How to tell an employee they smell

Smelly workers! Here is expert advice on this workplace issue. But first, some statistics.

By Metis HR.

How many workers smell? The stats from the research by the University of Bristol into body odour helps us work out that 0.5% of the working population of the UK smell and that 109,500 UK employees should use deodorants but don’t.

The study also tells us that a lucky 1 in 50 people have a gene that means they don’t produce body odour at all, and the fact that they’ve got dry ear wax is an indication that they carry this gene. Now there’s something to think about asking on your application forms!

One in every 200 British employees has a body odour problem which means that 6% of UK employers are likely to have an employee who smells. That’s 1 in every 17 workplaces!

It’s a problem nobody likes talking about, and even fewer like working with, but it’s a problem that employers need to address tactfully rather than leave it to their less tactful employees. A survey by Australian Recruitment Employment Office found that 75% of people find it difficult to work alongside someone with bad body odour.

What causes workers to smell? The obvious things: • Not washing/showering often enough. A survey by Laterooms.com polled 2,000 adults and found that on 111 occasions someone didn’t shower or bath on at least one day and research by the Universities of Manchester, Edinburgh, Lancaster and Southampton found that 20% of Britons wash just four times a week or less. • Not changing clothes often enough • Going for a lunch time run and not showering afterwards

Then there’s the less obvious things • Stress – we’re told this is the smelliest kind of sweat • Women not washing their bras often enough – “Many women overwear and consequently underwash – bras because they have too few that fit properly” according to bra expert Susan Nethero. The lacy odour-trapping fabrics touching the skin in more than one sweat-prone place means bras should be washed more often than you think. • The hormonal changes of menopause can cause some women to sweat more than they have in the past

Many people use deodorants and anti-perspirants to control their odour but there are cultural differences in their use. For example, most people from East Asia don’t produce smelly sweat, a quick trip to the supermarket in Japan will show the difference in the popularity of deodorant usage with a single-shelf in Japan versus shelves of choice in the UK.

But there are conditions which can make body odour worse. • Being male – men sweat twice as much as women • Suffering from excessive sweating - 1% of the UK population suffer from a long-term condition called Hyperhidrosis • Fasting – whether for religious or health reasons, can cause sweat to smell differently • Fish Odour Syndrome (Trimethylaminuria) is a genetic condition that makes the individual’s sweat smell like fish.

It’s not just sweat that makes UK employees smell and their colleagues complain. Bad breath is another workplace gripe; 64% of workers struggle to work with someone with bad breath. Then there’s smelly feet and too much perfume: 1 in 4 households in the UK has a can of Lynx lurking somewhere!

How many workers smell? Probably all of them, but some worse than others and it’s those that need to be spoken to before the matter starts to cause problems between staff members.

Now some advice. How to tell someone they smell is probably the job dreaded most by managers, even more so than telling people that they are redundant.

Body odour or bad breath is a sensitive subject, challenging to address, but it is just as challenging for those individuals that have to work with the employee who smells.

You do, however, need to be sensitive to the different cooking and eating traditions of different cultures which can affect body odour and the impact of fasting which can cause bad breath.

An employer telling someone they smell is far less likely to back fire than leaving it to work colleagues who may be less tactful about how they deliver the message (like the man who took his colleague into a side room and told him that there were two people in the room, one smelled and it “isn’t me”, or the colleagues who filled an employee’s locker with bottles of anti-perspirant). This approach can easily escalate into allegations of bullying.

How to tell someone they smell: • Talk to the employee in private. • Start with a soft approach • Do not say that people are talking about the smell or that people are complaining. Own the problem yourself and say that you’ve noticed the problem. • Tell the employee what the problem is as you see it. • Try to attach the problem to a business issue eg the impact on customers or colleagues • Ask the employee if they have any medical problem that you need to be aware of; there are medical conditions which can affect how much a person sweats (hyperhidrosis) and what their sweat smells like (Fish Odour Syndrome). • Ask the employee if there is anything in their personal life which could be causing the problem (finding out an employee has lost their home or is living somewhere with no washing facilities is likely to provoke a different reaction from most employers than someone just not bothering to shower). • Set out your expectations for improvement and a date when you will meet again to review the situation. • Ask if there is anything you can do to help the employee achieve the improvements • Reassure the employee that this informal conversation with them will remain a private matter between the two of you. • Make a diary note of the conversation. • Monitor the situation discreetly and hold your review meeting.

Hopefully the situation will improve. If it doesn’t you have an obligation to your other employees to progress the matter formally.

Can you sack someone for smelling? The short answer is yes you can sack someone for smelling but there are some sensible precautions you can take as an employer to avoid looking unreasonable. 1. Talk to your employee. a. Tell them directly what the problem is and what the impact of their body odour is, as you perceive it, on the team, on clients or some other business issue. b. Make sure they understand what you are talking about (sometimes our embarrassment can mean we avoid being specific about issue we find difficult to address) c. Establish if the employee has any underlying medical condition which may mean you need to make reasonable adjustments. i. Hyperhidrosis is a condition typified by heavy sweating. ii. Fish Odour Syndrome (Trimethylaminuria) is a genetic condition that makes the individual’s sweat smell like fish. d. Set out your expectations e. Set a review date

2. Talk to the employee at least once more before commencing formal proceedings against the individual.

3. If the employee’s odour doesn’t improve stick to your disciplinary procedure and take the matter through formal process, each time considering the appropriateness of a more severe penalty, the explanation given by the employee and the impact on the business. Each time give the right of appeal against any penalty imposed.

4. If there is still no improvement you should consider dismissal. But first, consider the “man on the Clapham omnibus” test. What would someone outside your company looking in think about what you’d done and how you’d approached it? Would they think it reasonable that you’d got this far?

5. If you decide to dismiss, follow your procedure then write to the employee setting out your decision and the reasons for your decision and offering the right of appeal.

So can you sack someone for smelling? Yes you can and in 1999 a newspaper did just that, there was an employment tribunal case brought by a reporter who had been dismissed partly because he smelled. His dismissal by the employer was upheld. The case presented facts that the employee had been spoken to about his appearance and odour on three occasions. Metis HR is a professional HR Consultancy based in the North West of England supporting clients across the country. We specialise in providing outsourced HR services to small and medium-sized businesses. Call us now on 0844 249 1133 to discuss how we may help you.