What is the proper way to inform an employee that he has an offensive body odor?

Aside from the obvious suggestion that fellow offended employees leave soap and deodorant all over this employee’s work space and give holiday gifts of like kind, is there a better approach?

Posted 03-03-2010

Ann Kiernan replies:

It’s surprising how often this issue comes up. Body odor and other personal hygiene problems are among everyone’s least-favorite employee relations issues. Some thoughts:

The key to dealing with body odor and other hygiene issues is to balance the employee’s embarrassment (and the manager’s) with the need to correct the problem. While the subject is very personal, it becomes work-related when employees and/or customers, vendors, or other people in the workplace complain.

If there is a dress/grooming policy, check it. For instance, if the employee’s clothing appears to be dirty, thus creating or adding to the problem, this can be handled as a violation.

Honesty is the best policy. The manager should be factual and straightforward, point out specific problems that should be corrected and setting a time limit for improvement, just as with any other performance or conduct issue. He/she must resist the strong temptation to sugarcoat the problem. He/she must also resist the inquiries of the complaining employees, who should not be privy to the details of the meeting and only should be told that the issues have been addressed.

I am unaware of any case holding that excessive body odor is a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Certainly, however, an employee’s body odor could be a symptom or side effect of a serious disease, health condition, medication, or treatment. If the employee claims a disability, the manager must follow normal ADA procedures, such as requiring the employee to provide medical certification of the problem and discussing possible accommodations with him/her. The Job Accommodation Network, a free service of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy has a page of possible accommodations for disabled employees with body odor.

I hope this has been helpful. Good luck.

 

Information here is correct at the time it is posted. Case decisions cited here may be reversed. Please do not rely on this information without consulting an attorney first.

2016-11-18T16:00:41+00:00

About the Author:

Ann Kiernan has litigated claims of wrongful discharge and discrimination before state and federal courts and administrative matters before the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, the National Labor Relations Board and the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, representing both employers and employees. Ms. Kiernan co-hosted The Employee Rights Forum, a weekly radio call-in show reaching up to a half-million listeners in the New York metropolitan area, and her articles on employment law have been published in many books and magazines. Both as a firm partner and as a director, Ms. Kiernan gained solid experience in management and human resources compliance. She has worked with Fair Measures since 1997.