Guide to Tackling Uncomfortable Workplace Conversations

This post is sponsored by BreatheHR. Employee friendly HR software designed to help tame your business. 

We can all remember back to our childhood days and the ‘stinky kid’ in our classroom. It’s easy to imagine that as we mature into adulthood, everyone picks up the social cues that good personal hygiene is a necessity when working with others, but this is not always the case. As the HR manager and business leader, it’s your job to address these types of stinky workplace situations and doing so from a position of strong leadership, positive employee development and an awareness of the sensitivity of the matter is key.

This is a ‘golden rule’ moment of epic proportions and remembering that the person in question might either not be aware of the disruption they are causing, or unable, in some cases, to rectify it easily, will go a long way to coming up smelling like roses. How would you want to be handled if you became unaware, or incapable of maintaining acceptable grooming standards?

Know company policy and applicable law

I know these conversations with employees are uncomfortable. Before addressing the problem, take some time to do a little research if you are not completely up to date on current policies or employment law regarding health conditions, discrimination and age. It’s best to avoid potential issues by devising your approach to steer around the mine fields to find a way that doesn’t put you, or your company in a tough spot.

  • Health and disability is often a protected status and could be the cause of the problem.
  • Age is a contributing factor in our body chemistry. Make sure you respect this in proposing possible solutions.
  • Make sure there is really an issue before approaching someone based on a report from another employee. This alone could be enough to claim workplace discrimination. Unfortunately, this might mean doing a little recon first before having a chat with the employee just to verify things.


Assume the Best but Expect the Worst

In many cases, an employee that makes everyone uncomfortable with bad body odor, or horrible breath is completely unaware of their effect on others. By taking a concerned approach and asking them if they realize their impact can often be enough. As bodies age, they respond differently and a person who has been used to showering every three days may find they need to increase frequency, use stronger deodorant, or make simple changes that can fix the problem.

  • We all have things about ourselves we are unaware of, treat them as you would want to be treated.
  • Assume they want to be pleasant to work with and will be willing to correct.
  • Don’t start out with a ‘disciplinary’ mindset. Find out what you are dealing with, before assuming there will be a problem.
  • Above all, treat the employee with dignity. Being on the receiving end of this conversation is much more uncomfortable for your employee.

A lawyer friend of mine told me over cocktails he was involved in a discrimination case of a caucasian male who claimed he was being discriminated against because of his odor. The man won the case because he was the minority in the plant. Every other employee was Hispanic. The court agreed the employee was being unfairly targeted which is why I suggest that you conduct thorough workplace investigations and act cautiously.

How to Tell An Employee They Smell, Stink

My advice to you above all is keep it professional, not personal. In the event that you have to address an employee one on one, make it about the shared space, health, safety and everyone’s comfort at work. Express your concern for them and ask about their welfare. Until they tell you they don’t care what you think, assume they do and help where you can.

I once had a manager at a retail store where I worked, walk an employee down the deodorant aisle and tell them they stunk. The employee was embarrassed and his feelings were hurt. This is not the way to talk to an employee with a sensitive subject.

  • Strictly enforce anti-bullying and discrimination policies and remind everyone, especially those that complain, that professionalism is expected. Managers included. Employees should not be made fun of under any circumstance.
  • Make problem employees aware of services available to help, in cases of financial hardship, or health related issues.
  • Do everything reasonable to avoid embarrassment and attacks on self-esteem. Most of the time, this person is an otherwise valuable asset you’ve invested time in, protect that investment.


Actively pursue a resolution

It would be nice if everyone in this circumstance could just take more frequent showers, use a stronger deodorant, or brush their teeth after lunch and solve the problem, but this is not always the case. While it is essential to keep the value of this individual at the forefront of your approach, a solution must be found. You have to be prepared to follow through until it is resolved.

  • Offer reasonable accommodations, like better ventilation, breaks for dental hygiene, different working conditions or access to the showers at your office if available.
  • Be prepared to address the issue again fairly and consistently, in cases where initial improvement is followed by a return to problem behavior.
  • Sometimes the answer is removing the employee or not as my lawyer friend shared with me above. This must be handled judiciously, but allowing one person’s hygiene to interrupt an entire company isn’t beneficial to anyone.

By patiently walking through the process with respect, most conflicts can be resolved. Unfortunately, when we accept the position of  business leader as well as human resources, it becomes our job to find solutions, even when they are difficult. By setting a strong example it is possible to walk through them with our integrity intact and restore order.

*A special thank you to this article’s sponsor, BreatheHR

FTC Disclosure: This is a sponsored post. I received compensation for mentioning the product listed above as part of one of the services I offer my clients. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will be good for my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission 16 CFR, Part 255: Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising. 

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Jessica Miller-Merrell

Learn more about Jessica Miller-Merrell, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, the founder of Workology, a workplace HR resource, and the host of the Workology Podcast. More of her blogs can be found here.


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