Office Hygiene and the Smelly Employee

No situation is more challenging that dealing with bad office hygiene.  Unfortunately, we tend to ignore it because of the potential embarrassment – for them and us.  It’s one of those conversations that can go in a million directions.  The reality is that many offenders don’t know they have a problem.  I don’t believe anyone intentionally comes to work with an offensive odor.   The causes can range from homelessness to a medical condition and everything in between.  Give the person the benefit of the doubt and I guarantee it will make the conversation easier.

I have read many ways of dealing with it but here are some important points to remember.

  • Focus on the problem not the person. The odor is the problem.  We all have body odor, so why make it personal.  It’s subtle but there is a difference between, “I’ve noticed an odor problem I want to discuss” and “you have an odor”.  You are trying to fix the odor – not the person.
  • Acknowledge the discomfort. Instead of stuttering and stalling, just immediately admit the difficulty of the conversation.  This makes it easier to get to the odor part.  “This is an uncomfortable conversation for both of us, but you are an important part of the team so you are worth it”.
  • Ease the discomfort. Make it clear that this is not an earth-shattering issue. “This can happen with anyone and we are not the first to have this conversation.”
  • Don’t get into legal trouble. There are, of course, many reasons for an odor problem.  It’s not appropriate, or legal, to pry into a person’s medical issues.  Be supportive not intrusive.  Respect their privacy by politely interrupting any personal medical talk. “Out of respect for your privacy, I don’t need to know the cause of the problem, I just need your assurance that you will fix it.”
  • Be assertive. If you are the manager, you have a responsibility to the rest of the team.  If it is a co-worker, you are being a courageous friend.  Either way, strongly suggest the problem be corrected asap.  Ignoring the problem only increases the chances that a co-worker will take inappropriate measures like leaving rude notes or hygiene products. “We need to discuss this because it can be a workplace disruption that affects everyone.  Now that you are aware of the issue, is it something you can take care of?”
  • Be Respectful. Make it clear that, assuming the problem is resolved, the conversation is a one-time, non-judgmental, never to be mentioned issue. You don’t have to mention that others have noticed the problem.  Make it clear that the conversation started and stayed private. “While you know how to best fix the problem, if there is anything I can do to help you, please let me know.  Everything we discuss is private and, once it’s fixed, it will never be brought up again.”

Next week we will deal with the smelly lunch person (no seriously dude, your lunch is killing me).

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