Ask the Legal Expert: Sensitive Conversations in the Workplace
- AuthorNatasha Johnston
"I am a manager and a member of my team has a strong body odour. I haven’t wanted to say anything as not to cause offence, but I’ve noticed their colleagues starting to leave antiperspirant cans in the toilets and I’ve overheard others gossiping about this person. What should I do?"
This is a very tough situation to handle as undoubtedly having a discussion with another person about their personal hygiene is a difficult conversation to have and needs sensitive and confidential handling.
It’s important to consider that it may be through no fault of the employee they have this problem, it could be as a result of a medical condition or they may have experienced personal problems that have left them in a situation where it is difficult to launder clothes or wash themselves regularly.
Open communication that allows a two-way exchange is important in these situations. For example, you may wish to open a conversation with ‘I need to have a difficult conversation with you. I have noticed you have had a strong body odour over the past few weeks and wanted to make you aware so we can support you to resolve this.’
An action plan based discussion to resolve matters should then be adopted. For example, encouraging the employee to seek medical advice from their GP if it is a medical condition, explore an OH referral or, where the issue is not health-related, getting the employee to agree to wash more frequently or launder their clothes more effectively.
You should explain the reason you are asking them to do this is to ensure the environment is acceptable for all at work and that a professional image is displayed to customers and clients alike.
A review period of perhaps four weeks should be put in place to see how things are and ensure action has been taken.
Turning to the issue of colleagues leaving deodorant cans in the toilet areas, you should not take the approach of informing all staff you have spoken to the employee and asked for improvement, you can however, ask staff to ensure they keep personal belongings in their bags or lockers/desk drawers etc. and not leave personal care items in the toilet areas.
It is also important to consider that this behaviour could escalate and amount to bullying or where a health condition is present possible discrimination or harassment and end up having a less than desirable effect on resolving the matter.