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


  1. How much would you charge us to come to Laramie and tell a guy that he smells bad? I don’t know what it is, because he has had the same bad smell for as long as I’ve known him. In one of the offices they use room spray after he leaves. I told his boss the B.O. story you told in class, but he says it doesn’t effect the guy’s work, so he can’t say anything to him. Do you have a B.O. consultant rate?

    Comment by wiseacre | April 12, 2010

  2. I love the old ads! What would Nullo be?

    The biggest problem is when it’s your boss who has bad breath. We had that problem once and we all dreaded having him lean over our desks to talk. Nice guy, but his breath would knock you over!!!!! I think that’s harder to talk to someone about than B.O.

    Happy Spring, finally! D.

    Comment by denisek | April 12, 2010

  3. As an HR specialist, the complaints I get from employees who have been talked to about personal issues are about managers who say something unncessarily crude or rude or who hint or say something in a public setting. It’s also wrong to leave an anonymous message on someone’s work locker or desk. I tell managers to treat this like any other work issue and not make it more difficult than it needs to be. Your advice is right on and would save a lot of concern and complaints.

    Comment by Careerist | April 12, 2010

  4. Tina says: Thanks to all of you for your comments.

    Wiseacre: Odor and appearance are part of work effectiveness and the manager simply doesn’t WANT to say something. The people using the room spray should ask that definite action be taken. And people like you could say something too. You could do it!

    Denise: I know what you mean about the bad breath issue. I once had that situation with my supervisor and started my program to improve it by giving him a mint and telling him he must have eaten something with bad after-effects. (That was the phrase I used.). Then I offered him a mint every time I noticed it. He never improved much, but he stopped getting so close to me, so that was a help!

    And, Nullo is still sold and many people think it is effective for them. It is primarily chlorophyll and isn’t harmful when taken as directed.


    Careerist: Thanks for your thoughts! I appreciate your insights.

    Comment by TLR | April 12, 2010

  5. Do you have any advice for dealing with someone who spits tobacco into a cup or pop can all day? It’s repulsive and gross to everyone else, but we’ve been told by HR that there is nothing we can do about it.

    Comment by J. B. | April 13, 2010

  6. Tina says: J.B., there are two ways to deal with it:

    1. Have the coworkers or supervisor link it to work and say that the sptting must stop or be done away from the common work area. The best link to work is that it is distracting for all the reasons you mentioned as well as others. That is more easily established when one or more coworkers or supervisors are willing to speak up about it. If no one is distracted or notices and there is no rule against it, then there is no problem. But, if there is a reasonable complaint made about it, there is a reason to do something.

    2. The best way to deal with it is to establish a tobacco free work-place (not just a smoke-free workplace.) Many places do not allow use of tobacco products at all, for good reason. What we usually call chewing tobacco is really spitting tobacco. It is unsightly in someone’s mouth if they talk; it is smelly on the breath; it is gross to see saliva being spit; and, it is obnoxious to see it in paper cups on desks or in the trash. A pop can is a better alternative, but is also unpleasant to see. It would be equally unpleasant if someone just decided to spit out their saliva all the time for no reason at all–so the spitting is the first bad part. The idea of communicating with someone who has black juice on his or her lips or teeth is another aspect of it.

    I’ve been asked about the more tidy little tobacco pods used by some. The issue at work is this: Is it distracting, is it harmful to others and/or does it reduce work productivity or effectiveness when interacting with others?

    If anything being done or used by an employee does those things a supervisor or manager should intervene to stop it or at least to find out more and work with the employee to develop a solution.

    Comment by TLR | April 13, 2010

Leave a comment