Human Resources News & Insights

Answers to tricky HR questions: How do you deal with an employee’s offensive body odor?

Our team of experts fields real-life, everyday questions from HR managers and gives practical answers that can be applied by any HR pro in the same situation. Today’s question: How do you approach an employee about a body-odor or bad-breath problem, especially if you think the source of the problem might be cultural or religious? 

What can we do when an employee’s religious or cultural beliefs result in offensive body odor? Or when eating certain ethnic foods causes bad breath that offends co-workers?

 You have to tread very carefully here, says HR consultant Lynn Nemser. One approach is to be sure the problem isn’t addressed as an ethnic or religious issue – or else you’ll be opening yourself up for a charge of discrimination.

So you can’t tell the person to stop eating certain foods  or order him or her to start using deodorant or bathing more regularly. Instead, you can make it a performance issue – their body odor or bad breath is negatively affecting the people they  work with and interfering with business.

If the employee tries to steer the discussion toward ethnic questions, remind them that the problem is body odor or  bad breath. It’s up to them to address those specific issues as they see fit.

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  • KD

    The question for today is about offensive body odor. Well what if it is your boss and his wife. How do we handle it? Anybody have an answer for this?

  • Jolene

    Maybe get a new job.

  • Larry

    Send an anonymous letter to them or get another job.

  • I actually had to address this issue with an employee since the offensive odor was becoming rather bothersome to co-workers who sat in close proximity. I had to call the employee into my office and quite discreetly express that perhaps it was time to try a new brand of deodorant since what she was using was not working. She then explained she was allergic to deodorant and could not use. She apologized for her offensiveness and said she would instead try a different brand of powder. Things did seem to improve. I think if this is handled with care and concern, that will come across and the employee will understand and respond well.

  • Kathy DeWitt

    I actually had to address this with a male employee. It was not a cultural or religious issue – he simply did not bathe. In fact, the employee told me he bathed once a week when there was nothing good on TV or he was not busy with his computer activities. I suggested he find another block of “dead time” for TV and squeeze in another bath. This was done as tactfully and delicately as possible. It went beyond body odor, as he allowed his hair and beard to go unwashed and uncut.
    He had dandruff in both. His clothes went unwashed, as well. Since this man was employed as a school bus driver and came in contact with students, their parents and school staff, I advised him that his appearance and hygiene were important for the comfort of everyone and the impression he made as a representative of the company.

    Things improved, somewhat, but when they started to deteriorate again an anonymous note and a couple of bars of soap went into his route mail box.

    Fortunately, he no longer works here, for reasons unrelated to the hygiene issue.

  • Robyn

    I’ve had to confront this issue a few times. Once it was a situation where the employee had become homeless but no one knew. That was an eye opener. She was so embarrassed, even though we handled it in a confidential manner, she quit. The second situation was a man who had just started with the company. Right after he was hired employees started to complain about his body odor. He was just a very big guy who perspired excessively. We were direct but tactful and he got it under control.

  • Sharon

    Our office has a similar problem except it is not an employee with body odor. It’s an employee who constantly picks on her face, scratches her scalp, and ears then proceeds to put her fingernails in her mouth. She not only does it in front of staff, but also clients can see her if they look into her office. I do not believe she even realizes she is doing it. She is a very good employee, but she has caused some staff members to get sick when seeing her do it to the point they have had to leave the room during meetings. How can I handle this delicate situation?

  • E

    I am currently dealing with a similar problem but in a much worst way. There is a man in my office who has a stomach medical bag. He use to have colon cancer and after the surgery the bag was installed. The side effect of the bag is the smell, it literally smells like a horrible “Vowel Movement” He also makes “unintentional” fart sounds all day. I have been complaining to my superiors about it for about 7 months and they have done absolutely nothing about it, all his work can be done on a laptop, my suggestion is to let him work from home until the bag is removed.
    I have sat with this man in the same office for full 9 hour days, absolutely mind numbing. Not even a candle from this guy.

    What are my options here???

  • Essie

    I provide free peppermints in my office for any staff member who feels (or is told) that their breath isn’t fresh, and doesn’t have access to mouthwash or toothpaste.

  • Chris

    I had this situation with a middle age man and I sat him down and told him that he had a lot going for him but his personal hygiene habits detracted from his presence. He broke down and cried and I referred him to the EAP. Turned out, his wife had left him and he was sleeping in his car for weeks!
    As for the program that E pointed out above concerning the employee with a colostomy bag, I would approach it from a medical viewpoint and state that we want to make a reasonable acomodation for him given his circumstances. See if he can work at home until the colostomy bag is removed. Also he should see his doctor since there may be something that could be given to alleviate the odor. God help us all if we are ever in that situation.

  • Clare

    As for the person above with the husband and wife with BO, I would send an anonymous letter. I had to do this once since an high level executive had terrible BO and everyone was afraid to tell him. He was an Ivy league grad attorney and obnoxious. I would have loved to see his face when he got the letter stating he smelled.

  • Merlynn Bertini

    I also have had this situation come up at various times in my career. It is never an easy conversation, but I believe it is one that needsto take place when other employees are being impacted. In one situation, there was a young woman (around 25) who was extremely good employee but had incrediby offensive body odor. Her manager came to me and said his entire department had told hm, they could not work because of the offensive odor. No one wanted to hurt her feelings, but they could not stand the smell any longer. The manager was a new manager and did not know how to approach the problem so, asked me. I was surprised she was not embarrassed in the least, she indicated that she usually bathed every two weeks–sometimes longer, and that in her country, was a very scarce and it was considered wasteful to use it for “unnecessary bathing”. Anyway, we talked about different “customs” being acceptable and unacceptable in different cultures, and their “impact” on others, she was open and agreeable to bathing and using deodorant.

  • Cathy

    Merlynn, what country was your employee from? I never want to this there1

  • betty coleman

    How do you address an employee who bathes in colonge to the point of making employees sick? I thought I heard of a suit that was successfully filed and won in Florida?