Dilemma for Discussion . . . Body Odor, by Dan Stern
10.20.10

Today’s Dilemma for Discussion ("DFD"):

May we talk? There are some topics people really don’t want to discuss, but talking may often be the best way to resolve a potential problem. In fact, at times it is essential. Today’s DFD is body odor. Employers may be faced with a situation where an employee has body odor, usually an unpleasant body odor. It could be so bad that other employees, or even customers or clients, complain. The aroma may be caused by a unique diet or because the employee’s clothing has absorbed cooking odors. The problem is not always an inherently unpleasant smell, but could be the result of overzealous use of perfume or cologne. I remember getting my first batch of Old Spice and filling my palms with a good 2 or 3 ounces before liberally applying it. I thought everyone was looking at me because I smelled so nice, but as I reflect back on it, maybe not. Of course the smell could also be poor hygiene. This last cause makes the situation even more delicate and difficult to address.

Regardless of the cause, it is a situation, a DFD, which must be addressed.

Practical and legal points to ponder in these situations:

Who is the best person to address the issue? Are there any legal concerns? If an employee has complained about the odor, should he or she be advised of any action taken?

Tips for the taking:

First, verify that there is a problem, and not someone looking to cause problems for a coworker or merely a matter of the reporting individual’s personal preference.

Experience has shown that when a DFD such as this occurs, having a direct, albeit tactful, discussion with the employee is the best starting place. As such, it must be determined who is the best individual to have the conversation. If the supervisor has a good relationship with that worker, the supervisor may be the one to have the conversation. However, he or she should be thoroughly advised of the legal concerns and how to present the issue in a way that does not create a liability. Of course, if the employee and supervisor otherwise have conflicts, having an independent party makes the situation calmer and more effective. More often, the HR representative is tasked with meeting and talking to the employee. This may allow the employee to feel less embarrassed by not having to talk about the issue with someone they work with every day. Legal issues that may be implicated include the protections of the Americans with Disabilities Act, where a medical condition is causing the odor. Additionally, the smell may result from a special ethnic or religious diet or from the aromas of particular spices and herbs which have been absorbed into the individual’s clothing. In such a situation, a reasonable accommodation may be required.

Once the matter has been addressed with the employee, the reporting individuals do not need to be advised of any of the specific actions taken. They may be told that the matter has been addressed and if any further issues arise, they should bring them to the attention of Human Resources. If a reasonable accommodation is implemented, the other employees may need some information, but it must be carefully conveyed.

In conclusion, talking is almost always helpful in any Human Resource related situation, but with this DFD, it is essential.

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Daniel R. Stern
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