Weekly dilemma: Personal odour problems

We have a female member of staff in the office with a personal odour problem. Other employees have complained and we have already spoken to the employee twice, which led to a short-lived improvement. Employees have begun to complain again and now I’m worried that these complaints amount to grievances and I am unsure what to do next.

The employee complaints have been verbal and hence informal, so there is no need to follow a statutory grievance procedure. However, you are right to try to deal with this problem before it escalates into something worse.

As an employer, you have a duty to both the offending employee and the other office workers, and must be seen to be treating employees even-handedly. You must also ensure that the employee is not being bullied or harassed because of this problem.

The next step is to hold another meeting with the offending employee, which you should carefully document by taking minutes and asking the employee to countersign them. At the meeting you should begin by asking the employee whether she believes the issues discussed previously remain outstanding. You can then explain that this issue is having a serious impact on team performance.

Sniffing out the problem

  • Stress that you wish to deal with this issue sensitively and in strictest confidence. It may be best for a woman to conduct this meeting.

  • Refer the employee to any company dress code or code of conduct and emphasise the importance of professionalism in the workplace. Note that you have already had two discussions on this issue and the employee appears to be unable or unwilling to follow these codes.

  • Consult with the employee about the cause of the problem and whether it is a deeper, medical one. If so, ask the employee to seek medical advice on ways to improve the situation.

  • Ask the employee for suggestions, for example, could you provide changing facilities at work, storage for a change of clothes, or put deodorants in the toilets?

  • Explain that your aim is to improve this employee’s interaction with colleagues and to improve working and social relationships in the office in general.

  • Conclude by explaining what the continued effect this problem will have on the office, and set out what you expect the employee to do and by when. Ensure you set up a meeting to review the situation.

You should continue to hold review meetings as appropriate and document these discussions, noting any improvement or otherwise. If the situation does not improve within three to four months, you can consider dealing with this issue under the disciplinary procedure.

Sara Khoja, solicitor, Field Fisher Waterhouse

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