Jul 4, 2013

How to deal with odorous employees

The truth stinks

How you initially address the problem may depend on the size and culture of your company along with the relationships of the people involved.

No matter how good your relationships are with your staff, or how skilled a communicator you are  the art of telling someone that colleagues have complained about them and that the complaint is that they smell, can be a decidedly tricky one.  So we’ve put together some guidance on one possible approach.  In essence our advice is keep it simple and keep it factual. 

In the first instance the matter should be dealt with by a team leader or line manager as they will probably have encountered the problem.  There is no way of avoiding the need to sit down and talk and the sooner the better.  If there have been complaints then as the employer you have a duty to deal with the issue.

How you initially address the problem may depend on the size and culture of your company along with the relationships of the people involved.  However, consistency and fairness are important so check how similar issues have been dealt with in the past.

Initially you might just want to sit down and have an informal chat to explain that you need to make the employee aware that you have noticed and that others have complained that when standing / sitting near them there is a strong smell of...and if you can describe the smell without being offensive then that might be helpful.  And then you can ask the employee if they were aware of this?  Has anyone mentioned anything before? Do they know what might be causing this?  And of course the big question - how can you ensure this no longer continues?   Agree some actions and hopefully that’ll be the end of the matter...Ensure you document the conversation.

If the problem persists then you need to see the employee again and ensure that the conversation is very clear.  It is quite easy if the manager or team leader is uncomfortable to have rather vague chat and sort of avoided this issue in the first meeting.  This is unfair on the employee.  At the second meeting if possible explain what you have noticed and go on to ask what the employee has been doing differently since you last talked.  Then clearly state that it is not working.  This is a very sensitive subject so needs to be handled with diplomacy which might not suit all managers.  Ask for an explanation, why the employee thinks this may be happening?  What does he / she think might be causing it?  The employee may say for example, that it’s caused by their dogs.  OK it might be the dogs but why?  Lots of people have dogs and do not smell.  Does the employee walk the dogs in a particular coat and then wear the coat to work?  Or walk them prior to work and then come into work in the same clothes?  Could the employee change before they come into work?  Or change at work?  Do they need to shower after walking the dogs?  Has the employee tried a different deodorant?

You should also consider and ask the employee if the problem could be a result of a medical condition.


Maybe the employee should check with their GP.  Could the employee possibly keep some clothes at work to change into?  Is there a shower they could use at work?  If the smell is worse in the afternoon, could the employee have a wash before coming back into the office, maybe using wet wipes.  State clearly that you need to see an improvement – and that if you or anyone else notices the odour again then you may have to go down the disciplinary route.  If this were to happen, then the recorded notes on these conversations would form part of the investigation which is why they are important.

As this issue could possibly head towards disciplinary it is only fair to the employee to give them every chance to address the issue and that does mean some direct talking.  Ensure that all conversations are documented.   By keeping the conversation focused on facts and practical solutions will (hopefully) make it easier.  The key points are to be open and talk about practical solutions.

A side issue employers should be aware of is that these situations can often lead to the employees being excluded and talked about behind their back.

Usually by the time a senior manager hears about the problem staff have become exasperated and relationships may have broken down.  The Company needs to be very careful that the employee does not become subject to victimisation which is another reason why the issue must be dealt with promptly.  As with all conversations between employees and managers the contents of the meeting should remain private and confidential.  Colleagues should not be informed about how the Company is dealing with the issue but just know that the matter is being dealt with.

You want to ensure your employee is fully aware of the situation and is given every opportunity to address the problem.  Some uncomfortable, direct and practical talking in those vital early meetings could possibly save the employee from having to face disciplinary action.