When the sweet smell of success is not the only office odour….

Most of us have worked with somebody with bad body odour – and, in many cases, very little gets done about it. This is understandable – counselling someone on their hygiene habits is intensely personal and is probably one of the most difficult things a manager has to do. If not handled correctly, it can also be a discrimination minefield, especially when cultural factors are involved.


Managers owe it to the employee and their colleagues to hold the difficult conversation. If a number of employees have complained about the issue, recognise that if you don’t hold the conversation, you risk the problem growing. Losing control of the problem could lead to other staff engaging in inappropriate behaviour, for example gossip or unsubtle hints such as deodorant sticks or anonymous notes on desks.

Failure to deal with the issue can also lead to a perception of weakness and inaction on the part of the manager, leading to a loss of employee respect.

The issue needs to be dealt with carefully and professionally. US HR experts Meryl Runion and Susan Heathfield advise not talking around the issue or softening the impact of the discussion too much, as this may result in mixed messages. Instead:

• Find a private environment – don’t address the issue in front of others or where others can overhear or even see; tell the employee concerned, not anyone else.

• Put the employee at ease but tell them directly what the problem is. Whenever possible, attach the feedback to a business issue, such as the impact on the team or the business, especially in the context of interaction with customers.

• Advise that the behaviour is not just affecting the business and the employee’s co-workers, but may affect the employee’s career.

• Don’t assume you know what the underlying issue is – for example, the issue could be medically-related.

• Don’t make it about you. This is not a personal issue, but a conversation with a direct business purpose, affecting other employees and potentially customers.

• Be straightforward and get to the point quickly. Let the employee know that this issue is not related to job performance.

• Be empathic rather than confrontational. Sympathise, don’t judge.

• Use neutral, impersonal language that refers to professionalism and the impact on the office.

• Be calm, and even if you’re not comfortable, fake it. The more agitated you sound, the more reactive the employee will be.

• Be sure to follow up with the employee if the problem continues.

Be sensitive to the fact that different cultures have different norms and standards for appearance, bathing, dress and cooking and eating traditions. Although the person you are addressing may react badly at the time, be aware that what they do with the information is more important than what they say when confronted.

Talking to all staff about personal hygiene when the problem is only with one person is probably not an appropriate solution. You risk wasting the time of other team members, embarrassing the person involved or discovering the person concerned still hasn’t got the hint! These issues need to be dealt with one to one.


These rules around difficult conversations can apply to inappropriate workplace or personal behaviour and can be covered by sound HR policies and procedures. iHR believes sound HR policies and procedures are important for setting the expectations for both staff and managers and also provide relevant procedural guidelines for dealing with such issues.