Upon entering your workplace, have you ever been greeted by a foul and pungent smell?
Most of us have experienced this at least one time over the course of our careers. Sometimes coworkers don’t shower after a long exercise routine, or they simply don’t shower often, transforming their daily physical accumulation into a roaming smelly cloud. Sometimes people don’t wear socks, or they take their smelly shoes off under their desk. And sometimes people routinely forget to brush their teeth in the morning.
Suddenly you find yourself in an unpleasant and awkward situation. What can you do? Should you say something? If you’re in HR or you manage a team, people are likely to approach you about addressing the issue. (Oh joy!)
Here are six useful tips for handling the problem:
1. Ensure that your organization’s employee handbook has a dress code policy that specifically addresses hygiene. Setting the expectations and standards for the workplace will help guide employees to the right place vis-à-vis their personal hygiene. Other specifics of the policy could include: the use of antiperspirant or deodorant, handwashing, and avoiding wearing strong fragrances that can bother others. Not only should these expectations and standards be outlined in your organization’s employee handbook, but they should also be addressed during the employee pre-boarding and on-boarding processes. Sending out occasional reminders of the dress code and hygiene policy is a good option for helping people self-correct.
2. Don’t make the mistake of ignoring the situation. So many people (and managers) are simply too afraid to speak to a smelly coworker. The reality is that body odor is a very real workplace concern and will become even more so as summer approaches. Strong body odor can be incredibly disrupting. Allowing the foul smells to breed will seriously hinder your team’s effectiveness, engagement, and productivity. Certain team members might not want to work with or even communicate with people who have body odor, so ignoring the situation can create bigger problems for team effectiveness. When employees work directly with clients or customers, good hygiene is even more important, as employees are a reflection of the company.
3. Investigate the accuracy of the circumstances. Odor isn’t a black and white issue; it ranges in intensity. For that reason, it’s important to be fair and use good judgement. If someone comes to you with concerns about a coworker, try to determine whether the odor is truly disruptive to the work environment. Is it likely bothering multiple people or just the person who reported it to you? Make sure someone isn’t just being mean or judgmental to a coworker, and determine whether the situation violates the policy in the employee handbook. Not only is this evaluation the fair thing to do, it also protects you from a potential workplace fairness lawsuit.
Also, during your investigative process, make sure you are sensitive to factors that may influence personal grooming practices, such as medical conditions, religious beliefs, and mental health. For example, many people who suffer from depression begin ignoring their personal hygiene. If you think poor hygiene is only a small part of a larger issue, you should focus on getting the employee the help he or she needs. If you have access to employee resource groups, share that information. Further, if you think a medical condition or religious belief may prohibit someone from using deodorant or fragrances, you wouldn’t want to press the hygiene issue.
4. Recognize that you may be doing people an enormous favor by talking to them about their body odor. Yes, it’s awkward to address, but people with bad B.O. are often completely unaware of how it is perceived by others. Most people don’t want to be stinky. By having a respectful conversation, the person could ultimately be saved further embarrassment, or worse, an aggressive confrontation by another coworker or customer. That brings me to the next tip.
5. Approach the person with both dignity and respect. Recognize that your dialogue is likely to be incredibly embarrassing for them, and as such, you should be extremely empathic. Needless to say, this should be a private conversation. Try using the tactic of presuming the person is using hygiene products like saying, “Hey, I wanted you to know something before others on our team noticed. I don’t think that particular brand of toothpaste or mouthwash is working for you. Maybe you should try a different one.” Or open the conversation by saying, “Several years ago, one of my coworkers pulled me aside and let me know that I sometimes had noticeably bad body odor. In retrospect, I cannot thank him enough for letting me know. It turns out, I was using a deodorant that wasn’t working for me and my body type. I found the brand that worked best for me and problem solved! I wanted to have the same kind of conversation with you…”
6. Fill your work area with things that smell good and/or ward off bad smells. Yes, sometimes the best offense is a great defense. As long as they are allowed by your organization’s policies, consider using any or all of the following:
– Scented candles
– Salt lamps to purify the air
– Air fresheners
– Aromatherapy scents (some of the best scents are natural—lilies, chamomile, lavender, and jasmine)
– Fans to improve air circulation
Here’s hoping that these tips help make your workplace smell like a bunch of freshly-cut flowers!