HR folks have to deal with some unpleasant subjects, and this is certainly one of them. Body odor can present a real workplace challenge. Just ask any space shuttle astronaut or submarine officer. People can have offensive odors for a number of reasons:
- Soiled clothing or shoes
- Lack of bathing
- Bad breath
- Liver and other organ problems
- Diet * Bad perfume
- Too much perfume
- A problem with sweating
Employers can try to prevent this problem in general by providing effective air circulation systems, odor eaters, employee uniforms, employee flexibility – and, if necessary, a human resource policy.
To deal with body odor, follow these steps:
- First, verify all complaints personally to make sure there’s no teasing, bullying, etc. Then verify the complaint personally.
- If the employee has body odor, have a direct conversation – don’t beat around the bush. Often, employees won’t realize they have a problem until you tell them. Say, “We’ve had complaints from a number of co-workers about offensive body odor and I have had those complaints verified. (If appropriate: I can understand their concern). Are you aware that you have this problem?
- At this point, an employee can deny knowing about the problem (honestly or otherwise) or, they can admit knowing about it. They can say either that they’ll try to take care of the problem or that they don’t care what other people think about it. They might also claim that they’ve tried to do all they can, but they have a physical disability that prevents them from doing any better.
- If an employee does not claim to have a medical problem and won’t do anything to improve their condition, you have the right to terminate them, or perhaps even better, give them unpaid time off to think about whether they want to come back to work a “fresher” person. If they claim there’s a medical basis, you need to have an accommodation discussion (more on that later). Either way, ask the employee to take care of the problem and ask if there’s any way you can help them. This is a matter of common decency, whether required by the ADA or not.
- Watch out for any potential discrimination or national origin claims that the employee might make based on what you say or by what managers or co-workers have said. Go back to these employees and let them know you’re taking care of the problem and that they should not tease or discuss it with the employee.
- Consider holding accommodation discussions. If the employee claims the problem arises from a disability and you’re subject to the ADA (15 or more employees) or FEHA (five or more in California), you’re required to have an accommodation dialogue. Begin by starting a paper trail and have the employee get their physician to identify the nature of their disability, the limitations, and ways to mitigate its effects. Use the forms on HR That Works. Accommodations might include working from home, allowing the employee to obtain the appropriate treatment, moving their working location, or perhaps reassigning them to another job.
Ultimately, if there’s no “reasonable” accommodation because anything you can do would cause an undue burden on the company, you do not have to accommodate that employee. For further accommodation information, check out the HR That Works ADA Training Module. Also, consider looking at the Job Accommodation Network’s Web site at www.askjan.org.