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Workers with hygiene issues need to be told

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By Joyce E.A. Russell
Monday, November 22, 2010

After my column last week on understanding dress codes at work, a number of people asked me to tackle an even more difficult workplace topic: personal hygiene. We're talking about people going to work without washing their hair or taking showers or those who arrive wearing dirty clothes. Maybe they have bad breath or exude the smell of garlic from the previous evening. Perhaps they wear so much perfume or cologne that those around them have trouble breathing.

Obviously, personal hygiene is important at work. Most people wouldn't go to a job interview without combing their hair or wearing clean clothes because they know that hiring decisions are heavily influenced by first impressions. Being clean and neat makes people feel more confident, especially in social situations, and those who aren't properly groomed run the risk of being ridiculed or ostracized.

Good hygiene also contributes to good health. Employees who pay attention to personal hygiene can prevent the spread of germs and disease, reduce their exposure to chemicals and contaminants, and avoid skin allergies and chemical sensitivities.

While we may not want to talk about these delicate topics, the problems do occasionally exist. I have had to coach people on the serious and difficult task of talking to colleagues who do not follow good hygiene. It is hard enough telling employees that their clothes are inappropriate -- now you need to tell them that they have bad breath or their feet smell or they are embarrassing you with clients?

Or do you?

Many of us are afraid to bring up these sensitive matters, so we wait for management to do something. But often, companies decide not to address the issue head-on and instead offer a seminar for everyone in the firm to attend -- a subtle attempt to solve the problem by hoping the offending employee gets the message.

The culprit, though, might not catch the hint, and, more important, everyone else just gets irritated about having to sit through the meeting when somebody else is the problem. I saw this happen at one company where a few employees were dressing inappropriately. Instead of talking directly to the few offenders, the company instituted a dress code for everyone at work. Morale plummeted as employees felt punished for something that was not their doing.

It is a good idea for firms to have regular training or safety updates regarding some hygiene issues. In some jobs -- food preparation and health care, for example -- regular hand washing is required by law.

Sometimes workers take it upon themselves to leave hints such as soap, shampoo and deodorant on colleagues' desks or fliers for "etiquette seminars" in their mailboxes. Or they provide comments in performance reviews or feedback. Unfortunately, this often just creates hostility and can be seen as harassment rather than meaningful feedback.

There are tactful ways to handle these issues. If possible, have a one-on-one conversation with the person, or have someone who is closest or most influential with that person talk to him or her. The conversation can be framed around work issues: "You have been asking me why no one is signing up to work with your team on this project, so I thought I would tell you it is because . . . ." You can also point out how the behavior is possibly affecting the individual's career, such as by harming working relationships or opportunities to lead client projects.

You do have to be sensitive to the fact that people from different backgrounds and cultures might have different norms for bathing, dress and hygiene. It is okay, though, to share the organization's norms, especially if working relationships with colleagues and clients are being affected. I have known individuals who were grateful someone took the time to kindly point out that body odor and bad breath were the reasons why co-workers did not want to work with them. No one likes to hear this feedback, but the manner in which is it told -- in a caring, considerate tone -- can really make a difference.

These can be difficult conversations to have, but they are important ones as well. Maybe all of us should seek feedback from a trusted friend about whether we might be that person who has some hygiene issues.

Joyce E.A. Russell is the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has over more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership, negotiations and career management. She can be reached at jrussell@rhsmith.umd.edu

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