Strong smells can be distracting and lead to headaches, breathing difficulties, and other problems. Approaching an employee about their body odor can be uncomfortable—whether it concerns wearing too much perfume or cologne, not smelling pleasant overall, or something else.
There are ways to approach this situation to ensure a desirable outcome for all. First, check the employee handbook for any fragrance-free policies or dress codes that include language on attire and grooming. When talking to an employee about their odor, you can remind them of such expectations.
One way to approach the situation of someone’s body odor is to gently take them aside, in private, and be honest when starting the conversation. Having someone from Human Resources present is good for liability and institutional knowledge, as a similar situation may have arisen in a different department. An example sentence could be: “[Name], I asked you into my office because I wanted to speak with you privately. I know this is an uncomfortable situation, but I have noticed (behavior) recently and wanted to know if everything is all right.”
The American with Disabilities Act restricts employers from asking questions about health. It is also important that the supervisor not try to diagnose a health condition nor propose possible solutions. Instead, the employer can provide accommodations employees request.
Similarly, if the person ascribes to a belief that prevents them from using soaps or deodorants or requires using fragranced oil, they may need a religious accommodation. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Exceptions must be made for those who are following religious dress and grooming practices. However, as with accommodations for disabilities, the individual must still be able to perform the core functions of their job.
If the person does not have a health condition nor follow a religious practice related to the odor, the supervisor should reference the fragrance-free and grooming policies in the employee handbook and set a timeline for the problem to be resolved.
During the discussion, emphasize how the odor has affected others’ ability to work and focus on offering to help rather than citing complaints. Overall, be straightforward and discrete when handling the situation. After discovering the root of the problem, work through how it can be solved with the employee, and follow up with them later.
Finally, supervisors should note the possibility that complaints about odor are motivated by discrimination. Complaints could be hinting at a larger problem of harassment based on culture, religion, gender, disability, national origin, or more. Look at the bigger picture and if this is the case, provide sensitivity training to staff.
No one likes to be told they smell, and scent-related policies can be difficult to enforce consistently. However, in a customer-focused role especially, having some guidelines and a plan for addressing body odor or fragrance can prepare supervisors for a smelly situation.