What Can We Do About Body Odor?

Question:

Are there any laws about bad body odor in the workplace and what can be done to get that person to clean up their act?

I work with a person whose smell causes us to be almost physically sick. He has been spoken and he is aware that he smells but says it is his culture and he has a right to smell that way.

We work in an isolated area and because of this, buses are provided for staff to commute. But with this person catching the buses as well, many of the staff refuse the free use of the buses and are car pooling just to avoid him. It is unfair as the buses are provided for everyone but because of his smell, it is costing the majority of staff who use their own vehicles because of him. What can we do?

Signed,

Holding My Nose


Answer:

DearĀ Holding My Nose:

You may have noticed we have a lot of questions and responses in our archives about body odor of all kinds. I answer many of them because I have dealt with the issue a lot in various workplaces. The bottom line is this:

1. No employee has the right to distract others due to anything over which he or she has control. Thus, this employee can be made to change his behavior or be dismissed. There are no laws that relate to such things, nor does one’s culture provide protection that allows it to continue.

2. Here is what it takes: Employees who will write a formal letter asking for an investigation, statements to be taken and action to follow. And, supervisors and managers who will do their jobs.

In the letter, link everything to work. Do you avoid asking him for assistance? That’s a link. Do you catch yourself not wanting to be in that area? That’s a link? Do you not make use of company facilities? That’s a link. Does it give the impression that anyone can refuse to obey a directive and get by with it? That’s a link as well.

List all the things that are harmed because of his odor. You may want to mention also that he misses out on the team participation he might have otherwise. You don’t have to emphasize that, just mention it.

The first complaint doesn’t have to be lengthy, just adamant that you cannot continue this way and something must be done immediately.

Get as many signatures as you can or have everyone write their own letter. If they don’t have the courage to do that, they will have to suffer through it, because it will probably take that kind of strong action.

3. Submit that letter to HR or an equivalent section and at the same time to your supervisors and managers. (Or just to your managers, according to the situation. By submitting it higher you may force your manager to take some action.

Keep pushing this and don’t let them stall on it or delay it more than few days.

If they want to, this could be fixed overnight. I have often worked with managers who said they had been dealing with something for years or months, but the problem cleared up immediately when they finally said, “You are to come to work wearing clean clothes and your body is not to have an odor that is noticeable to those around you, and you are to keep it that way from now on. It will never be acceptable for your clothes, hair or body to have an odor that is offensive and smells unclean. If you come to work in violation of this directive we will start proceedings to fire you. This isn’t a warning, this is a verbal order to you.”

In two cases the person came to work in compliance after that. In one she quit after talking to a lawyer who looked at the documentation and said she had no case. In one case the man came to work better one day but within two days smelled badly again, but the supervisor waited another month to say something. They lost all their standing to dismiss him at that point and had to start over again.

The key is to do it the right way. Document everything and never insult his culture while talking about it. Just insist his body, hair and clothes must be clean and not have an offensive odor.

I often use the adage: “We don’t own your attitude, but your paycheck rents your behavior and performance.” He is being paid to be a full employee who can work with others. His smell, whatever the cause, is controllable and he should correct it.

4. Keep in mind that he may not have the things at home to keep clean with. I have talked about odor issues to people who didn’t own soap,deodorant, toothpaste or anything else. I once sat with an HR rep who interviewed a man who said he hadn’t showered or bathed in several years, but his wife said he had a natural deodorant in his perspiration. So, you can’t depend upon your coworker’s family to help!

But here is the thing to suggest to HR people when you talk to them or write about it: It is not up to the employer to teach someone hygiene, any more than it is up to them to teach him to read and write. They hired him and they pay him to comply with rules and directives.

If they don’t have a policy or rule about hygiene, they should develop it now and enforce it with him. But, the former directive or counseling should have been enough. If he was clearly told to come to work smelling clean and to stay that way, he should have had action taken the first time he failed to do so.

5. This process may not happen overnight, although as I said, it can. But, often there is hyper-concern about these things.

As long as no one mocks his culture or requires something in violation of human rights or civil rights laws, they don’t have a reason to worry. But, they probably will worry and take longer than needed.

You may want to ask if he can be reassigned until they get this worked out. It shouldn’t take long.

That brings us to what will you do if they refuse to do anything? That is a tough decision. There is no odor control that will follow him around all day. So the only solution is for him to control his odor, not for you or others to mask it with sprays or chemicals, which can cause headaches and allergic reactions.

That’s when you and others will have to decide if you want to test the system by saying you can’t work there if he keeps smelling badly. That might be more than you want to do!

So, I hope making this a serious complaint will take care of it. Don’t back down on it. Don’t say it’s OK if he “tries” to smell better. Insist that the odor has to stop. You’ll feel badly about it at first, because some people will probably say they just try to ignore it. But stick to this until the problem is fixed.

I know I sound rather harsh about this thing. But good grief! This is so easy to deal with that it bothers me tremendously when I realize how few supervisors and managers will get these problems solved.

If he was coming to work late every day, they’d do something. If he didn’t wear a shirt, they’d do something. If he wore a rascist emblem they’d do something. If he rubbed smelly dead animals on his body, they’d do something. So, this is just one of those things they ought to do something about, for the sake of all the employees.

Please let me know what happens with this, if you have the chance. I’m always interested in how it works out. Best wishes!

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.