How do I tell an employee she has bad body odor?

How to have this awkward conversation

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A veterinary practice manager asks:

How do I tell an employee she has bad body odor?

I have a direct report who is absolutely awesome at her job, is professional and has a lovely personality, but unfortunately for the rest of us, she has really poor personal hygiene and bad body odor.

To make matters worse, she is a very affectionate person and greets co­workers by hugging them. Were it not for the odor, this in itself wouldn’t be an issue.

I struggled for a long time deciding if and how to bring this up with her, and last week I finally did it. I waited until the end of her shift and of course spoke to her in private. I began by saying it was going to be an uncomfortable conversation and it’s not my intention to offend her, but that I had noticed she had an unpleasant body odor.

I suggested that she might need to wash her clothes more frequently or shower more. I even suggested it might be a medical problem. I explained that this is something people often don’t notice about themselves, which is why I was bringing it to her attention and I finished off by asking what she can do about it.

I thought I handled that pretty well! Here’s the thing — she said that the problem is not her personal hygiene, but that she lives in an apartment where there is mold and as a result her clothes smell of mold, regardless of how much she washes them.

This doesn’t really sound plausible to me, and I suspect that even if mold is an issue at her place, not showering daily still has something to do with it.

What do I do now?!

Wow, talk about a curve ball, I did not see that coming! The question of body odor and how to have this conversation is not that uncommon, so I really thought that’s where this was going, but you added a whole new layer here!

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You handled the initial conversation brilliantly, well done. I’m sure it wasn’t pleasant, but as you know, as practice managers we get to have lots of unpleasant conversations.

It sounds like as far as the employee in question is concerned, this issue has been dealt with and this is the end of the story. She told you what the problem was, and from what you said, it doesn’t seem like she offered any solutions.

However, her odor is affecting other team members, so this needs to be addressed again and rectified. Just like you have a company policy stating that employees must come to work at a certain time, you require all employees to come to work with a minimum expected level of hygiene. She needs to meet this level of hygiene. How she does that is not your concern (OK, that sounds a little harsh, you don’t need to use those words when speaking to her!)

It may mean solving the mold problem, moving to a different apartment, storing her clothes differently or finding other ways to protect them from mold, showering more frequently … whatever. You just need her to understand the expectations and commit to meeting them.

That’s the only part of your initial conversation with this team member that was missing: she presented you with a problem, and you are trying to find a solution, but it’s not up to you to fix her mold problem. It is her responsibility, however, to come to work with appropriate personal hygiene.

I’m afraid you’re going to have to talk to her again about this. I suggest structuring the conversation a little like this: “I recently raised my concerns with you about your personal hygiene and you explained to me that you have a mold problem in your apartment, which causes your clothes to smell bad. I understand and I am sympathetic towards that, but it’s my responsibility to ensure we are providing a pleasant working environment for all employees, and that company policies are adhered to. I need you to rectify this problem and meet our minimum expected standards of dress and hygiene. Can you do that?”

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If she says “yes” — great! Hopefully, she realizes this is serious, as in any breach of a company policy, and she resolves the problem.

If she says “no” — you treat it as any breach of company policy. Unfortunately, that may mean going down the formal warning path and even termination.

It’s not going be an easy conversation, I wish you luck — let us know how it goes!

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2 thoughts on “How do I tell an employee she has bad body odor?

  1. I am that employee and it’s not a hygiene issue. I shower daily, two to three times a day. I have spent hundreds of dollars buying cleanser and body washes. I have been diagnosis with (IBS) irritable bowel syndrome, which causes me to pass glass all thru out the day. No matter how much I brush my teeth I have bad breathe. I’ve sort out a gastrointestinal specialist my ObGyn, and my family practitioner. No help.
    I am so miserable. But you heard what he said I am an excellent employee. And to top things off I get along with the staff well. If you take that out of the equation I would be the perfect employee. But I do separate myself as much as possible. So do you suggest I quit rather than be fired? And risk the chance of not being able to find another job because of the same issues?
    You have offered him help now I’m asking for your advice?

  2. As a personnel manager for a large company (over 18,000 employees), I’ve had this very personal conversation with employees more than I’d like. Personal hygiene is paramount in an organization where you’re required to work with the public, and quite frankly, when you’re around other employees. Your question as to whether you should quit versus being fired can be answered with another question. Should your employer be expected to tolerate a foul odor that can make clients and employees uncomfortable? I understand you’re a “good employee” and that perhaps your body odor is a direct result of a medical issue. While an employer can be sympathetic, they still have a business to run and clients/ staff should not be subjected to a foul odor for hours on end. If I were you, I would speak to a medical professional and see if there is anything that can be done to help alleviate the odor. I know in our workplace, each of those employees I had to speak with were able to correct the issue. Even an employee who was on dialysis. I just did a quick search on the national legal database Lexis/Nexus and there are court cases supporting an employers right to terminate employees who have offensive body odor. I wish you well.

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