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Jay has bad odour. Should we tell someone?

How do we approach this situation? Or should we avoid it?
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Jay has bad odour. Should we tell someone?

Jay has bad odour. Should we tell someone?

18 February 2020

A few people have complained that a particular employee has bad body odour. How do we approach this situation? Or should we avoid it?

Our Workplace Advice Line recently received this question from a Workplace Assured subscriber.

Q. Several people have complained to a business unit manager about a colleague's body odour. What is the best way to approach this issue with the employee concerned? Is it appropriate to approach it at all? We are worried any attempts to address the issue may give rise to claims of discrimination or bullying. What should we do?

A. First thing to do is not jump to conclusions or judge – but don't avoid the situation. Whoever handles the problem should first investigate the circumstances to ensure that those complaining have a legitimate reason for doing so. Unfortunately, people can get petty.

But at the same time, when body odour is strong, it can be very distracting and people may avoid working directly or communicating with a person if they feel odour is a problem.

If the employee is not aware that body odour is the reason people cringe when they enter a room, the employee could wrongly attribute their colleagues or manager's reactions as something else or worse, bullying or harassment. This is why this matter should be addressed as soon as possible.

If the complaint is genuine, an employee with bad hygiene can reflect poorly on a company, particularly if the worker interacts in person with clients, customers or the public. Often, hygiene is covered in a company dress policy.

When approaching the employee in question, it’s important to treat them with dignity as this could be an embarrassing matter. No one wants to talk about body odour and for this reason, the conversation can be tough. But note that you are ‘the messenger’ because it is a sensitive topic.

The person investigating or communicating the message needs to be empathetic and treat with the matter with confidentiality. There may be an underlying medical issue involved so you could indicate that the company would support relevant treatment if that was appropriate.

Or sometimes cultural norms may be the contributing factor. A company policy should recognise that an employee's religious, ethical or moral beliefs or disability may prevent them from complying with the policy as written. In such circumstances, there should be reasonable accommodations for disabilities and religious beliefs.

Work with the employee to come up with solutions. Can the person work from home? Work in a different office or workspace? Does the workplace need better air-conditioning? These are some questions to consider.

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