You’ve just gotten back to your desk from a lunch appointment when several employees come to your office requesting a brief meeting.  When you invite them in, the group informs you that Jerry, a reliable and hard-working employee, has started to show signs of bad hygiene and grooming.  His hair is unkempt, his breath is foul, and his body odor is noticeably pungent to the employees seated around him.

You think that maybe Jerry hasn’t yet adjusted to the recent warmer temperatures, but even as you consider this possibility, you know the problem is more serious and needs to be addressed.   As the group exits your office, you thank them and ask for their discretion.  ​

What do you say to an employee with bad breath and body odor?  The conversation will likely be painfully awkward.   Nevertheless, you strive to minimize the potential for embarrassment.  You plan to meet with Jerry in your office or another private place, free of eyes and interruptions.

Near the end of the day you phone Jerry and ask if he can come by your office for a few minutes before he leaves.  This way he can leave the office right after your meeting

When he arrives, you begin the conversation by telling him that he is a valued member of the team and that his job is not in jeopardy—this may ease his mind a bit.  When you bring up his hygiene, you are compassionate and kind, but also direct and clear:  Jerry’s bad hygiene is an issue and his behavior needs to change.  Right now, you’re here to coach him, not discipline him.  You focus on the company’s needs and expectations, and review the company policy with him.

What not to say

During your coaching, Jerry seems receptive to what you’ve said, and you start to relax.  You casually begin to speculate about the reasons for Jerry’s diminished hygiene.  You’re on the verge of saying the words “health condition.”  Stop!  You have almost made a major blunder that could expose you to risk under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The ADA prohibits discrimination not only against employees with an actual disability, but also against employees who are “regarded as” having a disability.  By suggesting that Jerry’s breath and body odor may be due to some health problem, you may be regarding Jerry as having a disability.  Consequently, Jerry could claim that any action you take in response to his perceived disability is discrimination.

When addressing an employee’s hygiene or grooming issues, make no speculations or assumptions.  Keep your focus on your company’s needs, requirements and expectations.  Make sure you apply rules consistently and leave it to the employees to determine how best to comply with them.

The next steps will depend on Jerry.  He may feel ashamed and embarrassed, even angry.  These feelings are understandable.   Remember, however, that most employees want to perform well and do what is expected of them.

You will likely see Jerry take steps to improve his hygiene, but if he doesn’t make the necessary improvements, you may need to take disciplinary action.  In the following days and weeks, also keep an ear out for office gossip and look for signs that Jerry is being alienated from the other employees.  Jerry is responsible for improving his hygiene, but everyone is responsible for maintaining a healthy company culture.

Conversations about personal issues like hygiene are difficult.  By taking the right approach and treating employees professionally, your discussions can be productive ones for your employee and your organization.
For more information about how to deal with tough HR issues, or information regarding the ADA, you can ask the pros at HR Support Services who contributed to this post.