Uncomfortable conversations for supervisors (Part 3): An employee with poor hygiene

Facing uncomfortable situations with employees is often part of the job description for supervisors and HR. But how do you address these situations effectively and avoid letting them turn into an even bigger workplace headache?

In the final post of our three-part series on daily dilemmas supervisors face, we examine the delicate issue of poor hygiene.

What to Do About Poor Workplace Hygiene

Tommy works as a teller at a local bank. He has been coming into work looking like he has not showered in weeks, having bad breath and extreme body odor. Several patrons and staff have complained. Tommy’s female supervisor is embarrassed to speak with Tommy because she is unsure of his home life and fears he may lash out.

South Carolina employment attorney Kathy Helms, of Ogletree Deakins, notes that addressing a hygiene issue with an employee is never easy for supervisors. Letting an employee know that he or she consistently emits foul body odors or bad breath can be embarrassing on both sides of the conversation.

In this case, hopefully, the bank has a policy requiring that employees maintain a professional appearance and practice good hygiene. With any luck, the policy was provided to and acknowledged by all employees, including Tommy and equally enforced by management.

Helms says the supervisor should speak with Tommy about his hygiene issues. This conversation is as necessary as if Tommy was making substantial monetary errors. Tommy’s supervisor and another appropriate employee who will serve as a witness to the conversation (who also may be important in order for the supervisor to feel safe) should sit down with Tommy in a private office and be honest with him that his hygiene is unacceptable.

A copy of the bank’s hygiene policy should be provided to Tommy (hopefully it is not his first time seeing it) and his supervisor should go over it with him. Tommy should clearly understand the importance of hygiene to the bank’s business needs and should leave the meeting with clear goals (i.e., come back to work showered, wearing clean clothes, teeth brushed) and aware of the consequences for not meeting those goals.

Only if Tommy raises a medical, disability or religious issue or some other protected class (i.e., for example, in certain states homelessness could be a factor) does there become something further to consider. But even then, Helms advises, it becomes an issue of learning how to accommodate the employee so that he can perform the essential functions of his job. Employers and supervisors may also find helpful new guidance released from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) regarding grooming in the workplace.

If some of Tommy’s hygiene issues cannot be improved, as an accommodation, the bank may need to consider moving him to a position where he does not have to deal with the public and where he works with as few people as possible. In the event that a disability is uncovered and it appears to be one of mental health, perhaps this will cause the situation to be brought to the attention of the employee’s physician for treatment. In all likelihood, Tommy has fallen off of someone’s radar and this may force him to receive the help he needs. But if this is simply a personal life choice, a new job with a new employer may need to be in the offing.

Although Tommy’s situation may be extreme, some environments such as medical clinics may be very sensitive to intense scents, such as when a person is a heavy smoker. For instance, a patient undergoing chemotherapy may not be able to tolerate the strong smell of nicotine on a nurse’s clothing.

In a state where the right to use tobacco products on personal time is protected, the employer might resort to asking the nurse to spray her clothing with Fabreeze, or a similar product, to protect the patient while also not interfering with the employee’s rights.

How do you deal with vexing conversations in the workplace? Please get in touch and share your thoughts by leaving a comment below or via Twitter @melburd21.