Washing hands
Blog • 30.10.19

Personal hygiene at work: How to approach an employee about body odour

Kate L
HR Consultant

Get expert HR advice

There are many awkward situations you can find yourself in as an employer, but few are more awkward than approaching an employee who has body odour. While an employee’s body odour may be due to issues with personal hygiene, it’s important not to jump to this assumption. Other factors may be contributing to or causing the issue.

You’ll obviously want to avoid offending the person or making them embarrassed, but at the same time, body odour can create an uncomfortable office environment. If your colleague works in a customer-facing role, it could also project a negative image of your business.

You may be tempted to try and put off addressing the problem for as long as possible, but it’s vital for the whole team that you tackle the issue swiftly.

The main things to remember are:

  • be sensitive in your handling of the matter
  • ensure the issue remains confidential between you and your employee
  • don’t assume that body odour is due to poor personal hygiene.

Why is it important to address body odour in the workplace?

Happy workforce

An employee with body odour is likely to make the working environment less pleasant for the rest of the team and this in turn may make your team less motivated and productive.

Symptom of other issues

Body odour may be a symptom of either a health condition, a disability or personal problems, both of which will need to be acknowledged and addressed by the employer.

Managing personal hygiene in the workplace

It’s unlikely that a business will have a specific personal hygiene policy which is relevant to body odour. However, you may want to include written standards relating to personal appearance in your contract or within a dress standards policy. You can then turn to these should you need to discipline an employee who is failing to meet expected standards around how they present themselves.

Food businesses will of course have food safety procedures which will incorporate standards of personal hygiene.

Dealing with body odour at work

Consider the possible factors involved

Body odour can have a number of causes and so it’s really important to not prejudge the situation.

Potential causes can include:

  • lack of personal washing facilities at home
  • lack of washing and drying facilities for clothes
  • journey to work, work environment and work tasks may all cause sweating
  • health conditions may cause body odour in spite of all efforts to ensure cleanliness
  • poor mental health may contribute to lack of attention to personal appearance.

Arrange a meeting

Once you’ve identified a recurring body odour problem with one of your employees, you’ll need to invite them for a private chat. This should take place in a meeting room where you won’t be disturbed, or away from the office in a quiet café.

Prepare what you’re going to say in advance of the meeting, so that you’re not struggling with where to start. Be sure to remain calm and friendly throughout, even if the employee reacts badly to what you have to say.

Explain yourself clearly, trying not to waffle, and then give your employee a chance to reply. Make sure you listen carefully to their response.

This conversation is very likely to be embarrassing for your colleague, as they may not realise there’s an issue. Ensure you explain what you’ve noticed yourself, rather than passing on information received from other team members. If you refer to other peoples’ comments, this will increase embarrassment by implying others are talking about them behind their back.

Ask if they’re able to share a reason for the issue and find out what you can do to help. Remember to be aware of the many and varied causes of body odour.

Agree any actions – these will depend on the circumstances but might include provision of a locker for a change of clothes, provision of a fan or cooler working environment, ensuring the colleague is aware of any washing facilities at work, and provision of sufficient uniform (if relevant).

Set a date for another meeting to see whether these measures have been effective.

Monitor the issue

It’s important that you continue to monitor the situation after your initial meeting with the employee. Whilst this is not going to be a conversation either of you are likely to want to hold again, it’s important to see whether the necessary improvements have been made. If the issue has obviously improved, acknowledge this and thank the individual.

At the next meeting, recap on the previous conversation and the measures already taken. If there’s been no improvement, ensure the colleague is carrying out any agreed actions from their side.

If the cause of the body odour appears to be a health condition, then proceed with care. Ask the colleague if they’ve received any professional advice and if not, encourage them to discuss this with their GP or medical advisor. If the issue persists and you can get your colleague’s consent, consider a referral to Occupational Health or seek permission to contact their GP direct.

However, if the issue seems to be due to lack of action by the employee, then you may want to use the disciplinary procedure.

To sum up

Here’s how to tackle the issue of body odour in the workplace:

  • Don’t jump to conclusions
  • Remain understanding and supportive
  • Arrange a meeting and explain the problem
  • Allow the employee to explain their side
  • Review the situation as appropriate

The content of this blog is for general information only. Please don’t rely on it as legal or other professional advice as that is not what we intend. You can find more detail on this in our Terms of Website Use. If you require professional advice, please get in touch.

Get HR Support

If you have an employee with body odour and are struggling to approach the subject, our HR consultants can help.

Contact us today

Contact us today

Mature businessman smiling while being among his colleagues