Supervisors and managers often have difficult conversations with employees; they demote them, deliver poor evaluations; notify them of reductions in force; issue discipline and discharge them. All those topics are a walk in the park compared to having to talk to an employee about their body or breath odor. In addition to approaching the issue with some modicum of sensitivity, employers often ask whether they face any liability risks in talking about the issue.
As with many employee issues, it’s mostly in the approach. Some employers have a grooming policy which requires employees to maintain reasonable levels of hygiene and supervisors use that as a starting point for the conversation. When complaints from clients, customers or co-workers form the catalyst for “the talk”, the complaints become the focus. The main thing to remember is to approach the topic like any other workplace issue by simply stating the problem and engaging in a dialogue on the topic. For instance, the employer can say “Stan, some of your co-workers have complained that they are distracted by what seems to be a body odor from you. Can you help us to understand how to address this situation?”
The major pitfall to avoid is to automatically assume that the problem is one purely of hygiene. Learn a lesson from the quagmire that the Social Security Association got caught in last year when it reprimanded an employee for having excessive flatulence and directed him to stop because it was disruptive and nauseating to co-workers. In issuing the five page reprimand, it included a log that apparently management had someone keep of how often the employee had flatulence over a period of time. The employee filed a grievance, the reprimand was withdrawn, and a confidential settlement was reached.
Reprimanding an employee for poor hygiene or just directing the person to improve their hygiene habits could get an employer on the wrong side of the ADA. Sometimes what appears to be a hygiene problem is really a result of a medical problem or a side effect of medication. If this is the case with an employee, he or she may be protected by the ADA and the employer may be required to examine whether a reasonable accommodation is appropriate. Accommodations may include:
- Allowing flexible restroom breaks or a private area to allow the employee to take care of personal hygiene needs at work.
- Providing a private office or workspace or an air purification system.
- Using odor-absorbing products.
- If the individual interacts with clients or customers, reassignment to a position that does not involve direct contact may be appropriate.
If an employer treats an employee with a body/breath odor problem in a sensitive and open fashion, this uncomfortable conversation can leave the employee feeling respected and allow colleagues to breathe a sigh of relief.