A reader writes:
Two new secretaries in my office have body odor. The other staff have asked me to talk to them about it as the acting manager. How should I tackle this?
I do not envy you. I’m interested to hear advice from others too, but I think the best approach is to think about how you’d want it handled it if it were you and have a short, to-the-point conversation with each of them (separately), likely at the end of the day so they don’t need to sit there feeling self-conscious for hours afterward.
Be honest, direct, and as kind as possible. You can even admit that you’re nervous about bringing it up. Start by mentioning that their work has been good (assuming that it has been) and then say something like, “I want to discuss something that’s awkward, and I hope I don’t offend you. You’ve had a noticeable body odor lately. It might be a need to wash clothes more frequently or shower more, or it could be a medical problem. This is the kind of thing that people often don’t realize about themselves, so I wanted to bring it to your attention.”
Likely, the employee will be embarrassed. But if they’re combative, explain that they need to come to work clean because of the impact on the office. You might also suggest a visit to a doctor to find out if there might be a medical reason.
By the way, I’m assuming that the issue is one of not bathing/laundering enough, but if it’s more along the lines of cultural differences in food that can lead to different body smells, I’d ask the staff to be more tolerant. I’m also assuming that you’ve verified the problem yourself, so that you’re sure it truly exists (if you haven’t, do, since it’s not inconceivable that someone cranky on your staff just wants to cause problems for these women).
Also, there’s an excellent podcast on this topic from Managers Tools on this issue here. (That’s part two, where the real action is, but you can also listen to part one here.) It gives really detailed advice about how to tackle this.