Today I am going to talk about one of the toughest things many managers have to face: the smelly employee. Don’t act like you don’t know what I am talking about (as you sniff your pits).
Let’s say you have an employee, Let’s call him Ivan – Ivan Odor, and Ivan has, well, an odor. Maybe it just popped up, maybe it has been a bit of a problem from the beginning. Maybe you have noticed it on your own, or maybe someone came to you and said something. Maybe you overheard some of your other employees talking about it.
First off, you may be tempted to let it ride. Hold your breath and hope for the best. It is a personal matter, so should you even address it? The answer is yes. All your employees represent the department, and more importantly the organization, and you should hold them accountable for how they present themselves. Also, something like this can actually cause a disruption in the workplace like rumors and gossip, mean pranks, and other petty and childish things that some of your less than ideal employees might decide to cook up.
So, how do you go about addressing this issue?
You talk to Ivan.
I know, that is way out there, but you gotta trust me on this. It is usually a good idea to start off by telling Ivan he is not in trouble, then let him know that you have observed that his personal hygiene is below satisfactory standards. I know that sounds cold and distant, like something that the EPA would say, but it is best to depersonalize this as much as possible. Also, it is very important not to bring anyone else into the conversation. You are the manager, you are the one who observed it, not Joe, or Betty. Make sure that he understands that you in no way want to embarrass him, and in fact that this is why you wanted to have the conversation with him. Let him know that you want to get in front of this now in order to minimize distractions in the workplace and avoid any lasting damage to his reputation.
Once you’ve dropped this on him, Ivan is probably going to be embarrassed. I can hear you asking yourself “Wow! How does he know these things? It is like he is clairvoyant or something!” Well, I am a professional after all. At any rate, I think we all agree that he is going to be embarrassed, which can lead to a range of reactions. Most of the time Ivan will apologize and agree to make necessary changes, but there is also a good chance that things are going to go in a different direction. Pride is a powerful thing, and no matter how nicely you tell someone that they stink, sometimes people still take offense to it. In this situation, remain focused on your key point which is to make him aware of the problem and that he needs to address it. If he continues to not see the issue, hold your ground. If, after some time he refuses to recognize the issue, you may have to expand on the fact that if he doesn’t deal with it, it could result in discipline, and even the loss of his job. I would keep this card up your sleeve as long as possible, though. Sometimes telling someone they stink and following it up immediately with a threat to their job can really hurt someone’s feelings. Be patient as long as you can.
Now, it’s monkey wrench time. Let’s say Ivan’s hygiene has just recently become an issue… In this case there’s a decent chance it is something outside of his control, and by out of his control I mean health related – not that his woman left him and he doesn’t know how to do laundry. If you think this is the case, get your HR guru involved pronto. This isn’t to say he gets a free pass to stink up the joint, but you don’t want to get you or your company inadvertently committed to something without thinking it all the way through.
Look, I get it. This is touchy, and it will likely make you uncomfortable, but to ignore it could be far worse for Ivan: gossip, snickering, alienating him, all the usual junior high stuff, which is just a pain in the posterior for you as well. If you talk candidly and give him the opportunity to fix it, it is better for everyone.