Talking to An Employee about Body Odor? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I am a branch manager for a regional bank. We are a small crew, and everyone reports into me. Things run smoothly for the most part. I have one team member—an older woman—who has terrible body odor. It is so off putting that I lose focus each time she comes near my desk. During our one-on-ones I have to breathe through my mouth. I am not exaggerating to say my eyes water.

This employee is fairly new, and is not a teller, so up to now it hasn’t been an issue with customers. But our lobby is closed and most customers use the drive-through. In the rare instance where we do allow customers into the bank, everyone is wearing masks. Eventually, though, we will open up again, we won’t be wearing masks, and I’m sure customers will notice.

A long-time employee that I have a great relationship with called me after work a few weeks ago and told me everyone is talking about this and I need to do something. I am a 32-year-old man and I just can’t think of how to approach this situation.

I really don’t want to hurt the woman’s feelings, but literally the entire office is looking to me to do something about it because everyone is suffering.

Delicate Situation

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Dear Delicate Situation,

Delicate indeed. This is a classic. Kudos to you for taking a moment to think this through. In my youth, I was an exercise teacher and my 7 a.m. class ganged up on me and told me I had to intervene with a regular who had the same problem. I was intimidated into acting with no preparation. I bungled it terribly and the member left the club and never came back. The owner of the club was furious. I was mortified. I couldn’t tell you what I said because I have successfully blocked out the entire thing. It got tucked into the same Black Box of Shame where I also store the time I asked an exercise client when her baby was due, and she snapped that she wasn’t pregnant. You only do that once, I can tell you. But I was young and stupid, and you are not.

You can’t avoid it—mainly because you have an audience and it is your job. If you don’t do something soon, someone will say something or do something offensive like spraying air freshener in the direction of the stinky employee. The next thing you know, you’ll have a hostile work environment lawsuit on your hands.

Step one is to talk to your HR representative, for a couple of reasons. If you are lucky, there might be something in the employee handbook about dress code and hygiene. That would give you a leg to stand on—to be able to point to a regulation that was shared at the beginning of the woman’s employment. It will also serve to give HR a heads up in case things go poorly and they get a complaint from this employee. You may even have an experienced and sympathetic HR person who can tell you exactly what to say, when to say it and how to say it. Wouldn’t that be grand?

I asked Kristin Brookins Costello, head of HR at The Ken Blanchard Companies, and she said:

“This is tricky, as some states have laws that specifically relate to what an employer can and can’t require regarding hygiene and appearance. Due to potential legal ramifications, HR should be consulted on any existing employer policies relating to hygiene. HR may even want to check with an attorney to ensure that the employer response is reviewed and cleared. In the end, the approach with the employee should be handled carefully due to the sensitive nature of this situation.”

If you can get your HR partner to take on this entire predicament, you should—not because you’re not capable, but to navigate any potential legal traps that exist. If you end up having to go it alone, here are some pointers:

Do:

  • Find a moment when you and she can have a private conversation.
  • Tell your employee that you need to discuss a delicate topic that may make her uncomfortable.
  • Make clear that you are on her side, and that the situation in no way reflects on her work performance.
  • Be direct. You may have to practice finding a way to say “you are too smelly” diplomatically. I grant that this is almost impossible, but something like “You have a noticeable smell, and it is distracting” might be a starting point. Try thinking about how you would want someone to tell you.
  • Make a clear request:
    • “I need you to make sure that you bathe every day, use appropriate deodorant/anti perspirant, and launder your work clothes regularly.”
    • “I need you to take appropriate measures to make sure that your natural body odor is not detectable by others.”
  • Be ready for any number of responses, including embarrassment or anger. Let it be okay; just listen empathetically. It never hurts to have tissues ready. Some people cry when they experience strong emotion. It doesn’t have to mean you have done something wrong.
  • Practice a limited repertoire of things you can say that you can simply repeat. “I understand that you are [fill in the blank: upset, insulted, embarrassed] and I am sorry.”
  • Schedule a follow-up meeting to revisit the situation as changes are made. I know you both will much prefer to pretend it never happened—but if nothing changes, you will need to discuss it again.

Don’t:

  • Deal with your employee’s upset by trying to make her feel better or minimizing the issue.
  • Make it about you. Ever.
  • Try to ease your own discomfort by backtracking, explaining, or talking too much.
  • Get dragged into an argument about whether the smell exists—your employee may very well ask who complained. So just don’t go there. Keep it about your own experience and resist the temptation to throw others under the bus.
  • Get into the details, like asking questions about why the situation exists.
  • Offer detailed suggestions on how to solve the problem unless you happen to be an expert on the topic, which I suspect isn’t the case.
  • Assume anything. You don’t know if she comes from a culture in which strong personal smell is normal. You don’t know if she has a medical condition that is causing the smell. You don’t know if she lacks a sense of smell—it happens a lot. Who knows, maybe she got Covid and lost her sense of smell for the long term—it is apparently a long-hauler symptom.  

This is one of those management hurdles you will never forget—a rite of passage. Your employee may never know the favor you have done her, and in fact may never forgive the insult. That’s okay. Your people don’t have to like you, but they do have to play nice in the sandbox with their colleagues.

All you can do is your job. The rest of your employees will appreciate it. Be intentional. Be clear. Be kind. Be firm.

Love, Madeleine

About the Author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

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