What to Do When an Employee’s Body Odour Is Overwhelming

After arriving at the office on a hot and humid summer day, you’ve probably worked up a sweat. You head to the washroom to freshen up, and then join your first meeting of the day. But when you walk into the room, it hits you. Someone else must have felt the heat, too. And their body odour has also joined the meeting.

Do you say something? Offer your personal stash of deodorant? Hope it goes away on its own? And as an employer, how do you handle the situation?

Studies have shown that 75% of employees find it nearly impossible to work next to a colleague with bad body odour, so it’s important to address the situation to ensure overall staff morale doesn’t dip. However, it’s best to do so with kindness, sensitivity and a focus on solutions.

Here’s what HR leaders need to consider when handling body odour complaints in the workplace.

Human Rights & Medical Considerations

Body odour is not a prohibited ground for discrimination because it is not a disability in and of itself. This means that employees in Canada are not protected under Human Rights legislation when an employer addresses body odour that may be the result of poor hygiene, or if it’s caused by the scent of smoke, excessive perfume, or other smells that are not related to a disability.

However, when the odour is the result of a medical condition, such as an allergy to deodorants, it is protected under Human Rights legislation and must be accommodated by the employer. If this is the case, the employee has to self-disclose (the employer is not required to ask if it’s related to a medical condition) and must provide proof of an existing condition.

In this case, you may wish to seek legal advice before taking further action. You could provide the employee with a medical questionnaire for their treating physician to complete, confirming what you can reasonably expect as an employer.

If a 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, etc.).

Respect privacy

Avoid humiliation by meeting with the employee in a private space where they will feel respected. Be discreet. Don’t bring up the issue across teams or in conversation. You want to be sure this individual doesn’t turn into a target of office gossip.

If you aren’t in a leadership role and your colleague’s body odour is distracting you from work, talk to your Human Resources team or your leader and trust them to handle the situation appropriately and with tact.

Be delicate and clear

This can be an incredibly sensitive issue for some, so it’s important to handle the conversation with care. Schedule the meeting on the same day you’d like to have the conversation to avoid creating nerves and tension leading up to it.

Here is an example of how you can approach it: “I would like to discuss a matter that has come up. There has been a complaint about your body odour.” Pause and listen. “Are there solutions we could consider? For example, if you walk to work, can you bring a change of clothes?” Remind them that this isn’t a reflection of their performance but rather the start of a solutions-based conversation that will benefit the whole team.

When planning the conversation, keep in mind that some roles may require more flexibility when it comes to body odour. For example, a Landscape Architect who spends all day outdoors in 30-degree weather and returns to the office to do an hour of paperwork is likely not going to be as pristine and well-groomed as an office worker.

Do not reveal which employee(s) complained.

It’s not necessary and it may damage working relationships and lead to greater issues among staff. If the employee asks who complained, or jumps to conclusions, 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.” Also, be sure to highlight how seriously you take the employee’s privacy.

Do not ask “why”

By asking why this is an issue, you are opening yourself up to a range of conversations that may be difficult to have. The employee may say they don’t believe in deodorant or they can’t afford to wash their clothing.

If they bring up the reason, you can actively listen and be compassionate – but the employee still needs to solve the problem except in cases of a medical condition. If they share that it is because of a medical issue, use the guidance above to navigate the conversation

Protect the malodorous employee from the poor behaviour of others.

An employee may suffer from psychological trauma if they are mistreated by fellow employees. For example, if other employees plug their noses or make comments when their colleague enters the room, they would be subject to discipline.

It’s important to create a culture of psychological safety in the workplace, so look at this issue as an opportunity to educate and coach staff on handling uncomfortable situations, and explore the possibility of sensitivity training or conflict resolution training.

Identify solutions & introduce policies
Be sure to document your conversation and the agreed-upon steps to address the issue. When possible, recommend reasonable actions, including:

  • More frequent washing and/or changing of clothing
  • Using doctor-prescribed antiperspirant
  • Using antibacterial soaps
  • Once you have identified solutions, schedule a follow-up, if needed, to check in on the employee’s progress and do a pulse check on their emotional wellbeing.

This could also be a good time to introduce policies addressing workplace expectations regarding scents and odours. Consider including personal hygiene as part of your dress code policy or introducing scent-free policies that support those with sensitivities.

Key Takeaways

While this isn’t an easy conversation to have, it’s an issue that can cause a big stink in the workplace, so it’s important to approach the situation with the utmost consideration. Here’s what you need to remember:

  • Body odour is not a human rights issue unless caused by a proven medical condition.
  • The conversation should be handled with sensitivity and care, ensuring your employee’s right to privacy.
  • Focus on solutions and be sure to follow up with your employee to see how things are improving.
  • Your employee deserves to be protected from bullying and harassment.
  • Look at this as an opportunity to introduce professional development opportunities on conflict resolution and emotional sensitivity.