update: how to talk to an employee about body odor

Remember the manager who needed to talk to an employee about body odor? Here’s her update:

I did talk to the employee, and I am not going to kid you — this is probably the toughest conversation I’ve ever had with a subordinate. (And yes, I have fired people before. This was worse.)

Before we talked, I kept telling myself, “This isn’t about you, so stop being such a wuss. This is about helping her. If you don’t talk to her, who will? Someone needs to help her.” So I presented the information in most compassionate way possible, pointing out that I had noticed some changes in her appearance and grooming and was worried about her. I explained that while we have no dress code, there are certain standards that we’re all expected to abide by — clean clothing, good hygiene, etc. — and that she was coming up short in these areas.

To my amazement, she did not seem surprised by anything I had to say. Apparently some other coworkers had already said things that were critical to the point of being cruel. Even more amazing, she thanked me for bringing it to her attention and for having the courage to go there.

I did not pry into her personal life or ask why these things were happening, just offered my support, as well as further support through HR if she needed it, and then asked if she felt these problems were things she could correct. She said they were, and she could. And she has. Though this was incredibly difficult to do, it seems to have made a huge difference.

Thanks to all on Ask a Manager who encouraged me to man up and have this conversation with her. It was absolutely the right thing to do, and I pray that if I’m ever in similar straits, someone will have the balls to have that conversation with me.

{ 68 comments… read them below }

  1. Jamie

    Professional, adult, and kind. Nice job. I hope whatever she was dealing with has been resolved as well and that she’s in a better place.

  2. JenTheNiceHRGirl

    Kudos to you for being brave and having the dreaded hygiene conversation. This has always been my least favorite conversation to have. It is nice to hear that the employee took it well and that she was able to act on your feedback. If you didn’t say anything to her, it sounds like it could have turned from an awkward situation to a really bad situation, especially with other employees making cruel comments towards her.

    1. Yep!

      It looks like it did make a difference:

      “[I] asked if she felt these problems were things she could correct. She said they were, and she could. And she has. Though this was incredibly difficult to do, it seems to have made a huge difference.”

  3. The Other Dawn

    Wow! I think this is my favorite update so far. I think it’s because it’s a success story that I aspire to. I’m someone who finds it extremely difficult to have any kind of negative conversation with employees so this shows me that it can work out for the better, all around.

      1. Jazzy Red

        I think the key here was the OP’s self-talk about it not being about him, but about helping her.

  4. JessA

    Wow.

    I can’t imagine having to be in your shoes. Well done. Thank you for keeping your discussion positive and constructive – and most importantly – humane.

  5. Kathryn T.

    What a kind, clear, responsible, effective discussion. I am going to steal this format — expectations, reality, specific instructions, offer support, “do you think you can change this.” Well done, OP.

  6. thenoiseinspace

    Poor woman. I could be misinterpreting this, but it sounds like she knew it was the case, and simply wasn’t in a position to correct it earlier (at least, that’s how I’m reading it, since she already knew about the issue). Is it possible that she was going through a really rough patch and having to sleep out of her car, or something?

    Kudos to OP for having this talk and for doing it professionally. I’m glad the woman fixed the problem, and I hope she’s okay now (if there was something wrong previously).

    1. nyxalinth

      My partner was in a verbally (and semi-physically) abusive relationship. Every time she tried to shower, her husband would start being a bellowing jerkass, and worse, he would hit the kids. It resulted in her going long stretches (sometimes up to two months) without bathing, and even after she dumped him, it was very hard for her to take care of herself. she’s come a long way, and I’m very proud of her. I wonder if some sort of mental/emotional trauma might have been part of it for the lady in question, too.

  7. Lily in NYC

    Standing ovation! I know you must have been so anxious the night before your talk. I had to let a temp to perm candidate go last week and I was sick to my stomach worrying about it for 3 days beforehand.

  8. Ann Furthermore

    Oh wow, well done!! Good for you for addressing the issue, and doing it with kindness and compassion.

    Now, going forward, whenever you’re really dreading having to do something, you can tell yourself, “This will be bad, but it won’t be as bad as having to talk to my employee about her personal hygiene.” You can use it as a measuring stick for the future. :)

    1. FD

      Didn’t Alison say the first person she had to fire ended up suing, and that ended up being the measuring stick for ‘not as bad as…’?

          1. Jamie

            I knew she couldn’t resist checking in.

            Alison – enjoy your time off!

            Speaking of which isn’t it kind of a weird vibe with her not around? Like we’re staying in her house for the weekend and she got called away on business…so everyone is on their best behavior and hoping someone knows where the towels are.

            That analogy kinda fell apart on me …sorry…

            Hope you’re having a great time…any bets on whether Alison leaves managing tips on the comment cards for her honeymoon hotel? :)

            1. Chinook

              Alison, I am going to tell you the same thing I told my boss when he insisted on checking emails on his honeymoon – put down the computer. If the chocolate teapot factory is on fire, we will call you otherwise trust that you have good people who don’t need you this week.

              And if you do this again, I will arrange for ALL my emails to show up at 9:03 your first day back (and show others how to do it too!). Don’t make me do it!

  9. Anonna Miss

    Hrrmmphh. Not So NewReader never told us the name of the organic body wash that she mentioned in the comments.

  10. ExceptionToTheRule

    Well done. That’s the one of the worst conversations to have to have with people. You have my admiration for doing it so well.

  11. Lori

    Sounds like OP handled this really well. As an aside, I couldn’t help noticing the “man up” and “have the balls to…” remarks, and as a female am somewhat offended. I’m sure the OP didn’t even realize it, but it suggests male superiority in the ability to tackle a difficult situation head on.

    1. Twentymilehike

      I’m a woman and I’m not offended at all, and I don’t feel like it indicates male authority. I’ve come to realize that “balls” doesn’t really mean “testicles” anymore. A lot of words are like that these days. You can’t let it get to you … All you can do is not use it and hope people around you follow suit. But expecting others to feel that way isn’t really reasonable anymore, IMO.

      1. FD

        I do understand your point.

        Here’s the thing, though. If there weren’t any gender-related biases related to the exercise of authority, it wouldn’t matter. But, a woman who acts authoritatively is still likely to get called a bitch, and to have people see her in a more negative way than an equally authoritative man. There’s also still a lot of expectations that a woman who is exercising authority has to be masculine to be taken seriously; many women who have stereotypically feminine traits (such as a preference for light colors and floral fabrics or a soft voice) really struggle with this.

        With that background, pairing the concept of male genitals with exercising authority in a difficult setting is problematic. It’s not a deliberate offense, but it can reinforce subconscious ideas that are problems.

      2. LondonI

        ” I’ve come to realize that “balls” doesn’t really mean “testicles” anymore.”

        Hmm, I disagree – I hear the expression “grow a pair” often enough. The connection is still there.

    2. FD

      I’m sure no offense was intended, but as Lori says, this kind of phrasing is problematic, and it’s probably best to avoid it.

        1. Jessie

          Thanks! It’s hard to bring this sort of thing up as a lot of people forget that a lot of our language habits/common expressions have sexist, racist, or other problematic overtones. As you say, no offence was intended but I think it’s important to think about why we would never say “woman up” or “have the ovaries to…”

          Language matters!

          1. KellyK

            Actually, I do use those phrases (“woman up” and “have the ovaries to”) for that very reason. (Not that I came up with them…I saw someone on a feminist blog just casually use them, thought “Hey, I like that” and added it to my personal lexicon.

            1. Jamie

              And this is totally not offensive to me personally, but I’m on an awesome forum with women dealing with reproductive surgery and I know some who have had bilateral oophorectomys (removal of both ovaries) who would be devastated by that phrase.

              I just know people who have struggled and continue to struggle to separate their reproductive organs from who they are and not see their removal as a loss of femininity or womanhood or an inherent part of who they are as a person there is no way I could use a phrase that equates having ovaries with any unrelated character trait.

              But of course no offense was intended, and it’s a small segment of the population that would be wounded by that phrase…and to that point do we sanitize everything that comes out of our mouths or fingers so we don’t offend someone somewhere? Is that even possible?

              I don’t think it is – so I think if we all do the best we can not to knowingly offend others we should also give others the benefit of the doubt when it comes to how things are intended.

    3. Elizabeth West

      That didn’t really bother me…it’s gotten so generic, like calling everybody, regardless of sex, “dude.” But I can see how some people might be bothered by it.

      I don’t care if people think I’m being a bitch when I rightly stand up for myself. I figure they’re just being pissy if they mutter it under their breath or say it behind my back . That’s their problem, not mine.

      1. VintageLydia

        I think the issue isn’t whether Joe Schmoe on the street thinks your a bitch, but when your effectiveness as a manager is called into question or whether you are promoted to begin with because people think you are a bitch is (even if you do nothing differently than your male colleagues.)

        Think about Tiger Mike. Most people around here thinks his emails are kinda funny, he’s somewhat respected, and some even said they’d jump at the chance to work for him.

        Now what if he was Tiger Michelle. I guarantee you the reactions would be much different.

        Aggressive masculinity is considered a good thing, something to be praised, and essential to get ahead.
        Aggressive femininity is, at best, considered a joke. At worse, a woman who can’t handle her emotions, takes things personally, and is a tyrant.

        I know in the grand scheme of things “man up” and “grow a pair” are small potatoes. But language is powerful, and it’s the only real power most of us have.

        1. Jamie

          You make an excellent point about Tiger Mike.

          I find him hysterical and yes, part of me would love to work for him because he seems like a jerk but devoid of games and politics. And I’ve had a lot of success in the past working really well with people like that, and part of that is because other people can’t stand to work with them so you go further when their crap doesn’t bother you.

          Would it be different if he were Tiger Michelle? I really don’t know – I am sure it would for a lot of people.

          My personal take on feminism is that there is no inequality between men and women – we’re all individuals and should be judged based on what we do and not the content of our chromosomes. But I do think there are differences between men and women (generally – not that there are not tons of exceptions to the rule) and some of those differences are in communication styles and how we deal with conflict.

          So would I be more shocked by a Tiger Michelle? Yes. Because socially it’s more out of the norm for a woman to be so in your face about it.

          This blog has made me more sensitive to language, because it’s brought to light how things that don’t offend me can offend others and it doesn’t hurt me to err on the side of not offending when possible.

          That said, personally the comments don’t offend me. I’m a woman in a male dominated field/environment and I have earned respect by being myself with very few tweaks to my personality. I have never felt like I had to act more masculine to get things accomplished…but maybe because I’m fairly direct (even while being diplomatic) it hasn’t been an issue.

          1. Elizabeth West

            So would I be more shocked by a Tiger Michelle? Yes. Because socially it’s more out of the norm for a woman to be so in your face about it.

            See, I would not care if the person were male or female. I would be shocked (annoyed, really) if anyone got in my face when it wasn’t warranted. My standard reply to that is “Excuse me?!?” If it is warranted, then I say, “Well okey dokey then!!!”

      2. Elizabeth West

        Aggressive femininity is, at best, considered a joke. At worse, a woman who can’t handle her emotions, takes things personally, and is a tyrant.

        I think we would all agree that the at-worse behavior would be unprofessional in any manager, male or female!

        I just meant that I don’t let stereotypes stop me from asserting myself if I need to. I’m not a manager and probably never will be, so that really doesn’t apply, but there are plenty of situations where I need to stand up and voice my rights/displeasure/warn people of impending doom. If they think I’m a bitch, so be it. I can’t control their thinking–I can only make sure that if I must assert, I stay reasonable about it.

    4. KellyK

      Yeah, that bothered me too. I know it’s a phrase people use without thinking about it in depth, but the phrase only makes sense *because* people associate courage with maleness.

    5. Cath@VWXYNot?

      I love Dan Savage’s take on this, which is that we’ve got things completely backwards. To paraphrase: balls are used in language as a symbol of strength and assertiveness, whereas they’re actually the most vulnerable part of a man’s body – look how much protection they need when playing sport! In contrast, the vagina [except he doesn’t say vagina, I just don’t want to end up in the spam filter] is used as a term that symbolises weakness, especially when applied to a man – but in fact it’s an incredibly strong part of the body that can withstand a massive amount of pain in childbirth.

  12. ChristineSW

    Well done OP!! As someone who really struggles when receiving even constructive feedback, I appreciate your compassion towards this situation. Even better is how your employee responded.

  13. Jessa

    You did great, however I noticed one other thing in your post that she had already heard some things from others “to the point of being cruel.” I really hope you’re addressing that behaviour from the other staff as well.

  14. Jazzy Red

    I cannot tell you how impressed I am with you! Something like this is extremely difficult to bring up with an employee. It’s apparent that your kindness is what made the difference for her. Alison gave you great advice, and you executed this perfectly.

    I remember the first boss I had who treated everyone he encountered with respect – from the janitor to the governor. It’s been 20 years, and I’ve never had a boss before or since then who measured up to him. Your employee will remember you for a long, long time.

  15. Kelly

    I had to have the same type of conversation with someone in my office. Her main problem was her horrendous breath – smelled like a rotting corpse. She has gum disease really bad but says she doesn’t have the money to fix it. At least now she is chewing gum and trying to mask the smell, but when she’s not chewing fresh gum the smell fills the room.

    I don’t know why she says she can’t afford it. We have dental insurance and she makes over $100k a year. She is going on a cruise for 8 days next week. Hmmmm, priorities?

    1. fposte

      Or somebody’s treating her to a cruise and the dental insurance doesn’t cover special periodontist treatments. Or she has a dentist phobia and finds that embarrassing to admit. Or something. To me a condition that requires medical intervention is very different from one that can be fixed with the use of fresh water, and I think her decision a very personal decision that outsiders don’t have to understand. Not saying it’s not unpleasant, but we’re quite likely talking surgery here.

      (Though hopefully she’s not still drinking coffee–coffee breath is a species all its own.)

      1. Jamie

        Those Listerine pocket packs are amazing. Used them when I was a smoker, but they are great for when you have to head into a meeting after coffee but before you can brush.

        And agreed – dental phobias are a real thing and surgery is a big deal…this is an area to focus on the result and not what she’s doing about it.

      2. Kelly

        lol – yes it is – and yes she does – I’m just thankful she doesn’t smoke, too!

        She has been to the dentist but the only way to reverse this is to remove all of her teeth and get dentures – which she doesn’t want to do – and she can’t afford the permanent implants so she is just going about her life as if it’s not happening. She has young kids to raise (11 and 16) and she’s doing it on her own. :(

        I just hope it doesn’t lead to a more serious health issue in the mean time.

        1. Jamie

          Wow – that runs into tens of thousands of dollars. 100k a year isn’t that much when you’re raising a couple of kids and dental insurance always sucks, ime.

          I have great health insurance but dental. I am a smart woman and I still can’t figure out what they cover and when the percentages change – it’s so convoluted. Whenever I go I basically just open my purse and tell them to take it all. It’s ridiculous.

  16. JustMe

    Congratulations on getting up the nerve to have that difficult conversation! I’m also happy for her – that you made an impact enough that she made a change. I can’t help wondering if she suffers from depression or possibly had become homeless? Kudos for not prying, but for offering to be there should she need you. Great job!

  17. Beth Anne

    One thing I find interesting is other people said something to the girl but she didn’t’ do anything about it…I think that goes to show that if you are nice about it that it will help the person actually change their habits.

  18. anon

    I’m quite proud of the employee for receiving that difficult feedback well. Good for you, OP, but also way to go her.

  19. OP

    Thank you, everyone. I am so grateful to have stumbled upon this smart, savvy and compassionate group of people. Managers don’t get a lot of support or coaching or backpats for this sort of thing, and it makes a huge difference to hear even one person say I did it right. To hear so much positive feedback is humbling and overwhelming. Excuse me for a minute; something’s in my eye.

    For the record, BTW, I am a woman, and I apologize to those who took offense at the “man up” and “have the balls to…” comments. No offense was intended, I assure you.

    For those who asked about the cruel comments of others, she didn’t offer details on who said what, and I didn’t press. She was already upset and trying to hang onto her dignity, so I let that go. Karma will take care of those folks (although I’d be happy to help karma along if the opportunity presents itself). I did wonder why she kept letting things slide even after people said stuff to her, but thought maybe she was in denial—depression could do that—and had to hear it from her manager before she realized things were seriously out of hand.

    I still do not know what problems might have contributed to this behavior. I’m just hopeful she’s working through whatever it is. And I take some small comfort in knowing that if I ever need to bring this up again, it’ll be much easier the second time around. The hardest part’s already been done., and honestly, most of the hard part, as Anon just said, is being done by the employee, not me.

  20. Eddy

    I had this situation and was very close to as delicate and considerate and kind, and now I’m in trouble with HR because the employee lied and told them I flat out said that she stunk, now it’s my word against hers. My advice, involve a 3rd party or risk your job. I wished to spare her the embarrassment and now I’m worried my family will lose their primary income. Although I’m her superior she has been with the company for a decade, and I wondered why no one had the courage to address this well known problem. I found out why. Now every day is her trying to find another reason to complain and I am afraid to coach her on anything. Nightmare.

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