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Not many issues are more sensitive or potentially embarrassing as personal hygiene in the workplace; as a result, mangers and supervisors often hand over personal hygiene problems to personnel in the company’s Human Resources department. While you may also be tempted to let a personal hygiene problem slide, it should be dealt with as you would any other employee relations issue. Handle the matter before it affects the morale, and perhaps even job performance, of other employees.
Managers and supervisors often hand over employee personal hygiene problems to personnel in the company’s Human Resources department.
Summary of requirements
Handling a body odor problem. If you’ve been made aware of an employee who exudes an unpleasant body odor, severe bad breath, or other hygiene concern, follow these steps:
- Verify the problem. Get close to the employee and find out for yourself if there truly is an odor; after all, the employee could be a victim of false rumors.
- Next, talk to the employee simply, directly, and confidentially. This subject requires your discretion — make sure your meeting is completely private. Be compassionate, but lay out the facts. You may assume that the employee is aware of the problem, but that isn’t necessarily the case. Because the sense of smell quickly adapts to odors, the employee may have no idea that he smells offensive to others. Also, try to have the meeting right before the lunch hour or at the end of the day; this way, the employee won’t be forced to endure the rest of the work day feeling self-conscious.
- Treat personal hygiene issues as you would any other job performance issue. Once you’ve discussed the problem with the employee, explain that you expect the employee to take care of the problem. You’ll want to monitor the situation to make sure it is getting better and to ensure that the employee is not being harassed by others in the workplace.
- Provide the employee with suggestions to determine an action plan to remedy the situation. Perhaps the employee needs to shower more often or see a dentist for more regular cleanings. Perhaps the employee has a simple, treatable condition such as hyperhydrosis (excessive sweating) and could benefit from seeing a doctor.
Here’s where the personal hygiene issue gets particularly tricky: If the employee’s body odor is caused by a medical condition, you may be obligated under the American’s with Disability Act (ADA) to provide an accommodation. Examples of an accommodation may include:
- Providing the employee with a closed office with an air-purification system,
- Providing extra time during the day to attend to personal hygiene, or
- Allowing the employee to work from home.
If your employee tells you that the unpleasant odor has a medical, or even religious or cultural cause, then it is suggested that you check with your company’s legal council before taking any action. You don’t want to open yourself up to an ADA or discrimination lawsuit.
What about poor grooming, improper dress, tattoos and piercings? The way your employees present themselves can affect your company’s image, especially if they deal with the public.
- Address grooming issues through your company’s dress code.
- Communicate your dress code clearly to all employees, especially new hires.
- Make sure your dress code appears in the employee handbook or can be found on your company website.
Of course, nothing in life is that simple. Employees can, and have, claimed religious exemptions to company dress codes. So, while you don’t have to accept tattoos or piercings if they’re only part of an employee’s preferred wardrobe, you may have to put up with them if they’re part of that employee’s religion. One court case involved an employer that ended up settling a religious discrimination suit for $150,000. An employee claimed that his wrist tattoos were a significant element in his ancient Egyptian religious practices. The company fired him for refusing to cover them up, and the employee appealed to the EEOC, which ended up suing the company under the Civil Rights Act citing religious discrimination.
When it comes to piercings, remember that you have an obligation, under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, to provide work and a workplace free from identified hazards. If an employee is wearing piercings that may get caught in equipment, or pose other hazards, you need to address it as a safety concern.
Try to work with employees who want exemptions to your dress code. Engage them in constructive dialogues to see if you can come up with a solution. Perhaps the employee could remove facial piercings during work hours or would agree to cover up tattoos.
Remember, you don’t have to provide accommodations that would create an undue hardship on the employer. For instance, courts have sided with companies against employees who want to display facial piercings when those employees need to work with customers, arguing that companies have the right to control the image they present to the public.
What about fragrances and Multiple Chemical Sensitivity? A growing concern for employers is “fragrance sensitivity.” Each year a larger number of people report reactions to the fragrances in perfumes, colognes, hand lotions, body sprays, and more. This condition presents a tricky problem for employers; there’s a fine line between accommodating an employee’s fragrance sensitivity and being the “fragrance police.”
Another name for fragrance sensitivity is Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS). People who suffer from MCS become sickened by chemicals, including fragrances, in the environment. People with MCS report headaches, asthma-like symptoms, difficulty breathing, light-headedness, even unconsciousness, in response to chemicals in the environment. They may react to substances and fragrances in concentrations small enough that others don’t even notice them. As the condition becomes more common, many employers are instituting “fragrance-free” policies. Most hospitals and clinics already have such policies in place.
Again, as with many medical conditions, you may have to provide a reasonable accommodation under the ADA, barring undue hardship. You may need to give the affected employee a private office or allow him or her to wear a face mask to work. There have been cases where employees react to everything — including other employee’s choice of deodorant, the carpeting materials, or even lunch smells. Make sure you’re on good legal footing before making decisions regarding an employee with MCS.
Stay current. Issues surrounding personal hygiene will continue to test HR professionals as employment laws evolve and public perceptions regarding grooming change. In the future, tattoos and body piercings may become more common and accepted in the workplace, while chemical sensitivities may offer mounting challenges for workplace accommodations. Keep your company’s policies up-to-date and stay current on the latest trends and cases in the employment law arena.
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