How to manage an employee with bad personal hygiene

Alan Price – Chief Operations Officer

September 06 2022

70% of employees say bad personal hygiene is their biggest pet peeve - and it’s not hard to understand why…

Sitting next to and talking to a co-worker with bad body odour can be an uncomfortable experience. It might not seem like a big deal, but it can easily turn into one.

Your staff might find poor hygiene habits from a colleague distracting and may not want to be in the same workspace as them. This might lead to a breakdown in communication and deadlines not being met…

To make matters worse, it might not just be staff that are put off. It could also be clients - which could result in you losing business.

So, how do you approach the subject of personal hygiene with your worker without offending them? It’s a tricky one, but there are ways to do it…

First, try an indirect approach

Before you address the issue with your worker, see if you can resolve the problem indirectly first.

Do you have shower facilities? Let staff know they can use them whenever and tell them where they are.

You could also make a gesture. Leave deodorant in the toilets or provide complimentary mints and hygiene products. Encourage staff to help themselves to these items and highlight that they’re free for all.

You could even send out a general reminder to staff about your dress code standards – and mention personal hygiene too.

Check your employee handbook

Next, check if you address personal hygiene in your employee handbook. It might fall under your dress code policy if you have one.

Going into a meeting with an employee is easier when you have a policy to back up your words. Without one, they might have more reason to believe you’re targeting them or being discriminatory.

You’re more likely to come across as professional and objective if you can demonstrate how your worker is violating your policy. This helps reduce the risk of your worker bringing a claim against you.

Need to set up a dress code policy?

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Approach your worker with sensitivity and open-mindedness

It’s important to approach your worker with sensitivity and respect.

Keep this discussion private and as informal as possible. Don’t make your worker feel like they’ve done something wrong. Try to be diplomatic but clear and straight to the point.

You might want to make a general statement to back up the issue, like ‘I’ve received a few complaints from clients…’

Be supportive. You’re on their side. And if other workers have raised the issue to you, make sure you remind them about your zero-tolerance for bullying, discrimination, and harassment.

Find out if there’s a reason behind the bad hygiene

Does your worker have a medical condition? A difficult living situation? Are they struggling with their mental health? There are lots of reasons why someone might have difficulty maintaining good personal hygiene. So, be open-minded and don’t jump to conclusions.

If your worker links their hygiene issues to their health, religion, or culture then you need to tread carefully. If you take disciplinary action or scold your employee, they might accuse you of discrimination (as religion and disability are protected characteristics by law).

To avoid this risk, consider your worker’s points and seek advice if you’re unsure of how to approach them. And if you find there is a valid reason, try to agree on ways you can support your worker.  

If they’re struggling, you could point them to your EAP service and let them know they have 24-hr professional support available if they need some help.

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If your worker reacts badly…

Prepare for the fact that your worker might take this discussion badly.

It’s likely to make them feel embarrassed, defensive, or even angry. So, it’s important for you to stay calm – even if they get upset. Make it clear that this is not a personal attack.

Let your worker know this is a professional issue, and you want to find a way to resolve it together.

Next steps if the situation doesn’t improve

Hopefully, the situation improves after your conversation. But if it doesn’t, you may need to escalate things.

Have another conversation. Give your worker the benefit of the doubt – perhaps they misunderstood how to rectify the situation. Make sure they understand what they need to do.

Tell them you have standards you expect your staff to meet. You might need to adjust or set up a policy to include personal hygiene guidelines if you don’t already.

If they still don’t improve after that, you may have to take formal disciplinary action.

Make sure to note down anything you discuss and any complaints you get from other workers or customers. You might need these notes later on if you do start a disciplinary process.

Be comfortable with the uncomfortable…

Some conversations are uncomfortable – but you enjoy peace of mind when you follow the right steps.

If you’re worried about bringing up personal hygiene with staff, get help with:

  • 24-hr advice – for advice on how to approach the most difficult and sensitive subjects with staff, so you avoid risk
  • documentation – allow HR experts to set up robust personal hygiene policies for your staff

Not sure how to protect your working relationship and avoid costly claims? Call 0800 028 2420 for free advice.

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