How to Talk to an Employee with Bad Hygiene

by Mammoth Team on January 8, 2016

employee-hygiene.jpgYou’re at your desk, removing your jacket as the early afternoon sunshine pours into your office, when several employees knock on your door, requesting a brief meeting. You invite them in. The last to enter slowly shuts the door while peeking back at a corner cubicle.

The group informs you that Jerry, a reliable and hard-working employee, has begun to exhibit bad hygiene and grooming. His hair is unkempt, his body odor is noticeably pungent, and some employees simply don’t want to be seated around him.

As the group exits your office, you thank them and ask for their discretion. And you consider how to address the issue with Jerry. There’s no way the conversation can be anything shy of painfully awkward.

Finally, you take a deep breath, call Jerry, and ask to see him for a few minutes before shortly before he leaves for the day.

So what do you say when he arrives for the meeting? Here are some tips:

  • 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, be 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. Focus on the company’s needs and expectations, and review the company policy with him.  

Above all, avoid speculating about the reasons for Jerry's diminished hygiene or asking whether he has a "health condition."

The Americans with Disabilities Act (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.  

Keep your focus on your company’s needs, requirements, and expectations. Make sure you apply them 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, and even angry. These feelings would be understandable. Remember, however, that most employees want to perform well.

Above all, avoid speculating about the reasons for Jerry's diminished hygiene or asking whether he has a "health condition."

You will likely see Jerry take steps to improve the situation, but if he doesn’t change his hygiene habits, 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.

This conversation probably wasn’t the highlight of your day, but by taking the right approach to it, you made it productive one—a win/win for your employee and your organization.

Topics: Best Practices