My Boss Looks and Smells Dirty. What Can I Do About It?

A question to Ask the Workplace Doctors: How can I get my boss to improve her hygiene?
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Question:

My boss is the director of a mid-sized company and is second only to the managing director. She has recently taken over in our busy shop where we sell food and interact a lot with customers. Her hair smells like it hasn’t been washed for at least 2 weeks and it looks absolutely awful too, all straggly and greasy like it’s never brushed. Her clothes are always tatty and creased and covered in animal hair. It’s just not appropriate and it’s awful to work around as the area behind the counter is quite narrow. As a part-time employee, I have no idea how to tackle this problem and no other employee wants to help me. What can I do?

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Hello, thank you for sharing your workplace concern with us. You wonder how to tell a high level boss that her hair is greasy looking and smelling, that her clothes have dog hair all over them and that she generally looks unclean and untidy. That is a very tough situation, as you have found from the response of your coworkers. It is possible to tell a boss something like that, but it probably would not be accepted well and might result in negative reactions about your employment, especially since you are a part-time worker.

For example, you could say, “Oh, Jan, you’ve got dog hairs or something all over you, let me see if I can get those off.” But, that would probably embarrass her or anger her and she would feel you were trying to make her look bad. I don’t think there is any way you could be more direct than that, without putting your job on the line.

I recall what an old-time police sergeant once told me: “At some point, everyone looks in a mirror and say ‘I don’t mind presenting myself this way today.’” If your boss has looked that way more than once or twice or if she looks that way most of the time, she knows how she looks and she doesn’t care. If she is an educated person who has been working for a few years, she knows about the importance of good hygiene and also knows that not washing her hair for several days is bound to result in it looking badly—but she doesn’t care. If she has a dog, she realizes that a common complaint is that dog hair gets all over clothes and is unsightly and the dog smell clings—but again, she doesn’t care.

You say you work in a busy shop where food is sold and you and others interact a lot with customers. Usually I don’t like the idea of writing anonymous notes, but this is one time when it is probably the only option. Consider writing an anonymous complaint letter, as though you are a customer. Send it to “Manager” or “Owner” or the actual name of the manager or owner or Managing Director, at your business. You would write it using only the information a customer would have…maybe the Director’s general description, a name on a name tag or something else to describe her.

Example:

To whom it may concern,
I was in the store this week and noticed an employee who looked very unclean and even had a smell I noticed across the counter. She seemed to be in her mid-40’s, with greasy looking brown hair and shabby looking clothes compared to everyone else. I was surprised at how she looked, since I’ve shopped at your store in the past and never have noticed anyone with that problem. In fact, everyone else looked just as they should. I hope you’ll do something about it, because it really did make me think twice about buying anything, when I saw how untidy and unclean that one employee looked. It made me wonder if she was touching food and how clean she was otherwise!

Sincerely,
A concerned customer

If most regular customers would know who the Director is, you would have to word it differently and just say, “I was very surprised at how the Director looked…” (Or something like that.)

Whether the Managing Director or the Director sees it, it would obviously get back to the Director. If someone else receives it, they would probably forward it to one of those two or to HR, if your company has an HR office or coordinator. I would imagine, at some point, the Director will know about it.

If you try to send an anonymous note only to the Director, she might figure out who wrote it. Further, if she doesn’t do anything different about her hygiene, trying to then send an anonymous note will result in the note being viewed as false.

The situation makes me wonder how the Director got to be that status, if she has been untidy, ungroomed and unhygienic all along. Maybe the Managing Director doesn’t notice it or doesn’t care. Or, perhaps you’re more sensitive to the look and smell of people than someone else would be. If you have a supervisor between you and the Director, maybe the supervisor knows the history and can tell you if someone has complained in the past and what was done about it. However, if you do that, any anonymous letter you send would probably be attributed to you.

I’m afraid I’m not as much help as I would like to be. I think what I’ve suggested is about the only way to get the Managing Director involved and he or she is the only one who can make your Director clean up.

Best wishes to you. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens.

Tina Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors