One of the most difficult conversations a manager will ever have with an employee is when they have to address personal habits like hygiene.
Many managers think this is too personal to discuss, but you just do not have the luxury of looking the other way. Poor personal hygiene can negatively impact your business by making the environment distasteful, annoying co-workers and even affecting how your customers see your business. Ignoring the problem only rewards the behavior and undermines your credibility as a leader and a manager.
I just recently had to help two entrepreneurs address issues where an employee’s offensive body odor was causing problems for their businesses. In one case, the server/cook’s body odor was affecting the entire restaurant.
Although the whole staff knew about the problem, the employee just did not seem to be aware of it nor did he recognize the effect his hygiene was having on his co-workers and the restaurant patrons. Because the employee was unaware of the problem, the situation required that the manager use a certain amount of sensitivity when initially addressing the situation.
When handling situations like these, it is so important to talk about the behavior and not the person. It is easier for the employee to hear that a behavior must be changed rather than the person has to change. This approach is also much less threatening to the employee.
My suggestion would be to invite the employee to your office and ask them if it is a good time to give them some “feedback.” The employee will probably be anxious about the type of feedback you are about to share, so you will want to start by telling them how valuable they are to the company. Next, the employee needs to hear that you feel very, very uncomfortable giving this type of feedback.
During your discussion, you need to be as direct as possible. Getting straight to the point is critical. Dancing around the topic will just weaken the point that you are trying to make. You might say that their body odor is affecting the business and you feel sad bringing this up to them, but it is very important to them and the business. Do not mention the complaints you have gotten from their colleagues. Sharing that information serves no useful purpose. The employee will be embarrassed already and this would just pile it on unnecessarily.
Before ending the conversation, you need to talk about how changing this behavior will affect the entire organization and what the ramifications will be if they do not change. In some cases, an employee may have a medical condition that causes their body odor, but you should not assume this is the case. If it is within the employee’s control to correct, they should be held accountable for doing so. If the employee says that a medical condition is the cause, however, ADA may dictate how the situation can be handled.
With these types of conversations, it is sometimes helpful to write out your main points and practice making these points in advance of meeting with the employee. Again, this is going to be uncomfortable, but practicing what you are going to say will help make the situation more tolerable.
Now go out and make sure that you have a plan in place so you are prepared in the event you have to address a difficult hygiene problem.
Jerome S. Osteryoung, director of outreach services at the Jim Moran Institute in the College of Business at Florida State University, can be reached at 850-294-7478.