Tina Lewis Rowe

Insights, Information & Inspiration

Body Odor and Bad Breath and Dandruff, Oh My!

Nervous B.O.

Have you ever needed to talk to someone
about a hygiene issue?

You’ll notice I didn’t ask if you had ever talked to someone about a hygiene issue–just if you have needed to. Most of the time supervisors, managers, coworkers, friends and family members only think about how unpleasant or embarrassing that person is to be around. Some of the most frequent questions on the Ask The Workplace Doctors website, to which I contribute, are about such situations–which often have been going on for years, even decades!

Not all personal odors or grooming issues are easily remedied by the person who has them.  However, it is still the responsibility of the person most directly responsible for an employee’s work to talk to the employee and to document that conversation in case it gets solved now but occurs again.

Make sure you are being appropriate. Talk to the person above you in the organization, or to HR or others who can advise you about what is appropriate to discuss and what is not–and how to best talk about the subject. A supervisor lamented to me that he got in trouble for telling an employee, “You smell like *************!” I hope you wouldn’t consider anything that inappropriate! It’s possible to talk to an employee and get a commitment to make an improvement, without being crude, rude or inappropriate in any other way.

What is the link to work? The answer to that question can provide you with a reason to talk directly and immediately to an employee who is not pleasant to be around for a personal reason. That can give you an opening statement and help you get over your awkwardness about telling someone they must improve in that area.

*Could it make coworkers less likely to want to work closely with him or her?
*Could it represent the organization poorly to others?
*Could it reduce effectiveness with clients or customers?
*Is there something in the employee manual about appearance or hygiene?
*Could it be an indicator of a health or emotional problem that could become more serious?
*Could it distract people from their focus on work?
*Could it harm the effectiveness and professional development of the employee?

Any of those issues are reason enough for a supervisor or manager to intervene about hygiene problems. In addition to the more obvious ones are too much perfume (even strong smelling deodorant), tobacco smells, greasy smells and stains, foot odor, chewing tobacco residue on teeth and stale coffee breath.

Use the One Minute Manager concept: The book by Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson as been around since the 1980s, but it still offers a great approach, especially for awkward communication scenarios. The characteristics of a brief correction or re-direction (or other action) are: Immediate, Specific and Brief. It’s sort of like Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover–just do it.Bet you didn't know that bad breath can be caused by constipation!

Instead of being immediate, specific and brief, supervisors tend to talk all around the subject or try to minimize the problem to save the feelings of the employees. As a result they often cause hurt or hard feelings and still don’t get the situation changed—and a changed situation is the requirement for effectiveness.

If you supervise someone who needs to improve  his or her hygiene, appearance or overall personal presentation, fulfill your responsibilty about it. If you are a coworker or family member, help the person avoid public embarrassment by talking to them directly and in a friendly way. Talking about such things doesn’t require a judgmental tone or an embarrassed, nervous, hesitant approach. Say what you have smelled or noticed. Take the initial approach that you are sure they will want to do something right away to fix the situation. 

Expect some disagreement but get a commitment.A natural reflex when we are criticised or corrected is to be defensive and to respond hastily–sometimes angrily–to avoid embarrassment.  Expect that and don’t let it bother you or stop you. You have the responsibility and the authority to ask for appropriate changes, so do it without lengthy justifications and arguments.

Most of the time, even if an employee doesn’t agree there is a problem, he or she will agree to do something to change the situation. If that doesn’t happen, spend a few more minutes to insist upon it in a firm but friendly manner.

The bottom line: We live in a culture where body and breath odor, uncleanliness or unsightly hygiene issues are not acceptable. Usually they can be corrected fairly easily–but often a supervisor, manager, coworker or friend has to bring it to the attention of the person involved. If you  have that responsibility or that opportunity, do it the right way but do it.

Who knew there was a wonder pill?

I wonder if he is her boss and this is inappropriate anyway.











April 11th, 2010 Posted by | Challenging and Problematic People, Life and Work, Personal and Professional Development, Supervision and Management | 6 comments