What To Do When an Employees Body Odour is Overwhelming

Body odour is not a prohibited ground of discrimination because it is not a disability in and of itself. This means that employees in Canada are not protected under Human Rights legislation if and when an employer addresses uncomfortable body odour resulting poor hygiene, the scent of smoke, excessive perfume, among other smells that are not related to a disability. The issue of body odour is protected under Human Rights legislation when the odour is a result of a medical condition.

In most circumstances, you can address the problem directly with the employee, taking into account:

  • Their feelings – a conversation would need to be handled with kindness and care;
  • Their need for privacy – pick a location to have the conversation that will not cause embarrassment, and do not discuss the matter with anyone else;
  • The reasonable expectation for appropriate odour – more specifically, the context of ‘reasonable odour’ takes into account the fact that some roles may require more flexibility. For example, a Landscape Architect that spends all day outdoors in 30 degree weather and returns to the office to do an hour of paperwork cannot be held to a pristine expectation.

As the HR Manager or employer, be sure to document your conversation and the agreed upon expectation for hygiene or odour improvement. Schedule a follow-up for yourself if needed, if the issue warrants this level of significance Medically Speaking…

Employers would have to accommodate poor body odour if the odour is the result of a disability. In this case, the employee has to provide proof of the condition. As an employer, only address the issue as medical if the employee tells you there is a connection. Don’t ask: “is your body odour the result of a medical condition?” If this is the case, you may wish to seek legal advice before taking further action. You could provide the employee with a medical questionnaire for them to have filled-out by their treating Physician. The questionnaire can ask what you can reasonably expect as an employer.

If the medical condition is demonstrated:

  • Retain all documentation;
  • Ensure other workers are being sensitive and not harassing the employee;
    Identify solutions for other employees in the work environment (install a fan; move workers; open windows; or offer more flexible breaks; allow more telecommuting for the employee);
  • Determine when a new medical questionnaire can be provided

Tips To Address The Issue

Here are six tips that can help you address the issue of body odour:

Meet with the employee in a private space

Meet with the employee in a private space where they will feel respected and not humiliated. Do not schedule a meeting well in advance as this may cause them to become nervous. Do not tell anyone
else you are having the conversation because they may begin an office dialogue on the subject.

Be delicate and clear.

Here is an example: ““I would like to discuss a matter that has come up. There has been a complaint about your body odour. It may affect your office space, and other work spaces.” Pause and listen. “Are there solutions we could consider? For example, if you walk to work, can you bring a change of clothes? Can you launder your clothing in a new way?“

Do not reveal which employee(s) complained.

It’s not necessary and it may damage their relationship. If the employee asks who made the complaint, and starts jumping to conclusions and naming people, it’s best to state clearly: “It doesn’t matter who raised it. That’s not the point of our discussion today. I’d like to find strategies to solve the issue.”

Do not ask “why”

Otherwise, you are opening yourself up to a range of conversations you may not want to have. The employee may say they don’t believe in deodorant or they can’t afford to wash their clothing.
These issues may put you in a position to agree or disagree which is not the objective of the conversation. If they bring up the reason in their view, you can actively listen and be compassionate – but the employee still needs to solve the problem regardless of the reason.

Protect the malodorous employee from the poor behavior of others.

An employee may complain of psychological trauma if they are mistreated by fellow employees. For example, if other employees plug their noses when their colleague enters the room. In this case, the inappropriate conduct by other employees would be subject to discipline.

Identify solutions.

When possible, recommend actions that support improvement, such as the following:

  • More frequent washing of clothing;
  • Changing clothes upon arrival at work or over lunch;
  • Using industrial strength or doctor prescribed antiperspirant;
  • Changing diet;
  • Trying antibacterial soaps;
  • Reducing caffeine or alcohol intake, which may decrease sweating.

Once you have identified solutions, schedule a follow-up to ensure the agreed upon actions have taken place.

Want to learn more?

Make sure you know exactly how to deal with body odour in the office and what your legal rights are as an employer.

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