Malodorousness can, unfortunately, be a real workplace issue, and it’s one that usually falls to HR to address. Many agree the issue can’t be navigated without feelings and egos being damaged to some extent, but HR experts say it’s still essential to address it where it occurs.
According to US-based HR expert Susan Heathfield, navigating the minefield of poor personal hygiene, unfavourable or overpowering perfume and cologne scents, and even personal habits such as ‘clicking noises’ is all in a day’s work for HR. Heathfield recommended the following tips for holding difficult conversations:
Start with a soft approach to set the employee at ease, but don't beat around the bush
Tell the employee directly what the problem is as you perceive it
Whenever possible, attach the feedback to a business issue, such as the impact on the team
Advise that the behaviour is not just affecting the business and the employee's co-workers, but may affect the employee's career
Be sensitive to the fact that different cultures have different norms and standards for appearance, bathing, and dress and differences in cooking and eating traditions, too
Heathfield warned HR managers not to talk around the issue or soften the impact of the issue too much, as this may result in mixed messages.
Be clear that the conversation is not a personal vendetta, and that the conversation has a direct business purpose. Perhaps other employees don't want to participate on their team; perhaps their odour is affecting the perception of customers about the quality of the organisation's products, or causing a customer to request a different sales rep. Make the business purpose of the conversation clear.
Training your whole staff is probably not an appropriate solution, because it is pointless to waste time talking about an issue that is only relevant to one person. “I receive frequent e-mails asking me if a training solution is appropriate in these instances. The managers who write suggest that they will provide a grooming and professionalism seminar for all employees to attend – that the employee with the problem will get the message via the training. It isn't going to happen. The employee with the problem will not get that you mean him or her and you will have subjected countless others to training they didn't need,” Heathfield said.
HR owes it to the employee to hold the difficult conversation. If a number of employees have complained about the issue, recognise that if you don't hold the difficult conversation, you risk the employee's co-workers taking action that could be unethical and embarrassing. This may include leaving deodorant on their desk, or sending anonymous notes.
That, after all, would create an even greater stink.