Every manager and HR Representative has to deal with this type of complaint at some point during their career. As a matter of fact, these complaints are reported in the work place much more often than you might imagine. There are your everyday complaints, “Danny comes in to work smelling like garlic and has such bad gas that I need you to move my desk away from his.” Some complaints are less frequent such as, “Sally is taking bathroom breaks a few times every hour and it is interrupting the work flow”. And then, the doozies like, “Frank’s body odor is so bad that I have to run when I see him coming to avoid him approaching me. I can’t work with that guy!”  Yes, they even get much worse than that, but we will leave the restroom complaints for another time.

You may be asking, “What does this have to do with investigations?” The simple answer is, everything. As with any other complaint, if the subject of the complaint is making it difficult for another employee to perform his or her work, it must be addressed. What is critical to remember before talking to the employee is that these issues may be related to activities or circumstances that could put these employees into protected classes. For example, in Danny’s culture people regularly eat very fragrant and spicy foods that may release an odor through the pores and cause gastrointestinal upset. You have no right to suggest he change his eating habits as that would be considered cultural discrimination. Sally’s frequent restroom breaks may be caused by a medical condition, or medication being taken for a medical condition that would provide her with disability protections and the breaks may be considered a reasonable accommodation. And although the American culture generally leans toward daily bathing, not all cultures do. Frank’s body odor may be due to his less frequent bathing or from a medical condition, we simply don’t know until we ask.

A great place to find potential remedies in these instances is a website called askjan.org. JAN stands for the Job Accommodation Network, a government sponsored organization that assists employers in finding reasonable accommodation for many different disabilities, illnesses and yes, even “odor” issues. (see http://askjan.org/soar/Other/bodyodor.html)

Here are a few quick tips to help you begin these difficult conversations in the workplace.

  1. Take the complaint seriously. Working in this type of situation can be uncomfortable and it was probably difficult for the reporting employee to come forward. Simply state that you will meet with the employee who is causing the problem and circle back with the employee as to what to expect moving forward.
  2. If necessary, take temporary relief action such as a temporary desk change for the complaining employee, but do so discreetly to protect all parties involved.
  3. Ask to meet with the employee who is creating the problem in a private location.
  4. Address the employee with concern using the following type of questions. Remember, often the employee is not aware of the smell.
    • Are you aware that there may be a strong odor coming from you or your clothing?
    • Several employees have noticed and are offended by it. Do you have any idea what may be causing the odor?
    • Have you recently experienced a medical condition or medication change that may be affecting you in this way?
    • I know this is uncomfortable, but it must be addressed in order to create a workplace where we can all work together comfortably. Do you have any ideas on what you could change that could relieve this problem?
  5. Be prepared with some literature that shows you have researched potential causes of this type of problem and ideas for correcting the issue. You can even suggest the employee may want to meet with his or her doctor for potential remedies.
  6. Let the employee know that you will need to find a solution, and allow the employee to decide if he or she would like your assistance.
  7. Finally, leave the conversation stating that you will be following up with the employee if necessary and that he or she can come to you if they need any type of accommodation.

By dealing with the employee in an upfront and respectful manner, you can often correct the problem without further incident.