Personal hygiene is one tricky issue. It’s particularly sensitive in the workplace, where no one’s crazy about the idea of offending someone they see 5 days a week. But sometimes it just needs to be done. Whether it’s unwashed clothes, bad breath or unpleasant body odour, if it’s impacting colleagues and customers, it’s time to take action. Of course, there are more and less effective ways to go about it. Here’s our 7-step process to getting it handled.
1. Pick your location and timing carefully
Don’t schedule a meeting in your office at the start. That’s way too stressful for the employee. If you can get out of this the easy way, it’s better for everyone involved. What’s the easy way? It involves making a passing comment during a normal work conversation. That’s right, bring it up while you’re talking to them about something else (while the two of you are alone, obviously). Don’t make it a big deal. Try something like this: “While we’re talking, I wanted to mention something of a personal nature. It has been brought to my attention that you may have a personal hygiene issue. Specifically, bad breath/body odour/etc. There’s no need to feel embarrassed but I wanted to be honest with you as it is impacting some colleagues/customers. Would you mind taking steps to correct the issue?”. The employee may be embarrassed, but this gives them the option to remedy the problem immediately, with minimal fuss.
2. Don’t be vague
It can be tempting to skirt around the issue by saying something like “some of our employees have a problem with personal hygiene,” or by organising personal hygiene training for the whole team. While this gets you out of the awkward conversation, it’s possible the employee won’t guess they’re the problem. Don’t waste time and effort beating around the bush. Speak directly to them to try and get the issue handled asap.
3. Link the feedback to a business issue
If there’s any chance of the employee thinking you have a personal vendetta against them, be ready to link the feedback to a specific business issue. Perhaps their unruly appearance is affecting customer perception of the company. Maybe you’ve noticed other colleagues avoiding working closely with them. Or perhaps a customer has requested a different sales rep. Inform them of the impact on this business to be clear this is a professional, not a personal, issue.
4. Be sensitive of cultural differences
Some cultures have different standards for bathing, dress and appearance, and certain cooking and eating traditions involve a lot of garlic, onions and spices. Go for the middle ground between respect for the person’s culture and a request that they embrace the personal hygiene standards of the company. While sensitivity and respect are important, you are justified in asking people to adhere to the requirements of the business when it comes to personal grooming and hygiene.
5. The next step meeting
If you have tried the casual-but-direct approach and the employee has not addressed the issue, it’s time to move to a formal meeting. This is important so the staff member doesn’t feel like you are informally picking on them. Make sure it’s private and try to make the employee feel comfortable. Tell them that the issue has not been addressed. Then ask appropriate questions to try and get to the bottom of the problem. Work with the employee to come up with ideas and solutions. If they are responsive then give them another chance to address the situation. If they are not responding appropriately then explain that if you can’t find a way forward then you may need to take disciplinary action. If they are not engaging with you to find solutions, ask them if they think it’s reasonable to expect other employees and customers to continue dealing with the impacts of the problem. Ask what their suggested way forward is. Note down their answers in case you need them later.
6. Is it a medical issue?
If the employee says they have taken steps to improve the issue to no avail, suggest to them that it might be a medical issue. Ask them to consult their doctor and organize a follow-up meeting. If it is a medical issue then you are more obliged to try and find solutions with the employee. Be supportive and treat it as you would another medical issue that impacts the employee’s work. Ask the employee to take steps to resolve the issue and keep you informed of the progress. Keep evidence of these conversations in case it comes down to the employee claiming unfair treatment.
7. Disciplinary action
If you keep drawing blanks, then you may decide that there is no alternative but to take disciplinary action. Start by writing a letter to the employee. State the nature of the problem and outline the conversations you have already had about it. Specify a date for the required improvement of the problem. Mention that if there is no medical reason for the problem, disciplinary action would be the appropriate next step if the employee fails to comply with the request. This is where it’s good to be able to refer to company policy on appearance and personal grooming. Make the standards very clear. If they fail to take action, by this point it would be a misconduct issue. Switch to following the full disciplinary code so there’s no justification for an unfair dismissal claim.
At the end of the day it’s unacceptable to expect customers and other members of staff to put up with a personal hygiene issue. Care enough about the employee, the team and maintaining a positive workplace to hold that first difficult conversation.