Nobody likes initiating tough conversations – especially on the job. But as a manager, you’re paid to solve problems. Often, that requires initiating unpleasant, challenging or downright awkward discussions with employees.
Conversations about body odor or other hygiene issues are among the toughest to initiate. Beyond affecting how the employee is perceived on the job, poor hygiene can also negatively impact customers, coworkers and clients – so it’s important that you address the issue quickly, sensitively and effectively.
Below, our national employment agency shares tips to have a productive conversation with an employee about hygiene concerns:
- Try to observe the issue yourself. Investigate the circumstances to ensure that anyone complaining has a legitimate basis for doing so. People can sometimes be mean or petty at work, so it’s important to make sure there’s truly an issue to address.
- Be careful not to make assumptions – or violate the law. Understand that hygiene practices may be influenced by a variety of factors, such as medical issues, mental health issues, cultural norms, religious beliefs and more. Before you say or do anything, understand how laws such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as well as state laws designed to protect workers’ rightsmay apply in the situation.
- Have the discussion in private. Schedule time with the employee at the end of the day, if possible, so they don’t have to stay at work feeling self-conscious.
- Be sincere and empathetic. If broaching the topic makes you uncomfortable, it’s okay to lead with phrasing like: “I have something to discuss with you that’s awkward, and I hope I don’t offend you.” The employee may be completely unaware that the issue exists, so using non-confrontational language like “I have noticed that” is important.
- Be direct and tactful. Once you set the stage, get to the point quickly. Use factual language like: “I noticed stains on your work clothes for three of the last five days,” but avoid making unnecessary judgments. And if you have a dress code or grooming policy, review it with the employee. If the individual resists, explain how their hygiene affects the business. Avoid blaming the employee and try to use “I” statements like “I noticed.”
- Discuss solutions. Give the employee an opportunity to respond. If their personal hygiene issue requires accommodation under Title VII, the ADA or state law, work with the employee to determine a reasonable solution. Document your conversation and the agreed upon actions (including accommodations, if applicable) to be taken, and set a timeline for resolution and follow up.