Conversations… How to Handle Those Awkward Situations

Last week I was doing anti-harassment training in an organization, and got the question I always hate – but hear every few years, “How do we talk to an employee with a body odor problem?” While it may seem odd on the surface, it comes up in organizations more than you might think. So common, in fact, that Inc. Magazine published a great article on the topic last fall.

Addressing the situation is a critical issue for your business.  It impacts other employees and customers, and while you might just hope it corrects itself, often it won’t.  The conversation can be handled in a professional way that will hopefully create a positive change for you and the employee.

I had an interesting twist on this situation early in my HR career when we spoke to a woman who had very offensive perfume.  Customers did not want to work with her, and co-workers were clear in how distracting the smell was.  When we spoke to her about it, she agreed not to wear the perfume in the future. The next day she arrived at work with the worst body odor many of us had ever encountered. When I called her in, she indicated that was the reason she was wearing the perfume. I expressed my sympathy for the issue she must be dealing with. Together we agreed she would try a number of other perfumes, and try wearing less of the original one. In the end, we found a fragrance that masked her issue and was mild and pleasant for others on the team to tolerate. She was very appreciative of the honest way we had the conversation in a factual manner and solved the issue.

The first thing HR professionals will caution you to do is to stay focused on how this impacts the team and performance. There could be an underlying medical issue. If that is the case, you will want to work with the employee to make any accommodations that are appropriate for your organization. But, it does impact performance when team members won’t include the employee on meetings and customers might choose to go to your competition rather than work with the employee.

When the situation arises,

  1. Witness the situation yourself. You don’t want to make it worse by letting the employee think there has been a complaint. Understand the employee, their lifestyle and be ready to treat this as a medical issue.  This is a very sensitive topic, and should only be addressed for ongoing or recurring situations.
  2. The employee is bound to be embarrassed. Take stock in your relationship with the particular employee. Are you the best one to approach the conversation? Maybe there is another manager they have a closer relationship with who is willing to address the subject. Be honest and address the fact that it's awkward, but you want to help.
  3. Have a private conversation. Be sure that in fact you are alone, and not in a location with traffic flow that may overhear the conversation. Consider conducting the meeting at the end of the day so that the employee can leave following the meeting and give thought to next steps. Imagine if you point this out at 11am and they have to sit at their desk all day!
  4. Ask the employee how you can help, and genuinely try to help them solve the issue. If it is medical in nature, be supportive of appointments and specialists. Get HR involved quickly for proper handling of ADA or FMLA requirements.
  5. End the conversation assuring the employee that they are a valuable member of the team – assuming they are. You appreciate the work they do every day and want to solve this problem together.

WiseStep highlights 20 ways to have the conversation in a quick overview. They point out many ideas that may work really well in your culture.

There are many conversations with employees that are difficult to have.  As leaders we need to take the step to address workplace situations, even when the conversation is embarrassing or uncomfortable.  Doing so will ensure you are always putting the whole team first and doing what is best for your business.


Originally posted on the HR Topics Blog.


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