Human Resources News & Insights

‘Bob, you smell’: What to say to employees about embarrassing personal issues

Everybody dreads having those “difficult conversations” with employees about personal issues. Here are some examples of how they can be handled gracefully — including the actual words to use.

Paul Falcone, VP of Employee Relations for Time Warner Cable in Los Angeles and a respected author on employee management, gave an in-depth presentation on the topic at a SHRM conference in San Diego. Here’s a brief rundown of what he had to say:

Going in

Managers’ mindset heading into one of these confrontations is key to a positive outcome. A few of what Falcone calls his “rules of engagement:”

  • Each to his own without judgment
  • What you want for yourself, give another
  • It’s not what you say but how you say it
  • Perception is reality until proven otherwise, and
  • Put others’ needs ahead of your own by treating them with dignity and respect, and expect them to respond in kind.

Falcone’s take on two of the toughest personnel issues to confront: attitude problems and “aroma” situations like bad breath and body odor.

Attitude problems

Falcone offers three rules concerning confronting employees with negative attitudes:

  • Tell the person in in private how you perceive his/her actions and how they make you feel
  • Avoid the term “attitude” — replace it with “behavior” or “conduct,” and
  • Be specific about the problematic behaviors.

Some sample dialogue:

Lisa, I need your help. You know how they say perception is reality until proven otherwise? Well, I feel like you’re angry with me or the rest of the group.

I may be off in my assumption, but that’s an honest assessment of the perception you’re giving off …

Let me ask you: How would you feel if you were the supervisor and one of your staff members responded that way in front of your team? Likewise, how would it make you feel if I responded to your questions with that kind of voice or body language?

The odor issues

These are the discussions that make managers’ knees shake. A few well-chosen words from Falcone:

Dominic, I called you into my office because I want to speak with you privately … The feedback back is difficult to share, and I’m pretty uncomfortable right now, so I want to make this as simple and straightforward as possible: I believe you may have a problem with (bad breath or body odor).

________________

Roger,  I wanted to meet with you one-on-one because I need to share something with you privately, discreetly, and with as much sensitivity as possible …

You may not realize it, but it appears you have a body odor problem, and it isn’t merely a personal matter — it’s a workplace disruption issue I’ll need your help to repair …

I’ve had conversations like this with other employees before, and usually they’re not even aware that the problem exists. I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable, but are you aware of the issue, and if so, is it something you could take care of?

I’m here to help in any way I can. If you’d like to set up a fan in your office, or arrange your schedule so you could take breaks during the day to freshen up, I’d be very supportive of that. Just let me know whatever I can do to help, OK?

If you wouldn’t mind, though, I’d prefer not to have to address this again — it’s a bit uncomfortable for me. So is this something you feel you can fix from here on in?

Final tip from Falcone: Always focus on shifting the responsibility for fixing the problem to the employee — emphasizing that not fixing the problem will carry consequences.


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  • Mike

    I have had to engage in both of these type of situations. Yes, how one approaches how it is communicated is much more important than what is said. Behavior (or conduct) issues for me are much more straight forward to address. Regarding the more “sensitive” issues such as body odor requires some tact to be used. There are legitimate medical conditions that can contribute to these issues so you want to refrain from just assuming it is a result of poor personal hygiene by the employee (sometimes though that is exactly what it is). Addressing it in private is a must. I have found being tactful, but honest, usually addresses poor hygiene habits. If it is a result of a legitimate medical issue, then trying to find the right accomodation to reduce the issue (if possible) will need to be found.

  • Stacy

    The body odor/Oral Hygeine issues are always a biggie. Had to deal with body odor a couple of times and one was cultural, the other was a mental issue. Must always be careful going in because the person may not realize it even if everyone else does.

  • MThompson

    When as a supervisor I received complaints about a staff’s body odor, and the staff having the odor worked in direct contact with our clients, I sent the staff to a workplace etiquette training geared to international/multicultural workplace, where he learned how organic body odor in the workplace bears on professional reputation and why a soap smell is preferred in our workplace. This was effective where previous interventions delivered in judgemental, personalized language had failed.

    Staff who did not have direct contact with clients were also invited to attend the training.

  • Cheryl

    Had to deal with the body odor one as well. However it has cropped up again with the same employee. Dealing with it twice with the same person is a first for me. It really ticks me off that I have to address this again. Really, if someone had that conversation with you wouldn’t you be very careful in the future of making sure you shower regularly? This is an engineering employee with an office not a production worker who is working on the hot floor all day. I think this conversation is going to go a little differently then the first one.

  • Stacy

    @ MThompson: That’s is a great idea. In other cultures, they think americans stink with all the perfumes and deodorants we use, and we think some of them don’t smell so great with “organic” body odor. What was the name of the company that gives that training? It’s a great thing for all managers to have especially with diversity training being really big these days.

  • Judy Buckley

    Just my two cents: My husband had to deal with this years ago and said he was so nervous he was afraid he would be the one with the problem! He spoke to the guy, who said his bathtub water wasn’t working at the time, but he was pretty good after that for a while. Then, he reverted again to appearing at work with body odor. I think in a case like that, while probably not an actual mental illness, there is something wrong there. “When in Rome . . .” – take a shower!! Of course, I also cannot stand the smell of perfumes or colognes – those can be very irritating to the nose and throat, etc. I say, save it for the weekend and don’t inflict it on your co-workers.

  • MThompson

    @Stacy: Unfortunately the training service was provided by an independent contractor who is no longer in the business. What a loss, too, she was great! While searching for her contact info in response to your post I came across At Ease, based in Cleveland, who may be more high-end than you’re looking for but they’re very knowledgable and energetic.

  • Stacy

    MTHOMPSON: Thanks so much for the info! I’ll look it up!

    JUDY BUCKLEY: When in Rome…Take a bath!! LOL. True. Yes perfumes, body sprays, colognes can be extremely irritating. I remember being pregnant with my son back in 1996. I used to commute from White Plains to NYC on an express Metro North Train. 35 minutes no stops. In the mornings, there’d be morning breath, coffee Breath, cologne, perfumes, bodysprays and lots of nausea on my part. Almost bad enough for me to start driving to work again! It was so bad, I wouldn’t sit, I would stand up in the doorway because it was a gamble who you’d sit next too. Seems like since then, I just can’t stand it anymore. At my job now, we had to deal with EEs who want their offices to smell nice so they brought various plug in air fresheners of course in flavors only they like. Most of us (except me) keep our doors opened all day so imagine Coconut, meets Tropical Pleasure, meets, clean linen meets fresh cotten. AWFUL! They didn’t realize that not only were they making their offices smell really strong, those things sparked up major square footage and got all mixed up. They set off Migraines, Allergies, Asthma and a few other ailments. We had to ban them for the health of other employees.

  • I agree that the body order one is more difficult one to deal with. Years ago, there was a website that would send notes to the offender regarding them, but I don’t remember what it was. During junior college, my co-workers purchased toiletry items for some of our co-workers as a hint that they were offending others with their body aromas (not that I would recommend that now).

    I have an unusual allergy to some of the ingredients in colognes and perfumes that causes me to lose my voice and make me feel almost heart attack like symptoms. I mention it to individuals when they come into my office wearing strong scents. I also have a table top air cleaner as I am always dealing with whoever comes walking through my door.

  • Stacy

    SHANNON: We have several employees who have terrible allergies and get awful symptoms like you and they too have purchased Air Purifiers which they say helps them tremendously. Sometimes, it can just be dust or EEs that smoke and walk to and fro which can irritate them.

    With that employee that had a mental problem, her co-workers would bring in air fresheners (those tree air fresheners) to try to combat odor. When we spoke to this person, she refused to believe that anyone smelled anything and wouldn’t straighten anything out. We literally threatened her job before she admitted what the problem was and worked on fixing it.

  • steve

    I agree with the people on this thread. We on the far left despise body odor because it only reenforces the unfair stereotype that we’re all just hippies at heart.

  • MThompson

    We’ve realized in the course of this thread that perfumes/colognes are body odor. Not only are body odors offensive, they’re damaging to professional reputation and the appearance of competency.

  • JohnnyHR

    Body odors issues are tough. Even perfume can be overwhelming to some people. Best thing to do if employees complain is state the fact: co-workers have complained. Usually the employee will know there is a problem and promise to do better. Denial requires some finesse to get the person to realize there is a problem. We have sent people out to counselors and all that, but some just don’t get it. I have had to terminate a couple of people because the situation did not improve.

  • As difficult as it is for HR it may be even more difficult for the employee where the problem is due medical issues. So bite the bullet. I have had to represent several such employees. One was very frank with me in divulging that after he was fired for contantly having the smell of urine about him, he sampled relatives and friends and found it to be true, but no one would/had told him. The problem, he’d had a prostatectomy and was “leaking,” and simply didn’t know it. The accommodation was easy. Bring easy. Get rid of his old urine soaked clothes, which he was happy to do. Thereafter, bring a change of underwear, and use these “baby wipes,” to freshen up on morning break, at lunch and at afternoon break.

    In a breath situation where the person realized it, had sought all kinds of medical interventions, but nothing worked, it was agreed that employee would not be offended (employee’s idea) and coworkers would not be embarrassed or feel badly where the person simply spoke, when close up, using a gauze pad. The employer and the employee agreed to limit exposure to non-coworkers.

  • WestofLeft

    The other day a prospect came into my office for the standard first encounter in the application process.

    In the fall and spring I get a bit of hay fever (it’s allergies), and do some sneezing and eye-watering. It’s a part of my life and I cope as I can.

    But when this lady came into my office I immediately began coughing. It soon became apparent that her makeup, perfume or other preparation was the cause of my coughing, as I hadn’t coughed over the past week. I told her that was the case, and she said, “it’s hypo-allergenic”. Not to me.

    As MThompson says, various body additives can amount to an offensive odor. If I had to work in a cubicle next to a person exuding as she did, I would definitely have a problem. Not one I could cover up with little tree air fresheners, either.

    She’s going to get the job, probably. We’ll see what happens with her makeup habits. I don’t sit in Operations.

  • Mary

    One training course I attended had a brief film on this issue and the suggested script was “Sometimes the odor of your body is too noticeable and it is a problem for people around you. How can I help you address this?” So, everyone’s body has an odor but yours is “too” much and it’s your problem to fix. This approach isn’t so hard on the person delivering the message and just in case it’s a medical situation, it’s friendly and supportive. It won’t work for a hard case with a chip on the shoulder, of course but that’s why you practice saying “honestly, sometimes the odor makes my eyes water.” It’s “the odor”, not “you” that’s the problem.

    We need to get over our fear of olfactory terrorism and call out the problem.

  • JohnnyHR

    A few months ago I received complaints about an employee’s odor. HR to the rescue………I assessed the situation (sniffed around) and discussed it with the employee. Turned out he showers every morning, but on that particular day he started using some sort of men’s body wash or such. I suggested to him that sometimes particular artificial fragrances – such as colognes or perfumes – don’t mesh well with the user’s particular body chemistry / odor. The next day he didn’t use the stuff and there was no further problem. It’s always good to recognize that several factors can contribute to body odor and some of them are not necessarily within the control of the person. Mary’s post has some good advice.

  • EKA

    Judy Buckley: Thank you for bringing up the subject regarding perfume in the work place. And Stacy for mentioning that some people are allergic to perfume. About 6 months ago, I had 2 employees who must have bathed in their perfume. First of all, I am allergic to perfume to the extent that my throat closes up when there is someone wearing perfume close by. Unfortunately, one of the employees thought I was joking and the other just tried to avoid coming into my office altogether. Finally, someone came up to me and complained. After a final discussion with the 2 employees, and in conclusion, both employees stopped wearing their perfume to work. Hallelujah! Besides, cologne, perfume and other scents should be reserved for your spouse / companion. Why is this so hard to understand?

  • JohnnyHR

    About 20 years ago I worked at a company whose receptionist could never hide from anyone, even if she wanted to. I always new when she was around because I could smell her perfume from 50 feet away. I guess several co-workers complained and she was talked to. All I know is she attained that state that every employee should strive to attain – zero aroma.

  • Judy Buckley

    JohnnyHR: Right on! Zero is best. It’s funny that the wearers never seem to realize how strong the stuff really is and they say things like, “It’s so light” or “I don’t think you can wear too much” – just in general conversation. One former co-worker of mine liked a particularly awful (to me) scent that was very popular at the time, and so did a customer, and you could smell it from several feet away and for several minutes after the customer left. Also, the co-worker’s scent would transfer to the phone we all used, so it was hard to get away from it. So glad that scent doesn’t seem to be around any more.

  • Misti

    These are some good tips, but what if it’s your boss that’s wearing the strong perfume? My boss does, and it’s sometimes hard to take. I’m not allergic to perfumes, but I do have a sensitivity to them. There have been times where she’ll walk down the hallway, and I start coughing and all I can taste is her perfume. If anyone has any suggestions for this tricky situation, please let me know!

  • Mary

    Poor Misti! Do you have a staff handbook that has a section on scent? Perhaps you propose adding a section due to several concerns brought to you from sufferers? YOu don’t have to say how MANY sufferers if you are the only one. Our handbook has this at the end of the section on appropriate attire:

    “Because of allergic sensitivities of others, employees are requested to refrain from wearing strong scents at work. ”

    Perhaps you can get a positive response if iyou position it for the common good, not just you. If you are leery of that, can you have a personal air purifier near your work area? It may help you recover faster and can be a conversation starter of “no matter how much I wish it weren’t so, scent gives me a terrible headache and distracts me from my work”. Sort of one-down-manship. That makes your nose the problem but because you are a kind and gentle spirit others should want to help by discontinuing their use. A bit lame, I know. Good luck

  • JohnnyHR

    Misti – How about posing to your boss a hypothetical situation? “Boss, what would we do if employees complained about a co-worker wearing too much perfume? Some people are very sensitive to such things.” My guess is Boss will say it would have to be addressed with the co-worker. Then you could ask, “What if that co-worker is a supervisor and people aren’t sure how to approach her about it?” By this point, Boss may pick up on the hint. She may tell you how. And she may tell you how SHE would want to be approached because she has a clue you’re talking about her. If she doesn’t pick up on it, a more direct approach may be necessary. I don’t know anything about your boss, but it’s not an easy situation for you to be in. Good luck with it.

  • WestofLeft

    I think JohnnyHR’s approach is a superior one. Good form!

  • Louise

    I know this is an old thread, but I sincerely hope someone reads this and can offer up advice. I am a member of the local YMCA. They do have a scent-free policy, but do not enforce it whatsoever. In fact, I was told this past week that they need to balance the needs of ALL their members and are looking at whether they have a scent-free or scent-reduced facility. Regardless, if they don’t figure out how to approach members, nothing will ever change.

    As a sidenote, I work for the provincial Lung Association and have offered to give them a scent-free implementation strategy, which they “seem” happy to have. However, we also made them signs a few years ago…which were never posted.

    In any case, if someone would give me a line of what to say to perfumed and Axed up gym-goers, I would GREATLY appreciate it!!!

    Many thanks!

  • H2r

    Find like-minded individuals and approach the YMCA as a group. The number in your group should represent a sizeable percentage of their membership or it will not move them. If you have trouble finding enough like-minded members, then perhaps they are correct in that they are meeting the needs of the majority. In that case perhaps you will have to adapt. Good luck