How to Talk to an Employee About Bad Hygiene

An HR pro shares five tips for managing one of the most awkward conversations you'll ever have.
bad hygiene
Directly identify the problem when confronting an employee about poor hygiene. (Photo: WAYHOME studio/Shutterstock)

Maybe you’ve received complaints from other employees, or worse, customers. If one of your employees has a hygiene problem that’s affecting others, you or a manager needs to talk to that person, no matter how awkward or uncomfortable you envision the conversation to be.

“Conversations of this nature are not easy for anyone. The individual will likely be embarrassed and the manager likely won’t have a lot of experience in addressing the topic before..” -Jana Tulloch (Photo: Jana Tulloch)

Jana Tulloch, a human resources professional who manages HR at technical training firm DevelopIntelligence, shared five tips for how to go about it in a professional and sensitive way.

Related: 7 Things You Should Never Ask Your Employees To Do

Prepare in advance

If you can, give yourself time to mentally prepare, Tulloch said. That way you can think clearly and choose the best wording.

“It’s always good to practice beforehand,” she said. “For me, I find simply keeping a note handy with the base points I want to cover is sufficient.” People less experienced in HR matters may benefit from practicing in front of a mirror or with a close friend or family member who can give feedback on how they come across.

Create a safe atmosphere

“Conversations of this nature are not easy for anyone. The individual will likely be embarrassed and the manager likely won’t have a lot of experience in addressing the topic before.”

Take the conversation somewhere private, where the employee will feel safe, said Tulloch. Acknowledge right away that your intention isn’t to embarrass the person but to bring attention to an issue that is affecting the workplace.

Directly identify the problem

By the time you become aware of the issue, it is likely to have been occurring for some time. Colleagues will typically extend a “grace period” to the individual, not mentioning it to management right away in case it was just a transient event.

“If the issue reaches your desk, it needs to be addressed,” she said. “Subtlety won’t get the message across. It is better to be empathetic and supportive, but direct.”

Start the conversation by explaining that the person’s hygiene is a concern, then address specifics. For example, “There is a body odor that colleagues have commented on. Are you aware of this?” Most likely, they won’t be.

Set clear expectations


Treat the issue as you would any other performance type discussion. (Photo: racorn/Shutterstock)

As a business owner, your expectations of the level of professionalism required in the workplace should be clear to all employees, regardless of whether the employee is customer-facing or not. Tulloch’s recommendation: Remind the person of your workplace expectations and note that one expectation is professional grooming practices.

“It’s not any different than any other ‘performance’ type discussion,” she explained. “Be sure the individual understands what the problem actually is and what the expectation is to fix it.”

Be supportive

Most important, be empathetic. Keep in mind that the employee’s hygiene problem may be a symptom of a deeper problem such as a medical or mental health issue or difficult home situation.

Ask if there’s anything you can do to support them in addressing the issue, and if there’s any underlying medical issue that needs to be accommodated.

“If the issue continues and there is a second meeting about it, I would pose the question once again just to be sure and suggest that they may want to use their doctor as a resource if they are having trouble addressing it on their own.”

As a business owner, you have the right to set expectations in the workplace, said Tulloch. But if you already know or suspect that the issue is related to an underlying disability, or you learn that it is during your initial conversation, seek legal advice to make sure you avoid any charges of discrimination.

Related: How to Fire Someone When it’s Time to Terminate

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