

Anonymous said...

Am I the only one who would prefer an email or note? I would be moritifed if I had to talk to any superior eye-to-eye about my smell...

Johanna Rothman said...

Telling people in person is much kinder than leaving an email or note. It's much more honest too. I blogged about this situation here: http://www.jrothman.com/blog/mpd/2006/07/with-feedback-its-kind-to-be-firm.html

Anonymous said...

While it's probably better to say something (sensitively) in person, you could always try an anonymous email website like NoOffenseOrAnything - http://www.nooffenseoranything.com, where you can send a pre-written anonymous message to the employees letting them know about their body odor problem.

lily bird said...

my boss (male) who has his desk 3 meters from mine has sometimes very strong body odor. I think I am having a maybe hormonal related reaction to it ? I get all antsy, I am starting to hyperventilate and I am also becoming much more aggressive. How should I react ? Is maybe something wrong with me that I am having such strong reactions ?

Anonymous said...

This has been an issue I have had to deal with many times in my HR career. I found this helpful:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ASON6d3jqtU

Anonymous said...

I have a temporary worker who is African American and wears her hair in dreadlocks (or similar skinny braids/twists). I realize that this type of style is not frequently shampood. It's not an inappropriate style for our office and she keeps it up out of her face when she needs to. The thing is she is starting to have an odor about her. I'm worried about approching her about it because of the ethnic spin and my general lack of familiarity of care for this hair style. I really hate to bring it up to her but I think others are starting to notice, and I rather nip it in the bud before someone asks me to do so.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I thought that last sort of racist claptrap was long gone! FYI, Black people with dreads/braids/twists whatever _wash their hair as often as anyone eles does_. The belief that these styles are "dirty" is nothing more than racism - and racism that other employers have been sued over.

Anonymous said...

I wish people would have showed up with BO at their JOB interview. Instead, it is hidden until they are at work. I'm tired of telling people don't be afraid of Soap and Water, you managed to use the day of your JOB interview.

Lani said...

This really shouldn't be any more serious an issue than telling someone their fly is down or that they've got mascara on their eyelid. Yes, BO isn't as easily remedied, but it's still important to let them know as soon as is appropriate.

Anonymous said...

White people have dreads too. It's not racist to say that people with dreads are dirty. It's a stereo type. So quick to jump to racism. Why?