Episode 202: How to Address Employee Hygiene

Join Paul and Tiana as they discuss one of the most awkward HR issues there is – how to deal with an employee that smells bad. Whether it’s from bad hygiene, smoking, or working in a stable, an employee with an offensive odor can make for a very uncomfortable working environment. Listen now for some guidance and tips on how to resolve the problem, and maybe you won’t have to resort to hanging a million of those car fresheners in your practice!


Voice Over: You’re about to listen to another episode of What The Hell Just Happened?! Join Paul Edwwards and his guests as they discuss and sometimes even solve some interesting HR problems. 

Paul: And… I’m gonna go off the rails sometimes and talk about whatever I want. 

Tiana: Hey, Paul.

Paul: Hi, Tiana. 

Tiana: How are you today? 

Paul: I’m doing good. And I’m looking forward to whatever question you’re about to ask me.

Tiana: Oh, are you ready for it?

Paul: I am ready for what the heck just happened in HR.

[Tiana laughs]

Paul: Let it rip. What’s the question?

Tiana: Okay, this is an awkward one. 

Paul: Okay 

Tiana: Our members frequently have to face or listeners have probably encountered before. Addressing body odor issues in the workplace or smells. 

Paul: Yeah, smells in the workplace. 

Tiana: Mmhmm

Paul: So I can share with everybody that I think this might have been my like seventh call when I opened a solution center for HR.

Tiana: Really?

Paul: Yeah, it shows up in all sorts of ways.

Tiana: It makes a lot of sense to me too.

Paul: Yeah.

Tiana: Because it’s, you know, it’s a tricky thing to cover. It’s really weird. It’s not something that you kind of expect to have to coach through- 

Paul: Yeah

Tiana: -or like, talk to somebody about?

Paul: It’s an uncomfortable conversation as a society for us to have with someone else. 

Tiana: Yeah, absolutely. 

Paul: It’s difficult in terms of an employer because, well, because of all the obvious reasons. 

Tiana: Yeah, for sure. And it’s a question that I see all the time, too. And a lot of times this kind of comes into an employer’s lap because other employees have now started making comments.

Paul: Right. Or patients.

Tiana: Or patients, yeah. And I think particularly in the healthcare industry, when you’re right up and close over a patient’s mouth, you know, lifting your arms, raising instruments, that kind of thing. It can, yeah, be a problem. 

Paul: Right. 

Tiana: Yeah. Some patients running. Hopefully not. 

[Paul laughs]

Tiana: But yeah, all jokes aside, you know, I would just like to pick your brain about the best way to kind of approach this and maybe we could start with like, head on when it has first come to your attention?

Paul: Well, if it’s come to your attention, and it’s not a, you know, a one-time thing is a one-time thing, but generally when we get the call, it’s an ongoing issue. 

Tiana: Mmhmm, for sure.

Paul: So I think before we go through maybe the way to have the conversation, I kind of want to bounce off of you the different ways that you hear about this in the Solution Center. 

Tiana: Oh yeah. 

Paul: I’m gonna let you know. The first one that I dealt with was a horse smell. So the employee was going out and feeding horses in the morning, and then she was leaving the barn jumping in her truck and coming to work. She had no idea because she was at she lived with horses. 

Tiana: Yeah. 

Paul: If you’ve ever been around horses and horse people, they smell like horses. 

Tiana: Oh, like if people could see me right now I’m smiling ear to ear. So I’m a rural Missouri Country Girl. 

[Tiana laughs]

Paul: Oh, So you know. 

Tiana: Oh, I grew up with this. Everybody’s working on farms.

Paul: So that explains the smell coming from your office. 

Tiana: Hey, hey now!

[Tiana laughs]

Paul: Okay. So for my first one, it was horse/farm. 

Tiana: Mmhmm.

Paul: And she just didn’t- It just didn’t register.

Tiana: Totally.

Paul: And as soon as we said something to her, she was a little mortified. But well, I say we, but as soon as the practice talked to her. Uh, what’s your give me another example, then I have one more. 

Tiana: Oh yeah, we see this come up a lot. So quick example. It kind of taking it to a whole different level is the smell of marijuana. 

Paul: Oh, yeah. 

Tiana: And that might be attributed or they believe that it might be attributed to an employee and aren’t sure is that the employee? Is that a patient that came in but it seems to be radiating around this one person.

Paul: Right. Emanating, I believe is the word that we’re looking for there. 

Tiana: Oh, what’s the word?

Paul: Emanating.

Tiana: Oh, emanating, oh yeah.

Paul: Is that the word? 

Tiana: No, that’s totally a word. 

Paul: I’m checking. Someone fact check me. Is emanating a word? 

Tiana: Yeah, we just need somebody to hop in with-

Paul: Like a couple of concerns there. First, this smells offensive to some people and most people and it’s not appropriate in a healthcare setting. And the second thing is, is that you may be concerned that they’re impaired because they’re actually, you know, partaking in it. And that brings up a whole another podcast, which we are not going to get into right now.

Tiana: But we should later on. 

[Tiana laughing]

Paul: We should later on just what I’ll leave you with impairment is- impairment it’s never okay to be impaired. It doesn’t matter if marijuana is legal or whatever other prescription drugs they might be taking. 

Tiana: For sure.

Paul: Okay, back to the show now.

[Tiana laughs]

Tiana: So other examples of smell issues. You know, smokers, this is a common one that comes out. 

Paul: Very, very common, less common, but still comes up and maybe it’s more exacerbated because so few, much fewer people are smoking. 

Tiana: Such a good point. Yeah, so now you really notice it.

Paul: I’m gonna say when I go back to the East Coast- we’re based in Tucson for everybody. We’re out West. When I come back to the east coast. A lot of my friends still smoke when they party your way anyway. That’s neither here nor there. Okay, I have another example which is a little, it’s a little odd, but it- I have never forgotten this. We had a member call, and they were having trouble with an employee. And they said two things and she was older, I’m gonna say she was in her mid-60s. 

Tiana: Mmhmm.

Paul: And they had noticed a decline in her capabilities over the last previous six months. And two of the things that they talked about was her inability to remember things short term, and this was triggering something for him, they were concerned. And the other thing was that her body odor had increased. And these are things that you can sometimes attribute to early onset, you know, some sort of memory loss or some problems going on

Tiana: That’s a really good point.

Paul: I’ll cut to the chase on this, by addressing the issues head on with her.

Tiana: Mmhmm.

Paul: It was a tough thing.

Tiana: Mmhmm.

Paul: It was a little bit difficult. But generally, one of the first people to notice that something’s wrong is the employer-

Tiana: Yeah.

Paul: A lot of people don’t know that. And so they actually sent her out, told her she had to go to a doctor, she went to a doctor, they discovered that she was having memory issues that she did have an early onset, you know, of I don’t remember if it was dementia, or what was going on. And it was, you know, it was really hard.

Tiana: Ohh.

Paul: It was really hard for her, but the family came to the practice about six months later-

Tiana: Mmhmm.

Paul:-and talked to the doctor and told them how much they appreciated that they took the step to say something because everybody had sort of noticed it, but nobody was really around. And so that’s kind of where one thing, you know, the hygiene, leads to another thing.

Tiana: It leads into another thing.

Paul: It leads to another thing. 

Tiana: And that’s what happens with these conversations sometimes too, is that it might actually morph into a medical accommodation situation. 

Paul: It could be something along those lines. You just never know that someone could be. I had a good friend who passed from breast cancer last year, but she was taking some things that really didn’t make her smell great there for a while she was at work.

Tiana: Mmhmm.

Paul: And she just you know, she would express the frustration like I’m coming over, but I don’t smell good right now.

Tiana: Yeah, he’s telling us a reaction to medication. 

Paul: And while she was working at the same time-

Tiana: Yeah.

Paul: So that was going on in her workplace as well.

Tiana: And you brought up such a great point that a lot of times these things surface first or come to light in the workplace. You know, it’s your coworkers, your boss that’s seeing you every day, interacting with you every day.

Paul: So I think you lead these conversations with empathy and compassion, but you got to be direct. So let’s go through some steps real quick. 

Tiana: Absolutely.

Paul: Because that’s why we’re here to kind of try to help managers and folks, so if this occurs for you, I think the first thing you want to do is schedule a time to visit with the employee to kind of discuss the situation. It’s just like, hey, can we take a moment? Go someplace private, I guess is what we’re saying. 

Tiana: Yeah, absolutely. 

Paul: I think practice what it is that you think you’re going to say. 

Tiana: This is a really good situation where you could rehearse with somebody even, you know, remember, talk to us, you know, we’ve walked members through these conversations, because they’re hard to have.

Paul: And you want to keep it work related. 

Tiana: Mmhmm.

Paul: This isn’t a judgment of them.

Tiana: Absolutely.

Paul: But it’s going to feel like judgment, because put the shoes on, if it’s you, and you’re coming in. And for me, I’d be like, I want you to tell me how the booger on my face, 

Tiana: Yeah

[Tiana laughs]

Paul: -please tell me.

Tiana: And different people have different levels of comfort with that, too, you know, so you do have to kind of approach the situation delicately at first, because it’s hard to tell how the person on the receiving end is going to take things.

Paul: And so we discussed this could be a medical condition, or it could be something else. So take that into account. That’s part of your kind of your compassion and your empathy. You’re kind of on an exploration here to find out what’s going on with them. 

Tiana: Absolutely. 

Paul: I mean, if they’re coming in smelling like horses every day, I think we can pretty much figure that out, but regardless.

Tiana: And I think a way to keep this workplace specific to and kind of even make the topic a little bit more neutral is you can rely on your policies to lead this conversation. You know, a lot of times in your dress code policy, for example, it helps to have language just to state that, you know, you need to maintain exemplary hygiene at work at all times. You know, small issues also come up with the issue of too good of a good thing,right? People are wearing too much perfume cologne and can be sensitive patients have allergies.

Paul: Use that same conversation. 

Tiana: Exactly. 

Paul: Professional conversation to say, Look, I don’t know if you know this or not and then you tell them, you’d be candid.

Tiana: Absolutely,

Paul: Yeah. 

Tiana: And be clear about the impact too. You know, we’re just bringing this to your attention because you do work closely alongside patients, we need to make sure that we’re maintaining a clean and sterile, safe environment for them that’s comfortable. And so that’s why we have to bring this to your attention.

Paul: And if it was me and I was coming in smelling like horses, which by the way you smell like horses, I would want you to tell me, right?

[Tiana laughs]

Tiana: Yeah. And, you know, sometimes that might be a good opportunity. For giving a personal example, you know, I’ve been in this boat, I didn’t realize that new all natural deodorant I was using was not working, and I got checked on it.

Paul: Do you know, that just strikes a ton, because I just gave up on some. So yeah, I’m like, I’m going back to the stuff that reportedly, I’ve seen in the news causes cancer but it keeps me smelling. 

Tiana: Paul uses all the aluminum now.

Paul: All the aluminum. 

Tiana: We’re gonna have to watch out for that.

[Tiana laughs]

Paul: And this is extra just in case you were in a small podcast and

Tiana: Everything smells fine, by the way, for our listeners out there.

[Tiana laughs]

Paul: It’s okay. You know, tell me what’s going on? You know, we’ve noticed this, I don’t think you have to go into we’ve had several patient complaints we’ve had. I mean, we may have to go into that at some point but that’s not where we want to be right now. We just want to let them know what we’ve noticed. And that we’re, you know, this is something that we have to talk about, especially because we’re in just close proximity. And I add, I’d want to know if it was me.

Tiana: Absolutely. And, you know, so earlier, you had brought up situations where this sometimes more than just something medical. And, you know, we never want to approach a conversation with assuming or making any assumptions about somebody having a medical condition or a disability. So you don’t want to approach with that. But it’s okay to throw in something to the effect of, you know, if there’s any way that we can support you, if there is something more serious going on contributing this, you know, to this, let us know, you know, and we’ve got an open door, we’re here to talk to you about that. 

Paul: Mmhmm

Tiana: And you can leave it as open ended as that. Because sometimes these situations do turn into, hey, it’s this medication that I’m taking, or I’ve got X, Y, Z, you know, medical condition that contributes to that. And that’s going to pivot the conversation into an accommodation conversation.

Paul: And in this next example, and you gave it to me, or life condition, where now that, you know, after an employee tells you what’s going on now that you know, you might be able to do something to help them out. It’s not even, doesn’t fall in the realm of accommodation. But you gave me a great example, where an employee was having trouble with her hygiene, it appeared she wasn’t showering, and she had a reason and a little bit of a heartbreaking reason. 

Tiana: Absolutely. 

Paul: You know, you shared that, you know, in the end, the boy was living with parents, they were all having some serious financial issues, there were some health issues with the parents, all the money had been sucked out of the family. And they were not able to keep their utilities on a regular basis.

Tiana: That’s right. 

Paul: And so she was having trouble actually getting to some place and take a shower.

Tiana: Mmhmm.

Paul: And, and the practice was able to help and look, I give that example, but we get that kind of thing all the time.

Tiana: Absolutely, yeah. You never know what somebody’s life situation might be, you know, they might be working for a smaller salary in some of these positions and supporting a full family. So in that situation, the practice offered to help some of the utilities and the interim, you know, other forms of support that I’ve seen before, is maybe there’s a smell situation to which they live in a home with a smoker, but the person is not a smoker themselves.

Paul: Right. And they’re just bringing it in, because it permeates.

Tiana: Yeah, it permeates and it gets into their clothes, that kind of thing. And some practices of setup ways to, you know, we can keep your scrubs here on site,

Paul: Right. 

Tiana: And you can change into those whenever you come in or we have facilities that actually allow us to launder scrubs on site. And we could launder them here. If you wanted to do that. You know, and I know not everybody has that resource available to them but that’s just another option to kind of troubleshoot.

Paul: I want to leave us with this thought to you. If you’re going to be a good manager, this is the kind of thing you need to tackle because what you don’t mean is a lot of people talking about anything behind another employee’s back. 

Tiana: Mmhmm.

Paul: So when you don’t address this, when it doesn’t feel right, when you’re not comfortable with it, when you don’t find a way to address it, everybody else ends up talking about it and trust. The employee knows when this kind of stuff is going on. They feel it, it doesn’t feel right. It’s not the way to manage. So as an employer, you got to figure out how to do this tactfully. Like we said, beat do it in private direct. It’s a fact finding mission, like most things with H.R., and it’s something that you’re looking for a solution. And it’s almost always solvable. 

Tiana: Absolutely. 

Paul: You know, if not always, with the exception of sometimes a medical condition or something like that. But even then there are steps that can be taken.

Tiana: Yeah. And keep it private, you know, resist the urge to speculate with other employees when they’re coming in to tell you about it again. You know, it’s really just a matter of thanks for bringing this to my attention. I’ve got it from here. 

Paul: Yeah, I’ve got it from here and I’ll take care of it and then take care of it as a leader. This is- where it you know, I use this H.R. term, it sucks to be a leader, but this is where sometimes it sucks to be a leader, but it’s got to have this conversation.

Tiana: Absolutely. And if I can throw in real fast, Paul, just practical next steps. So we’ve kind of led everybody through the conversation that you’re having first.

Paul: Right.

Tiana: It is important to recognize and just being practical, sometimes these issues are not remedied by this first conversation. And we have in the Solution Center help draft warnings, because sometimes you might get to a place where you do have to escalate up to a written corrective action. And you know, the first conversation, be tactful, be sensitive, but also don’t beat around the bush.

Paul: I don’t think it has to be written, I don’t think this has to be an official corrective action to them in the terms of writing something. But you definitely would make a note to file about what you discussed and what the employee said.

Tiana: That’s a good point.

Paul: Get your HR involved, you’d open up the notes section and you’d attach a confidential note that the employee can’t see. And you just put it in there for your records and for your memory. But like you said, if it continues, you might have to move to something and write and we can still be tactful in something in writing.

Tiana: Absolutely.

Paul: We can just issue and say, “Look, we talked about this on this date. It’s continuing seriously, please, you got to do something”.

Tiana: Yeah. And keeping judgments out of anything in writing, keeping assumptions out really focused on that dress code. And it is just a point of if this issue is not corrected, we could send you to home or send you home you know.

Paul: To correct it.

Tiana: To correct it.

Paul: Of the clock, that kind of thing could be the first step. Okay, all right, Tiana, thanks for bringing this. This happens way more. 

Tiana: Absolutely.

Paul: I know people who are listening are like yep, that happened in my office. I remember.. So thanks for bringing that-that was a good one.

Tiana: Oh yeah, thanks for unpacking it with me. I appreciate it.

Voice Over: Thanks for joining us for this week’s episode of What The Hell Just Happened? do Paul a favor; share this with your network. If you have an HR issue or a question, you’d like us to discuss on this show, send it to podcast@WTHjusthappened.com. For more HR advice and insights from Paul and his team of experts, you can also join the private Facebook group, HR Base Camp, or visit HRbasecamp.com. Make sure you tune in next week. And remember: better workplaces make better lives.

Nov 1, 2022

Friendly Disclaimer: This information is general in nature and is not intended to provide legal advice or replace individual guidance about a specific issue with an attorney or HR expert. The information on this page is general human resources guidance that is believed to be current as of the date of publication. Note that CEDR is not a law firm, and as the law is always changing, you should consult with a qualified attorney or HR expert who is familiar with all of the facts of your situation before making a decision about any human resources or employment law matter.
Related Reading
HR Base Camp Roundup – November 21st, 2022
HR Base Camp Roundup – November 21st, 2022

In this week's edition of the HR Base Camp roundup, we answer some of our most commonly asked questions during the holiday season, specifically regarding paid holidays and requiring advance notice for time off requests. Plus, we tell you how to prepare for the day...

read more
HR Base Camp Roundup – November 14th, 2022
HR Base Camp Roundup – November 14th, 2022

In this week's edition of the HR Base Camp roundup, we discuss health benefit options for open enrollment, who gets paid for what if you host an office holiday party during work hours, and what your options are if an employee is accidentally overpaid. Read on to find...

read more
HR Base Camp Roundup – November 7th, 2022
HR Base Camp Roundup – November 7th, 2022

In this week's edition of the HR Base Camp roundup, we discuss random drug tests (including whether the test is even really "random" in the first place), taking your staff on a trip that you possibly need to pay them for attending, and how to implement a smart tuition...

read more