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It's a rather delicate issue that I had to deal with once or twice in the past, and can't really say I handled it effectively. I'm a bit crude, and socially awkward and would pretty much prefer to avoid such discussions with co-workers/employees. I've managed to avoid the issue by delegating it1, but that trick can't work every time.

What would be preferable, a direct discussion with the co-worker in question, a casual reference to the issue in abstract terms in a meeting, or the implementation of a company wide policy on personal hygiene (if it doesn't exist)? Or something else?

This isn't a current issue, as right now I'm mostly working from home and solely responsible for any odours. ;P

1 My favourite management technique.

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Strongbad has your problem solved –  Rarity Apr 16 '12 at 18:22
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I don't think there's a good way to approach this - it requires a degree of sensitivity that I as an IT guy certainly don't possess: I'll just tell people flat out "You kinda stink - go shower after your workout next time!" –  voretaq7 Apr 16 '12 at 18:48
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I wish I could hijack this question and add "how do I know when the problem is worthy of addressing or just me being sensitive?" because there have been times that I really wished I could justify saying something. –  NickC Apr 26 '12 at 4:30
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... with a gas mask? –  Kaz Feb 12 '13 at 0:29

6 Answers 6

up vote 30 down vote accepted

As has been mentioned, ideally your Human Resources department should be made aware of the situation and handle it.

If it is in fact your responsibility, you need to address the issue directly, quickly and politely.

Be upfront and request a private conversation with the individual. Ideally you should have a private office or otherwise a conference room/ect where you can close the door. You don't need to humiliate them, it's a private matter, keep it private.

Be direct and tell them what is expected of them; their hygiene has to improve. Maybe they need to shower before they come to work, use deodorant, wash their hair thoroughly; you'll know the specifics. It's going to be uncomfortable so just make it as brief, clear and direct as you can. There is no "nice" way to say "you stink", but you can make it as painless as possible.

Don't pull the "A lot of people have been talking..." garbage. You don't need to appeal to social proof in this situation, and you can make the employee feel alienated; like everyone's talking behind their back/out to get them/ect. It's not relevant or necessary and it feels like an attack. You're responsible, own up to the fact that it's you who's telling them they need to improve their hygiene.

If they don't follow up on it, send them home. Again don't make a scene, contact them privately, but they have to go home, and you need to dock their time. Nothing is going to motivate them like lost time and money. If they don't shape up, make it clear their future employment is at stake if they can't operate professionally.

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Again don't make a scene, contact them privately, but they have to go home, and you need to dock their time. So, mod message and 7 days suspension? ;P –  Yannis Apr 17 '12 at 8:01
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@YannisRizos flag their odor as Rude or Offensive –  Rarity Apr 17 '12 at 13:40
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And listen to what he/she has to say. It could be a medical condition. –  Jan Doggen Jan 20 at 13:09

I think a "casual reference in a meeting" is a bad idea - either the person will know you're talking about them and will feel put on the spot and humiliated in front of the team, or they won't know you're talking about them and you won't have accomplished anything. A direct conversation is definitely the way to go, and other answers have already given great pointers on how to deal with that.

However, I think the "implementation of a company wide policy on personal hygiene" idea has merit as well - in particular, before you implement the "send them home to shower and dock their pay for the lost time" idea from other answers, make sure you're legally allowed to do that. If your company has no policy on it, you may not be, in which case if just pointing it out to the employee doesn't work (which in most cases it probably will!), you'll need a policy before you can do anything more specific about it. At the very least, talk to HR before penalizing an employee for anything that isn't covered in their job description and company policy.

Another note - there may be medical issues involved, in which case you may not be able to do much about it without getting into discrimination issues. Again, definitely check with HR if anything like that comes up during the conversation.

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Take the person aside and talk to them. They may not realize it, as I've had coworkers with anosmia (lack of sense of smell) and some with sinus infections. Sinus infections tend to give folks horrible breath - which they cannot smell themselves. I've also lived and worked in other countries where what is considered acceptable is very different from the US. Deodorant for men was considered effeminate until some advertising campaigns during the 1960s.

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Ideally you can refer this problem to your HR department. They are trained in dealing with people in ways that avoid harassment and communicate effectively your concerns with out the conflict that can arise when peers criticize lifestyle choices.

If this is a chronic problem and you do not have an HR department, then I would sit the offending individual down and let them know this is a professional office and these are the expectations as far as personal hygiene go. I would request that the individual rectify the issue before returning to work. And repeat this process immediately when a problem is noted from this point on. It should not take to many days of short pay, and trips home to shower, before the problem either goes away. If the problem persists you will need to make a decision about either accepting the poor hygiene or taking other HR Type measures.

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From a personal point of view: As someone who enjoys cycling to work, I'm often worried about my smell, and keep deodorant, body spray, etc. at work, as well as bringing a change of clothes and a towel so I can shower (or, if there was no shower, I might consider a small washcloth for a dry 'bath').

If I was managing to smell bad despite this, I would be mortified. The only thing worse than smelling bad at work would be if people put up with it and didn't tell me. I would also think that going to a boss / through HR rather than just telling me was rather jerkish. Dude, just tell me, not the whole world!

Essentially, some people may just need a heads up that they need to try harder, and won't mind at all if you let them know they're a bit whiffy sometimes, but it depends on the person's habits and situation.

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Part of being a manager is dealing with unpleasant things like this. It's your job. That's why you're getting paid even though you don't actually produce anything tangible.

You deal with it by being direct with the person in question, and just letting them know the fact that daily bathing is an expectation of the job. "There are jobs where you bathe after work, rather than before, but this isn't one of them. I need you to come to work having showered and wearing clean clothes."

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Well the question is on how to deal with this particular issue, not whether I should deal with it or not. I may have avoided it in the past, and I'm pretty sure I can find a million ways to avoid it in the future, but that's not really what I'm asking. –  Yannis Apr 16 '12 at 20:11

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