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Body odour problem

Q We have an ongoing issue with an employee’s body odour. It causes unpleasant working conditions for his colleagues, who have resorted to opening windows and turning on desk fans in all weather conditions. We have a small, open-plan office with about 12 people, and on warmer days you can smell him as soon as you enter the building.

His line manager and I have approached him on five occasions, but there has been no improvement. We have even asked him to seek medical advice, and have provided him with numerous leaflets and information on the causes of and treatments for body odour. He says that he has taken what we’ve said on board, but continues to say that he cannot smell anything, and doesn’t think he has a problem.

As a small company, we cannot afford to go down a disciplinary route – he already has two verbal warnings and a written one for timekeeping (another issue) – and he is otherwise competent at his job. How can we resolve this issue when he won’t accept he has a problem?

A We had a similar situation with a female employee. Again, it was an open-plan office, so the issue affected many others. We considered taking the disciplinary route, but were afraid of victimising the employee for something that was not on her radar.
We managed to resolve the issue by providing personal hygiene products in the male and female toilets. This was the most effective step we could have taken.

A I would challenge his claim that he is unable to smell the odour. Perhaps suggest that he has a problem with his sense of smell. Do you have a company doctor that you could insist on sending him to?

I have previously asked an employee to bring a change of clothing at lunchtime – perhaps you could suggest buying two shirts of the same type, so that people would not notice he had changed.

With disciplinary action outstanding against him, it is clear that he is not interested and will not co-operate. I would suggest disciplinary action for his general attitude and behaviour.

A If he is irreplaceable, then the disciplinary route is not going to work for you. If you follow the procedures, they will result in his dismissal and, if he does somehow bring up any grievance regarding the personal hygiene matter – harassment or bullying, for example – once you have proven that you acted in accordance with your business ethic, you may have to sever the relationship anyway.

My main concern is that his unco-operative behaviour indicates that he may leave you exposed. If you truly believe in him – and I have had cases where someone the company gave up on actually turned the situation around through development and performance management – then perhaps he requires some form of occupation counselling.

There may be work-life balance issues here that he is unable to express. However, he has to be worth the investment, and you have to be sure he won’t take advantage of you again.

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