It is possibly one of the most awkward situations that you may be asked to handle as a Manager or HR Professional: confronting an employee about personal appearance or hygiene. However, it is an important issue to deal with swiftly and sensitively, as left unchecked, it could affect the employee’s reputation and that of the business. So, how do you go about having this discussion?
Investigate the issue
Don’t rely on rumours and gossip. Identify the issue for yourself. If nothing else, it isn’t nice to tell an employee that their friends and co-workers have been complaining about them behind their backs. Avoid involving others if you can. This is likely to be an awkward and embarrassing enough situation without starting the conversation with “well, the team and I have had a chat about your smell…”.
You should also identify that there actually is a genuine issue. Many businesses have gotten themselves in trouble over discriminatory dress codes and appearance policies. For example, distracting and offensive body odour is a genuine issue. A female employee’s refusal to put on makeup? Not so much.
Consider the potential causes
Not all hygiene issues have the same cause. Granted the employee might just be lazy, but chances are there’s something else going on. Poor hygiene could hint at:
- Medical issues - Does the employee have a medical condition that is the cause of the situation? Is the employee going through medical treatments that can affect their appearance or odour?
- Mental health or emotional issues – Poor hygiene could hint that an employee is struggling with their mental health, and finding personal care difficult or unimportant.
- Financial difficulties – Has the employee had a change to their financial situation which may make it difficult for them to clean themselves or their clothes (e.g. broken washing machine that they can’t afford to fix).
Forewarned is forearmed, and by considering these issues in advance, you’re less likely to be left blindsided (and saying the wrong thing!) if an employee reveals an underlying cause in your meeting.
Get it over with!
The conversation is never going to be easy and is best dealt with before the issue becomes longstanding. Ultimately, you’ll save the employee in question a lot of embarrassment by dealing with the issue as soon as possible.
Try a group approach
You could have a group discussion, by drawing your employees’ attention as a whole to the company’s personal appearance standards. Undertaking this approach avoids singling out the employee and can be a good approach to deal with occasional lapses in personal hygiene standards.
Have a one-on-one meeting
However if the issue is persistent and long term, and the individual has already become the subject of office gossip, a more direct and discrete approach will be necessary. You should be as sensitive as possible, meeting with the employee somewhere private and neutral, and preferably toward the end of the work day. The discussion is likely to leave the employee feeling upset and embarrassed, so they will appreciate the opportunity to leave the building quickly after.
Use a ‘compliment sandwich’. Remind the employee of their good attributes before explaining the issue. Try to end the meeting by explaining again that the employee is a valued member of the team.
Do not assign blame! As discussed, a personal hygiene issue could have a number of potentially difficult and serious causes. Approach the issue like any other conduct issue and work with the employee to find a solution.
Finally, do not be surprised if the employee reacts defensively or gets angry. Understand that they are likely to be embarrassed, keep your cool and try to bring the discussion back to objective matters such as their performance or abilities.
Needless to say, this will never be an easy conversation to have with an employee, but often you will do them far more good by dealing with a potentially embarrassing issue quickly, discretely and professionally.
If you have any queries regarding dealing with uncomfortable issues with your staff, or any other employment query, please contact Charlotte Braham on 01494 521301.