We’ve all had a “this job stinks” moment in our worklife, but what happens when it is literally true? Evil HR Lady Suzanne Lucas discusses whether you should you tell a job candidate about her body odor. She rightfully brings up the potential sticky discriminatory areas that this might open in the hiring process. What if the odor is related to a medical issue or a cultural issue? If you address it in the job interview and then don’t hire the employee, might that lead to problems?
OK, when it’s a stinky job candidate, you may simply be able to sidestep the issue, but what if the odor problem involves a current employee? A not insubstantial part of the HR manager’s job is dealing with the delivery of bad news. When bad news involves policies, procedures, or performance, that’s one thing and hard enough. But when it deals with personal issues like body odor, inappropriate dress, or annoying habits, these discussions can get distinctly uncomfortable.
Susan Heathfield offers some good advice on how to tackle conversations about annoying employee habits and issues. She notes that handling this by training the whole staff is not the best way to handle things: better to be direct, to the point, and tie the difficult conversation to a direct business purpose and how the behavior may be affecting the employee’s career.
See her guidelines on How to Hold a Difficult Conversation.
Now if the body odor is related to hygiene or an excess of fragrance, a straightforward conversation may resolve things. But it’s also possible that body odor may be a symptom of a more deep-rooted issue – particularly if it is something new with that employee, if it marks a change. If there has been a progressive deterioration in the person’s personal hygiene, it might signify a more serious personal problem, such as depression, substance abuse, or physical illness. Has there also been a deterioration in performance or other potential signs of a problem? If the issue is potential substance abuse, you may note or coworkers may complain about an odor of alcohol.
If you have talked to an employee about personal hygiene issues but the issue is either not resolved or your discussion leads you to believe that there might be a more serious underlying issue, that might be a good time for a referral to your Employee Assistance Program. While performance issues are within a manager’s bailiwick, it isn’t a manager’s responsibility to try to diagnose underlying issues or root causes of performance-inhibiting issues – that’s when an EAP can be your best friend.

More resources:

Smell Ya Later, along with Seven Tips On Tackling Employee Hygiene Problems
Tough Conversations to Have with Your Employees—What to Say
‘Bob, you smell’: What to say to employees about embarrassing personal issues

ESI-Logo.jpg When complex employee issues arise, ESI EAP offers member employers direct access to Certified Senior Professionals in Human Resources (SPHR) and senior clinical counselors. If you need an Employee Assistance Program give us a call: 800-535-4841.


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