There’s an unappealing scent wafting from a nearby cube. Co-workers are planning to leave a can of deodorant, bottle of mouthwash or bar of soap at the offender’s work station. Will the not-so-subtle hint work?
Prominent product placement is not the best way to handle the situation. Yes, it might serve as a wake up call, once the employee overcomes the hurt and embarrassment — or it could backfire. Picture the risk of creating an angry worker who aims expletives, or worse, at the team. She won’t stop to consider they were only trying to help.
These conversations are never fun or easy. Whenever possible the topic should be passed on to Human Resources or, even better, a company doctor or nurse. In these instances the third party helps the employee save face while addressing a solution.
Don’t panic if the task is handed to you without backup. Don’t try to get the uncomfortable conversation out of the way with a quick aside as the person passes you in the hallway. Preparation and practice will ease the discussion and create a greater likelihood for a successful outcome.
Find the right time and place. Plan to talk in a quiet location where the conversation won’t be interrupted. Choose the right time of day to ensure that the conversation does not become topic A for the entire group. When ten employees are already buzzing about someone’s bad breadth you will only increase the noise level by asking the culprit to step into your glass-walled office immediately after a staff meeting.
Focus on the issue, not the person. Effective employee counseling avoids the personal and concentrates on behaviors or issues. This particular kind of problem situation is the exception for HR issues; it forces a conversation about individual habits. This doesn’t give you license to attack or make assumptions. When you begin with the advice, “You really need to take a shower every day,” don’t be surprised to hear, “I already do.”
Start with a description of the concern, “By the middle of the morning your body odor is really strong. I don’t think you realize it, but it is potentially offensive.” Allow the person time to respond. They may be surprised or defensive. Discuss and agree on action steps the employee can take to change the situation. A person’s halitosis may be the result of neglected tooth decay, but you should still avoid making a diagnosis while at the same time encouraging the employee to get help from a health professional.
The strongest message: Your personal hygiene is not acceptable. A clear business statement is in order if the situation has extended beyond basic body odor to include a liberal dusting of dandruff, dirty fingernails, and a generally unkempt aura. “Your personal hygiene is not acceptable,” should work for the accumulating dust ball and the individual who has adopted all the trappings of a hippie commune dweller.
An employee’s extreme change in appearance and increasing physical disarray could signal issues best handled by employee assistance professionals. Human resources practitioners or your benefits provider can also be consulted for advice and assistance when larger concerns are looming that require specific response and follow-up.
Whatever the cause of an employee’s personal hygeine challenge, you should put away the air freshener and take steps to resolve the issue so all employees will breathe easier.