How To Tell Someone About Dirty, Smelly Hair?

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about grooming talk:

How do I tell someone who works for me that her hair is nasty and dirty? I believe she washes it every other night. She has bad dandruff and her hair is smelly, oily and just looks very nasty. She also seems to smell on the days she doesn’t wash her hair, so I can only assume she doesn’t bathe either. She is also very much a bully. When I have my talk with her, I know she will lie and tell me she does wash it everyday, but it is obvious she doesn’t. I do not want to hurt her, but this a car dealership and she is in front of customers all day (she is a title clerk). What is the best way to handle this situation?

Signed, Dreading the Conversation

Dear Dreading the Conversation:

Telling someone about a hygiene issue in a way that doesn’t completely destroy a working relationship seems challenging but it is easier to do than you might think. What makes it more difficult is when a problem has gone on for a long time. The employee is just doing what she has always done, so even though she realizes her personal care varies, she thinks she’s OK. Also, from what you describe, I would imagine she doesn’t much care what you think anyway!

Keep a few things in mind: *If she had smelled badly when she applied for the job the person hiring her would probably not have done it. *If you had it to do over again right now, you wouldn’t hire her unless she promised to come to work smelling and looking fresh every day. (And probably you would tell her she has to stop being rude to people too.) *If she is an effective employee she will comply with your request. If she is not an effective employee she will respond badly. Then you’ll know whether you want to keep her as an employee very much longer. (I really do hope you’ll do something about her behavior!) *She represents your company and you have a right to ask for different performance and behavior. If you noticed that she was making errors on titles you’d say something right away. This is an error of business-like personal care. *Very, very few people have hair that gets smelly and greasy after only one day of not shampooing. So, I would guess her cleanliness is poor all the time. It’s just more noticeable on some days than others. *Focus on a business requirement that the Title Clerk must be clean appearing and smelling, well-groomed and pleasant with both internal and external customers. That way you don’t create an argument about how often one must shampoo, shower or bathe to make that happen.

So, now the issue is how to tell her. You don’t say if you are a man or a woman, but the approach is almost exactly the same. You have two options and both can be effective. Both of these also work for discussing performance or any other kind of behavior.

1. Your first option is to discuss the overall concern in a counseling way. That usually involves a closed door session and is more dramatic in its impact. But, it leaves no doubt that there is a problem and that your expectation is for it to be fixed. You will have a private, more lengthy conversation for this approach. You can start with what I call a confidential tone, as though this is something that is between the two of you. “Fran, I’ve noticed over time that some days your hair and clothes are fresh looking and smelling and some days they’re not. Today is one of those days when they’re not, so I wanted to talk to you about it and make sure it doesn’t ever happen again.” (Put that word “ever” in there.) Stop there and let her respond. You’ve only had to say two sentences, which you can memorize ahead of time. When she starts talking, your discomfort will go away and you’ll be able to listen and respond back.You don’t need to respond very much because there is nothing she can say that changes the fact that you have noticed odors and it can’t ever happen again..starting the very next working day and never failing again.If she asks, you can suggest that taking a shower or bath, using anti-perspirant, shampooing every day and making sure her clothes are freshly washed or cleaned, is almost a certain way to be well-groomed and professional appearing all the time.You could also go into more detail if you need to, mentioning about visible dandruff, an oily, unclean appearance to her hair, an unpleasant odor. (It might be the products she uses on her hair.)Another approach that can be helpful is to pick a time when she truly looked and smelled just as she should. Use that as an example. “Last Monday your hair was clean and tidy. You looked and smelled fresh and ready for work. That’s the look you should have every day.” Just make sure you pick a time when everything was perfect, not just sort-of OK, or that is the standard she’ll think is acceptable. If there have been no perfect times lately, pick a time in the past that you recall when she had better habits. Or, say it’s never acceptable and go on to describe what would be acceptable. The mistake most managers make is starting with a long speech that focuses on how embarrassing it is, how much the employee’s work is valued, how the manager doesn’t want to make the employee feel bad, etc. That just prolongs the suspense of what the discussion is all about. In addition, if someone is inclined to be unpleasant it often gets the mental response of, “I don’t need your sympathy, just tell me and get it over with.”

2. The second option works well for many people and can be followed with the first if this one doesn’t make enough of an impact. It essentially treats the next time as the first time. You could have a private conversation or simply talk to her when you come into her work area, if no one is around. Use the same confidential tone, as though this is something you’re telling her to be helpful and that surely she isn’t aware of it. “Hey, Fran, I’m noticing that your hair just doesn’t look very clean or neat today. There’s even an odor on it that I noticed. Were you aware of it?”Stop at that and let her respond. She may have an excuse or she may say you’re wrong. But, it’s given you a chance to let her talk while you listen. At the end of her comments, give her the requirement: “Well, I figured you’d want to know. The important thing is to make sure you are always clean, fresh and well-groomed looking for a job like this.” That way you’ve established the first time discussion. If it happens again, it’s the second time. The third time should be the last time because dismissal should happen then, unless you have some complex procedure for such things. Clean hair and clothes are easy to maintain and failure to do so after being warned is a clear message that the employee is not willing to comply with instructions.With this shortened version, the bottom line still is that she can’t come to work looking or smelling less than clean, fresh and businesslike. The solution isn’t for her to wear a fragrance (for many people that’s a terrible thing to be around). The solution is for her to be clean and wear normal products for ensuring freshness.

If you want to comment only on the odor on her clothes or body, a handy way to say it is, “Fran, I’m noticing an odor on your clothes. I don’t know what it is, but it doesn’t smell very clean or fresh. Were you aware of that?”Don’t forget the fact that you view her as being discourteous, argumentative and intimidating in her behavior! You can handle her rude behavior in the same way. You can have a closed door session, or you can just say, as though it’s the first time (with a stern but helpful tone): “Fran, I asked you that question courteously but you answered as though you were mad at me for even asking. That’s not right and I don’t want you to use that tone with me or anyone else for that matter. So, what’s the deal?”

Once again you don’t have to do more than keep at the point that what she did wasn’t acceptable. You can discuss her concerns if you want, but still the bottom line is that her actions weren’t acceptable. You can warn her the second time. The third time is time to move her out and get someone who is clean, tidy and courteous as well as being good title clerks.I hope these suggestions are helpful.

We are frequently asked about this topic and I’ve received many responses telling me these approaches have worked. The times when it hasn’t worked have been when the managers didn’t follow through and insist upon a change. I’ve used the same approach myself dozens of times over the years, about every hygiene and behavior issue you can imagine, and always found it less stressful and more effective than the long conversations others were having. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know how it works out.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.