How to Discuss Poor Hygiene with an Employee

  • Employer advice
Kiljon Shukullari

Kiljon Shukullari, HR Advisory Manager

(Last updated )

To be able to manage staff well, it is important that employers know how to handle difficult conversations with tact. An employee’s bad personal hygiene can be a particularly sensitive issue to address.

But workplace hygiene must be taken seriously. Not only is working around a co-worker with poor personal hygiene uncomfortable for your staff, it also negatively affects your workplace health and safety.

Unaddressed, the issue may only get worse. It can cause the employee in question to end up being shunned at work – affecting their productivity and morale.

How would you describe poor hygiene?

Poor personal hygiene can include a number of issues and behaviours, such as body or foot odor, unclean clothes, bad breath, not covering one’s nose or mouth when sneezing or coughing, spitting, persistent coughing, flatulence, overuse of perfume or cologne, etc.

Importance of personal hygiene in the workplace

You should factor in employee personal hygiene when assessing your overall workplace health and safety.

While an issue like body odor may be more noticeable and urgent to attend to, other indicators of good hygiene, such as washing hands properly, keeping the workspace clean, etc., are just as important. Poor personal hygiene increases the probability of your employee getting sick and infecting others in the workplace.

How to discuss poor hygiene with an employee?

Approach this matter with empathy and diplomacy. Your goal is to address and rectify the issue and not to embarrass or make your employee self-conscious.

We recommend that you don’t:

Skirt around the issue

Be direct in the message you are trying to send across. Be clear on the specific behaviour you’d like to see changed.

Drop hints

Leaving a deodorant at their desk or an anonymous note may seem like the easy way out, but it would only cause your employee to feel mortified and ridiculed. If their hygiene issue is related to a medical or mental health issue, you’d also lose out on the opportunity to get them the help they need.

Act on hearsay

Don’t pull-up your employee based on a one-off incident of poor hygiene or office gossip. Ensure you have all the facts and enough evidence to not come across as unfair or biased when approaching an employee to discuss such a delicate subject.

We recommend that you:

Handle the matter discreetly

Speak to the employee in private. Gather information and prepare for the meeting so that your concern seems well-founded and based on facts. While you shouldn’t downplay the seriousness of the issue to spare the employee’s feelings, you may want to start the discussion by praising the employee and the value they bring to your team.

Be compassionate, but also be clear and specific about the hygiene issue, how it is affecting the workplace, and what you’d like the employee to do next.

Listen to your employee

Give them a chance to respond. It is possible that their bad personal hygiene may be because of a medical issue, emotional/psychological stress, or a disability. Or that the employee may be struggling with financial problems that make it hard to maintain a certain level of personal hygiene. In either case, once you have clarity on the cause and they are made aware of the effect their poor hygiene is having in the workplace, you can together work to find solutions.

If the employee is neglecting personal care due to an emotional/psychological issue, advise them to speak to a counselor through your company’s Employee Assistance Program.

Offer support

Keep your tone supportive and professional, especially if the employee becomes defensive or upset. Convey your expectations and discuss what steps you’d like the employee to take next. Give them sufficient time to improve their hygiene.

Document the conversation

Keeping a record of any meetings you hold to discuss this matter will confirm in writing that you have addressed the issue with them. If the employee's poor hygiene is due to a medical issue, you can request for evidence, such as a doctor’s note. But the employee is not required to disclose details of the medical condition to you.


Fix a time frame for a follow-up discussion. This will help you assess the progress made by the employee. It will also communicate the urgency of the matter to the employee. If there is no change in the employee's behaviour, you may consider initiating formal disciplinary procedures.

Create a workplace dress code and personal hygiene policy

Drafting clear policy on workplace clothing and personal hygiene will help convey your expectations on hygiene standards in the workplace. The importance of good personal hygiene has been brought into sharp focus during the COVID-19 pandemic. Personal and workplace hygiene is critical to preventing infections and illnesses in the workplace.

Though the pandemic is receding, it is important that you continue cleaning and disinfecting common areas in the office, such as kitchen, cafeteria, washrooms, reception desk, and high-touch surfaces, such as sign-in kiosk, door handles, light switches, shared equipment, elevator buttons, flush knobs, faucets, etc.

Do you need help creating HR policies for your workplace?

If you need advice on handling an employee's poor personal hygiene, Peninsula can help. Our experts can help you develop company policies and with any other HR, health & safety, and employee management matters that may arise.

To learn more about how our services can support your business, call an expert today at (1) 833-247-3652.

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