Few situations are as uncomfortable for an employer as dealing with employee hygiene issues. Still, poor hygiene can have a negative effect on clients and co-workers. For this reason, you should be prepared to respond appropriately when presented with these situations. Here are nine guidelines for addressing hygiene issues.
#1: Develop a policy.
Setting clear expectations can help prevent hygiene and grooming issues from presenting themselves. You may want to consider developing a separate workplace hygiene and grooming policy and/or incorporating expectations concerning personal hygiene into your dress code or personal appearance policies. Be as specific as possible and provide examples of the company's expectations.
Keep in mind that some employees are sensitive to synthetic fragrances and may have trouble breathing and working when near them. To address this, some employers have created a policy on fragrances, asking employees to refrain from wearing heavily scented products in the workplace. The Department of Labor's Job Accommodation Network (JAN) also suggests:
- Maintaining good indoor air quality
- Discontinuing the use of fragranced products
- Modifying workstation location or work schedules
- Providing an air purification system
#2: Never assume you know the cause.
Hygiene problems may be caused by a variety of factors, including medical issues, cultural differences, mental health issues, personal problems, and poor grooming habits. Never assume that any one of these factors is the cause and be mindful not to violate nondiscrimination laws when addressing a hygiene issue.
#3: Understand workers' rights.
Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and similar state laws, you may be required to make reasonable accommodations for individuals with disabilities, and for an employee's sincerely held religious beliefs and practices, unless it creates an undue hardship on the business. For example, if you require employees to be clean-shaven you might need to make an exception for individuals who maintain beards as part of their religious practices.
#4: Verify an issue exists.
If you became aware of the potential issue because of a complaint, investigate to determine if an actual issue exists before taking action. This could be as simple as interacting with the employee directly.
#5: Meet with the employee in private.
If you have verified that a hygiene issue exists, have a conversation with 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, let them know that you will handle the situation.
#6: Be tactful but direct.
During the meeting, 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. Use factual terms and avoid judgmental language. Cite your policy (if applicable) and describe how the situation is affecting the business.
#7: Give the employee an opportunity to speak.
Give the employee ample opportunity to respond. If they indicate the cause of a personal hygiene issue is a disability or is a result of a conflict between their religious beliefs and your grooming policy, determine if there's an accommodation that may reduce or resolve the problem. Reasonable accommodations may include, among other things, providing the employee with time off to get treatment, providing an exception to a hygiene policy, or allowing an employee to work from home.
#8: Set appropriate expectations and document.
At the end of the meeting, communicate your expectations and next steps clearly to the employee. Document the conversation you had and the actions that will be taken by the employee and/or company.
#9: Follow up.
Schedule a follow-up meeting with the employee to see how they're doing. If an accommodation has been provided, confirm that it has been effective.
When hygiene is an issue, have a direct conversation with the employee and work with them on a reasonable solution.