Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Accountability

Speaking Up about an Employee’s Body Odor

Dear Crucial Skills,

I was recently promoted to supervisor within a highly stressful telecommunications center. My entire team has complained about another employee’s personal hygiene and said that the offensive odor and unsanitary conditions of the employee’s workspace are so bad that it contributes to a hostile work environment. In the past, this was handled ineffectively and has now become a disciplinary situation.

I know I need to hold this conversation, but because it is such a sensitive issue and the employee is otherwise a spectacular employee, I am at a loss as to how to begin the conversation. Please help!

Dreading B.O. Conversation

Dear Dreading,

What do we do when someone’s behavior negatively affects others and they don’t seem to know it or can’t seem to change? In addition to body odor and cleanliness, this behavior could include things like inappropriate dress or language, too much small talk, and smoking in incorrect places. All of these behaviors create gaps—the difference between what is agreed upon or expected and what is actually happening. We can endure small, infrequent gaps and hope they go away, but when the gap is serious and when it is a pattern—as it is in your situation—what do you do? Here are a few strategies.

Clarify two kinds of expectations. The first expectation is reviewing or discussing expected behaviors and the reason behind them. When you are first promoted, or when there is a new team member or a new quarter, take the opportunity to meet and talk about the few expectations that will help your team work together effectively. This might include talking about past gaps that have hindered the team or the work. For example, you might want to talk about proper dress and grooming standards. The reason for this is that customers have expectations, managers and employees have expectations, and these expectations make it easier to work in close quarters as a team. I suggest that you never work on more than three or four behavioral expectations as a team—these should be important issues your team struggles with most.

The second expectation is really important: when someone sees a gap, talk about it. Ask each team member to agree that when someone falls short of expectations, those who see it will privately, politely, and professionally talk to him or her. You won’t get angry or gossip; you’ll talk. The reason is that when we don’t talk about a gap, we lower the standards of the company and we increase the probability someone will get offended, gossip will run rampant, and team morale will go down. As a team, identify gaps and solve concerns before they become real problems.

Give the person the benefit of the doubt. We teach people who face a gap to ask themselves, “Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person act this way?” By asking that question, you avoid jumping to conclusions or making assumptions that can move you to make wrong diagnoses. It also prevents you from beginning your conversation in a way that says in essence, “I have held court in my head and found you guilty. Can we talk?” Such a beginning is not helpful and makes you part of the problem.

You want to start the conversation by sending the message that you are observant, inquisitive, and caring. You want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. You do this by helping yourself understand that until you talk about it, you don’t know—you are only guessing. In your case, maybe the person has started taking a new medicine, or maybe his or her house burned down and he or she is living out of a car. You don’t know. Give yourself the opportunity to do a real diagnosis and to maintain the relationship.

Discuss gaps early. Identify the gap when it first appears, then find a safe time and a private place to talk. Over the years, we’ve talked about the skills for beginning an accountability conversation or “the hazardous half minute.” And we know that if you begin correctly, you are much more likely to find a solution. In Crucial Confrontations, we teach that you should first describe the difference between what is expected and what has been observed then end with a question. For example, if an employee came in late you could say, “I just want to clarify that working hours start at 8:00 and I noticed you came in today at 8:25. What happened?” You should say this in a way that is nonjudgmental.

If the person is wearing too much perfume or cologne, you might begin with, “One of the expectations we have is that we will work together in ways that makes it pleasant for others. I have noticed that your cologne is very noticeable, and I’m hoping you can wear less of it. Can we discuss this?” Let’s assume the person says “yes” and we have caught it early. If they disagree, that is another problem.

If you don’t discuss it early, the problem lingers. Coworkers gossip and don’t invite this person to lunch. Another employee calls the person names behind his or her back and one person lets a sarcastic comment fly. Now trust and respect have diminished. Gossip and hurt feelings have increased. Why? Because nobody spoke up early about the gap.

Trust the process. If you begin your conversation in a way that says you are not judging, and that you are observant and caring—both about the standards and about your colleague—you are well on your way.

In a private place, at a good time, after you have your head and heart in the right place, and if you had previously clarified expectations as I described above, you might say, “A few weeks ago, we all agreed to a dress and grooming standard that would help us serve our customers and work well together. This is a bit awkward for me to say, but I’ve noticed that when you come to work you have a body odor that is noticeable. I don’t know what’s going on, but I’d like to talk about what’s going on and what could be done to meet the expectations.” Your purpose is clear in your words and in your behavior.

If you didn’t have a clear expectation, you would substitute the first sentence by saying something like, “I think it’s important that everyone come to work in alignment with certain dress and grooming standards.” Notice what should not be said at this point. For example, don’t say that others have complained to you. Share that information only if the person says it’s just your opinion. Don’t use inflammatory words like stink, stench, or reek. And certainly don’t use the indirect approach by anonymously leaving a bar of soap on the person’s desk.

Over the years, as I’ve discussed the idea of bringing up a tough subject in front of large groups, I’ve asked participants to raise their hands if they have ever had to talk to someone about a “body odor” issue. Hundreds of hands have been raised, most often accompanied by audible sighs and shaking heads as people reflect on many bad experiences. Then I asked how many should have spoken up but didn’t. Many more hands go up and I can see many more negative reflections. You are not alone.

I hope this advice will help you feel more motivated and able to step up to the conversation and help an otherwise spectacular employee.

I wish you the best,

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Accountability

9 thoughts on “Speaking Up about an Employee’s Body Odor”

  1. saima

    Re-markable remedies and talking strategies suggested….we CAN ‘MAKE IT SAFE’ to talk about almost anything only if we learn to…..

  2. Deb in EAP

    The unsanitary condition of the work station also needs to be addressed directly as it may contribute to the odor and also could draw vermin–and a cockroach visiting from the next cube does not support good collegial relations! The supervisor may feel less uncomfortable starting with this issue and then segueing to the more sensitive issue of personal hygiene. Many workplaces have safety/environmental rules that can be referenced even if there aren’t currently established expectations for dress/grooming.

  3. Wes Miles

    When discussing body odor it is vitally important to be aware of an interesting ability of the human brain known as Olfactory Fatique. This is when the brain essentialy ignores a very strong and persistant odor. It is common among people who work with or around sewage, biological samples in a lab, and coroners. It can be a very useful adaptation in those cases allowing the individual to focus on their work instead of what would be an overpowering odor. However, it can also be a major social problem when an individual literally cannot smell themselves. I know it seems impossible to fathom that they cannot smell the overwhelming odor when you are around a person with extreme body odor, but the simple truth is that they cannot! The interesting thing is, they can smell another person with extreme body odor, but not their own. Be prepared to share this information with the offender because if you do not they will most likely leave the Crucial Conversation bewildered and underconvinced that they are odorous.
    One last thing – it can be a problem of a ‘clean body’ but ‘stinky clothes’, especially if the clothes are ‘Dry Clean only’ and the individual lets them ‘air out’ between wearings to save money. Odors are caused by tiny organisisms breaking down human sweat (and other liquids) – they can be doing their thing on a body or on cloth; the result is the same.

  4. Roger Frame

    I once had an employee who had a body odor issue so bad that we received complaints from our customers. Wanting to help her save face, while resolving the problem, I called her in and privately asked her “Have you ever walked into a kitchen and smelled all the great smells of what was cooking?” She said that she had. I then said, “And after 20 minutes or so have you noticed that you don’t notice the smells any more.” She acknowledged that was the case. I then proceeded “We have had some concerns from our customers about your body odor, and I suspect it is just like the kitchen. You are around it all the time so you don’t notice it, but others who meet you do. I thought you’d want to know.” I never had a problem with it again. (A true story told in Don’t Carve the Turkey with a Chainsaw: Resolving Family Conflict, 2012.)

  5. Grace

    I am in partial agreement with some of the comments above, however I used a different approach that made the person more accepting and less embarrassed. Body odors can be a symptom of an unidentified medical condition so be careful.

    1. Erin

      They can be, but try to think also about how they can impact others. Example: pregnant women, especially in the first trimester when they are not ready to reveal their pregnancy at work, are often impacted by strong smells. Imagine coming to work every day to have your morning sickness triggered by your neighbour. You are already feeling unwell, maybe already missing work, and now having your productivity further impacted because of your co-worker.

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  7. Laura Lawrence

    This exact topic came up when my dad was a manager at IBM several years ago. He was uncomfortable talking to the employee and asked the company nurse to approach the man with the terrible body odor. The result was very interesting! It turned out that the man had been raised in a small town in which many houses lacked indoor plumbing. Most families bathed once a week—on Sunday mornings before going to church. He married a girl from the same town who been raised with the same practices. So they simply didn’t know that most people raised in other towns bathed daily! When the nurse told him this, he was quite surprised. It seems the conversation had never come up among co-workers or in social settings, and when you think about it, why would it? “Hey, Bob, I’m just curious. How often do you bathe?” Not likely. So this was an example of a situation in which cultural/social norms were very different.

  8. Tom Mims

    Thanks for sending these snippets of useful information to think about, and carry in my ‘awareness system.’

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