27 September 2023

Scent and sensitivity: How to talk with a co-worker about body odour

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Alison Curwen* says that as summer approaches, the need to address body odour with a colleague can be a real concern that must be approached with sensitivity.

Photo: hoozone

A colleague needs a shower. A co-worker should wear socks.

A manager is asking if someone on your HR team might have a word with a particularly smelly associate.

As summer nears, how to address the issue of body odour is a real concern in the workplace.

Here are some dos and don’ts for addressing this problem.

Do have a dress code that also addresses hygiene

A dress code “typically requests that employees exercise good judgment regarding their appearance and hygiene,” said Joseph H. Harris, an employment law attorney.

“Additional language may express the employer’s expectation that employees will use deodorant or antiperspirant to minimise body odour.”

But these policies also should ask employees to refrain from wearing fragrances that might offend or affect those with allergies, recommended Devora Lindeman, an employment law firm partner.

Expectations and standards take the guesswork out of many situations.

“If you are [discussing body odour with a worker], it is very helpful to refer back to a policy,” said Danielle Urban, a partner in a national labour and employment law firm.

Other opportunities to set workplace expectations are during orientation and onboarding.

Ideally, these expectations should be communicated in person, not electronically, because the former tends to be more effective, said HR professional Steve Browne.

Don’t jump to conclusions, but don’t avoid the situation

Urban and Browne agree that whoever handles the problem should first investigate the circumstances to ensure that those complaining have a legitimate reason for doing so.

“Sometimes people are mean or petty,” Urban said.

Browne added, “Don’t overreact and fly into this.”

But when body odour is strong, it can be very distracting.

People may not want to work directly “or even communicate with a person if they feel odour is a problem,” Browne said.

“If the employee is not aware [that] the body odour is the reason people cringe when they enter a room, the employee could incorrectly blame their co-workers’ or manager’s reactions to them on something else completely,” Lindeman said.

“This is one reason this should be addressed as soon as possible.”

If issues are “allowed to linger, that only increases the risk that the employee with the body odour problem may be subject to ridicule by their colleagues,” Harris said.

Do approach the person

If the complaint is legitimate, Browne said, it’s important to address it quickly.

An employee with bad hygiene can reflect poorly on an organisation, particularly if the worker interacts in person with clients, customers or the public.

Browne said that HR or a manager should handle the issue because peer-to-peer conversations about the matter can be less effective and can lack the gravity of a supervisor-to-subordinate conversation.

The most important thing to remember when approaching a worker is to treat him or her with dignity.

“This could be very embarrassing, and you need to be empathetic.”

Such conversations should always take place in private.

Having a conversation about body odour is a tough topic, and nobody likes to talk about it, Urban said.

“It is something you should think out before blurting out,” Urban said.

“Think about how you would want to hear it, then discreetly take the person aside and address it.”

“At the same time, you are also trying to get the message across that the person needs to do something about this or disciplinary action could result.”

One approach is to say something along the lines of, “‘I want to let you know that your deodorant isn’t working. You may want to try another brand’,” Lindeman said.

“This way, the speaker comes across as presuming the person already takes steps to deal with body odour but lets them know they need to try something else.”

Do be sensitive to cultural norms and medical conditions

An organisation’s policy should recognise “that an employee’s religious, ethical or moral beliefs or an employee’s medical condition or disability may prevent them from complying with the policy as written,” Harris said.

If there is an underlying medical condition causing the odour, ask the employee to “obtain a doctor’s note regarding the condition and the doctor’s recommendation for handling it,” Lindeman said.

In such circumstances there should be “reasonable accommodations for disabilities and religious beliefs,” said Harris.

Can the person work from home?

Work in a different office or workspace?

Does the workplace need better ventilation?

* Alison Curwen is a freelance writer.

This article first appeared at www.shrm.org.

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