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How to Address Employee Hygiene Issues in the Workplace

Question:

We’ve had some employees complain about a couple of co-workers who have hygiene issues, including body odor.  What is the best way to handle such a sensitive topic?

Answer:

This can definitely be an uncomfortable situation for both the employer and the employee, but it’s important to address it as hygiene issues can negatively impact co-workers, clients and customers.  Here are some important guidelines to follow when addressing this topic:

  • The company should set clear expectations, whether it’s a separate workplace hygiene and grooming policy or somehow incorporate it into your dress code policy.
  • Be aware of your employees’ rights.  For example, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and similar state laws, employers may be required to make reasonable accommodations for employees’ religious beliefs and practices and for individuals with disabilities unless an accommodation would pose an undue hardship on business operations.  Employers should consider consulting legal counsel when making the undue hardship determination.
  • Never assume you know the cause of the hygiene problem, as it can be caused by a variety of factors, including medical issues, cultural differences, mental health issues, personal problems and poor grooming habits.
  • Meet with the employee in private and keep the conversation brief and confidential. Use this as an opportunity to also reinforce the employee’s positive attributes (hard worker, team player, etc.).
  • Give the employee an opportunity to speak. If the employee indicates the cause of the hygiene issue is a disability or mentions that a religious belief or practice conflicts with your dress and grooming policy, work with the employee to determine an effective reasonable accommodation.
  • Set appropriate expectations and document actions taken. If corrective action is the employee’s responsibility, document the potential consequences of failing to rectify the issue, and set a timeline for resolution and follow-up.

These conversations are never easy, but ignoring issues like these can be detrimental to overall morale if not addressed.

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