What’s That Smell? Addressing Odors in the Workplace

April 24, 2018
MRA Edge
Health & Wellness
Read time: 3 mins

Body odor, pungent food, bad breath, extreme perfumes and colognes, room fresheners, flatulence, shampoos, essential oils, nail polish, second-hand smoke, cleaning supplies, and more can flood the workplace with unexpected smells and may upset employees. While employers could be tempted to ignore this topic, these types of concerns need to be addressed head-on, with tact and clarity.

Practical and Tactful Tips to Address Odors in the Workplace:

  • Have a policy in place on proper personal hygiene and fragrance sensitivities, which employees and managers clearly understand and can be used to hold employees accountable. MRA provides sample language in our dress code policy examples.
  • Use clear instructions and signage in kitchens, lunchrooms, plant floors, and bathrooms regarding expectations of cleanliness and proper disposal of waste material. Instruct employees not to eat very odorous food at their desks and to use the designated lunchroom or break rooms instead.
  • Create fragrance-free areas if needed to accommodate employees with asthma or allergies.
  • Conduct awareness training for employees on cultural, religious, and ethnic practices, which may produce smells.
  • If an employee brings up a concern, verify the complaint or comment and be certain it is not part of a larger pattern of harassment based on culture, religion, or another protected trait that causes a hostile work environment for the employee who is producing the odor. Employers should be mindful of, and careful not to violate, nondiscrimination laws when addressing a hygiene issue.
  • If a conversation needs to take place with an employee about an odor in the workplace, do it in person, in private, with factual information and an offer to help. Meet in a confidential area. This can be done by the employee’s manager and HR. Don’t preface the discussion with “this is going to be awkward and embarrassing” as that might make the employee more uncomfortable.

How to Address Personal Hygiene:

When it comes to overpowering smells, typically the hardest one for employers to address is an individual’s body odor. When it comes to personal hygiene and grooming, it’s important to be clear, direct, and not to over embellish the situation. State the concern, cite examples, set expectations, and offer the employee the opportunity to respond.

When addressing an employee, the conversation can go something like this:

  • "Dave, today we need to talk about our company personal grooming and hygiene policy/expectations. In the past couple weeks, I have noticed several occasions where you’ve come to work with dirty clothing and have a body odor that is unpleasant and bothersome to others. We have a general policy where all employees are to report to work in clean clothing, groomed and practice good hygiene. Are you able to meet this expectation? How can we help you meet this expectation?"

Be sure to wait for a response. Keep in mind that personal hygiene problems may be caused by a variety of factors, including, but not limited to, medical issues, cultural differences, mental health issues, personal problems, and overall poor cleanliness habits. If an employee responds that he or she has a medical condition, discuss possible accommodations.

Close out the conversation by reiterating what has been agreed upon for meeting expectations. Remind the employee that the conversation will be treated confidentially. This initial conversation should be documented, however, it shouldn’t be considered discipline unless the employee fails to change behaviors to meet company expectations and then it can be handled accordingly.

It may stink, literally and figuratively, but HR and management need to team together to tactfully address strong odors in the work environment. It’s not the most pleasant or glamorous part of the job, but it is necessary to keep the workplace, and the employees within it, healthy, safe, and productive.

Source: Maureen Siwula, SPHR, Human Resource Business Advisor, MRA - The Management Association

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