Few conversations are as uncomfortable as having to directly address employee hygiene issues. Unfortunately, however, this is something that comes up in the workplace and must be managed appropriately.
Hygiene problems can take many forms. Perhaps the most common is when an employee comes to the workplace with body odor or an unkempt/unclean appearance.
However, there are many other examples, such as the lingering smell of bodily fluids, stains on clothing or office chairs, or even excessive flatulence. These situations are awkward to discuss, so let’s take a look at some tips for handling the situation.
Tips for Handling Employee Hygiene Problems
Here are some tips for employers to handle this delicate situation:
- Designate who is responsible for addressing these types of problems. The person responsible must be able to be tactful and discreet. He or she should be able to have a conversation in a way that is factual without being insulting or rude.
- Consider creating or updating an employee hygiene policy so that there are guidelines to reference when tackling related issues. However, don’t delay a conversation if a policy doesn’t yet exist—any issues should be addressed in a timely manner.
- Anytime there is a complaint, treat it like any other complaint, and be sure to investigate appropriately. In other words, ensure the problem exists as noted, and get additional information before taking action.
- Train the individual(s) who will be having conversations with the employee(s) about this issue. This individual should understand that there are several different reactions he or she could encounter. For example, some people may be surprised when confronted, while others may become defensive. Some may explain why the issue is not their fault (and they may be right—more on that below), and some may become emotional and/or embarrassed and need time to compose themselves. Many will have more than one of these reactions. The matter should be handled delicately yet definitively.
- Everyone involved in these types of discussions needs to remember (and possibly be trained) that hygiene issues could be the result of medical problems, including problems that qualify as a disability. Incontinence, for example, could be the result of some types of medical problems. This is, of course, just one example, but it is indeed possible that the problem is medically related, and there may be reasonable accommodations that could help address the issue in these cases. That said, the employer should not assume a problem is medically related; in fact, no assumptions should be made up front—everyone’s situation is different. Issues that are not known to have a medical cause should be handled consistently and fairly.
- Remember: Another legal aspect of hygiene is discrimination. Hygiene can involve things like being clean shaven, for example, which may impact the religious practices of some individuals. Clothing differences could be cultural or financial, as another example. Train anyone who will be discussing hygiene with employees about this and when exceptions to the policy are appropriate.
- Give clear guidance when appropriate. Whenever discussing hygiene issues, it’s important to not only highlight the problem and the resulting workplace issues but also give clear guidance on expectations to resolve the problem. By when should it be resolved, and what is expected for it to be resolved?
- Don’t be passive aggressive or indirect. For example, leaving toiletries at someone’s work station will not necessarily get the message across—and even if it does, it may cause embarrassment and frustration.
What other tactics has your organization used to address employee hygiene issues in the workplace?