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How to Address Body Odor and Other Hygiene Issues

Few situations are as uncomfortable for an employer as dealing with workplace hygiene issues. Still, poor hygiene can have a negative effect on clients, customers, and co-workers, and it is important for an employer to respond appropriately when presented with these situations. The following are some guidelines for addressing hygiene issues.

Develop a policy.

Setting clear expectations concerning personal hygiene and grooming can help to avoid the likelihood that the issue will present itself. Employers may want to consider developing a separate workplace hygiene and grooming policy and/or incorporating expectations concerning personal hygiene into their dress code or personal appearance policies. Be as specific as possible and provide examples of the company's expectations concerning personal and workplace cleanliness.

Understand workers' rights.

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and similar state laws, employers may be required to make reasonable accommodations for employees' sincerely held religious beliefs and practices, and for individuals with disabilities, unless an accommodation would pose an undue hardship on business operations. Therefore, absent undue hardship, when an employer's policy conflicts with an employee's known religious beliefs or practices, the employer must generally make an exception to allow the religious practice. For example, an employer that requires employees to be clean-shaven or to closely trim beards would generally need to make an exception for individuals who maintain beards as part of their religious practices. Note: The ADA and Title VII apply different standards when evaluating whether an accommodation would impose an undue hardship. Employers should consider consulting legal counsel when making the undue hardship determination.

Never assume you know the cause.

Hygiene problems may be caused by a variety of factors, including, but not limited to, medical issues, cultural differences, mental health issues, personal problems, and poor grooming habits. Employers should never assume that any one of these factors is the cause and should be very mindful of, and careful not to violate, non-discrimination laws when addressing a hygiene issue.

Meet with the employee in private.

If you have verified that a hygiene issue exists, it should prompt a conversation between the employee and a manager or HR representative who has the training and experience to handle these types of difficult conversations. The conversation should be face-to-face and in a private location. The employee should never be informed of a hygiene issue anonymously, via email, or in some other indirect way. If another employee brought the issue to your attention, he or she should be reminded that you will handle the situation and that they should not take action on their own.

Be tactful but direct.

Once in a private location, set the stage by letting the employee know that you plan to discuss a difficult topic. In some cases, the employee may be unaware that a problem exists and may need specific information about what the problem is. Provide an explanation of the issue, treating the employee with respect, using factual terms (such as, "you are reporting to work in stained clothing"), and avoiding judgmental language (such as, "there must be something wrong with you because it seems like a pretty simple rule to follow"). Cite your dress code and grooming policy (if applicable) and describe how the employee's personal hygiene is affecting the business. For example, if you have received customer complaints or if other employees have expressed difficulty in working with the individual, let the employee know about those complaints (without disclosing who made them).

Give the employee an opportunity to speak.

During the meeting, give the employee an opportunity to respond. If the employee indicates the cause of a personal hygiene issue is a disability, the employer should initiate an interactive process to determine whether the ADA applies and whether there are accommodations that may resolve the problem. If the employee mentions that a religious belief or practice conflicts with your dress and grooming policy, work with the employee to determine an effective reasonable accommodation.

Set appropriate expectations and document actions taken.

At the end of the meeting, communicate your expectations and next steps clearly to the employee. Document the conversations you had and the actions that will be taken to address the issue. If corrective action is the employee's responsibility, document the potential consequences of failing to rectify the issue, and set a timeline for resolution and follow-up. If reasonable accommodation is the solution, document the specifics regarding the need for the accommodation, the possible alternatives for accommodation, and how the accommodation will be implemented.

Conclusion

When hygiene is an issue, employers should focus on working with the employee to identify the issue and find a solution to the problem in a timely manner.

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