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How to initiate a conversation about personal hygiene at work

Lily Garcia
Friday, June 4, 2010; 1:34 PM

I have a direct report with some health issues. This individual also has very poor hygiene, perhaps because of the health problems. Other reports have begun complaining to me about the smell and I honestly don't know how to broach the subject. Any advice?

You should hold all of your employees accountable to a certain level of professionalism, which includes manner of dress, personal hygiene, and other aspects of presentation. When someone fails to meet your expectations ¿ especially if it results in a disruption to the workplace ¿ you must address the issue.

Arrange to meet with your employee (whom I will assume to be male for purposes of this article) in a private place where interruptions are unlikely. Preface your conversation by letting him know that he is valued, that his work is good, and that he is not currently in any professional peril. Then explain that you cannot help but notice that his personal hygiene has declined below satisfactory standards. Tell your employee that your intention is not to embarrass him, but rather to minimize distractions in the workplace and avoid any lasting damage to his professional reputation. Depending on how your employee responds, it might become necessary for you to describe more specifically what aspect of his presentation ¿ i.e. body odor ¿ concerns you and exactly how this is affecting his colleagues.

Your employee will probably be mortified to hear that his personal hygiene has become the subject of office discussion. Although he could be well aware that he has not been bathing or washing his clothing as often as he should, he might not yet realize that it has become obvious to others. He might express gratitude for your overture, apologize, and agree to adjust his habits. But he might also react angrily or defensively, denying that there is any problem and assailing you for having broached the issue. In either case, remain focused on the purpose of your meeting, which should be to describe the problem, make your employee aware of its impact on the business, and request that he make a change. Especially if your employee is not receptive to your message, you also must make it clear that his failure to do anything to address the problem could ultimately result in the loss of his job.

If your employee's hygiene has declined from a previously acceptable level, then it might very well be due to health issues or other factors beyond his direct control. However, it is not appropriate or wise for you to speculate about the reasons. If one of your employees is unable to meet ordinary job expectations because of a health condition, then it is incumbent upon him to let you know the nature of his limitation and what the organization could be doing to help. If you start making assumptions about whether a health condition is the culprit, then you risk both humiliating your employee and exposing your employer to liability under the Americans with Disabilities Act or ADA. Under the ADA, an employer may not discriminate against an employee who is "regarded as" having a disability, even if the employee does not actually have any such disability. If you proceed, therefore, as if your employee's poor hygiene is the result of a health problem, then your employee could later claim discrimination under the ADA because of any personnel action you take to address the issue. This would be the case even if your assumption turns out to be wrong.

I know this direct approach may seem harsh, but consider the consequences to your employee of doing nothing: gossip, ridicule, alienation from his coworkers, overshadowing of his professional abilities. Even at the risk of embarrassing or angering your employee, it is far preferable to speak directly to his issue and allow him a legitimate opportunity to improve.

Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for more than 10 years. To submit a question, e-mail HRadvice@washingtonpost.com. We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.

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