By Karen E. Klein – SMART ANSWERS, February 3, 2004
How do you tell a valued worker that a regular dash of deodorant would be a very good idea? Diplomatically
Q: I own a sales business with five employees. One of my best workers is a lovely woman with two young children to support on her own. I would hate to lose her, but she suffers from body odor that is so bad it almost makes me sob. Other employees have complained and one woman, who left last year, actually raised the subject with her, which caused the employee with the problem to become offended and start crying. She’s very clean otherwise, always neat and pressed, but what can I do about the aroma? Could it be a medical problem? If so, could I be sued if I let her go?
— H.K., New York City
A: Managers are often concerned about bringing this type of subject up because it’s so personal. Yet at the same time, it has a direct negative impact on co-workers and customers. What you need to do is have a constructive and sensitive conversation with this employee. No doubt it will be difficult, but the way to approach it is to acknowledge the awkwardness at the beginning of the conversation. “That can take the sting out of the discussion, because the employee knows it’s a difficult subject, too, and joining with the employee over that difficulty makes it more mutual,” says Dr. David A. Weiman, a management psychologist based in Bala Cynwyd, Pa.
After acknowledging the difficulty of being frank, Weiman recommends that you repeat the positive feedback you mention about this employee in your plea for advice. “Start with something like, ‘You’re one of my best employees and I really value what you contribute to the company. Even though the issue I want us to discuss is a difficult one, I think it’s important.'” he says. “I’d use a neutral word, like ‘scent,’ to discuss the subject, as opposed to ‘odor.’ For example, ‘I’ve noticed that you have a distinct scent and I wonder if anyone else has ever mentioned this to you before?'”
EASY DOES IT. Your employee’s answer to that question, and some additional follow-up questions, can help you learn whether this employee does have a medical problem or not. At any rate, you could ask delicately whether or not the scent can be controlled, and how the employee has handled the situation in the past (if she has been confronted about it before).
What you need to remember, says Maxine Fechter, of New York City-based People Equities, is that you have the right to approach this employee regarding her body odor regardless of its cause. “You need to explain in the most sensitive way that it detracts from her otherwise professional demeanor and has become a serious business issue, especially in the role she plays,” Fechter says. Let your employee know that you expect her to address the issue immediately. It will then be the employee’s responsibility to take the appropriate actions to solve the problem — whether it be hygiene or medical — and inform you if she will require time for medical treatment. “If your employee refuses to address the issue,” Fechter notes, “you can let her go with a clear conscience.”
If you are absolutely too embarrassed to confront your employee outright, there may be an alternative, says Ben Dattner, of Dattner Consulting. “There’s a Web site called INudge.com where you can anonymously suggest to someone that they have a problem,” he says. For a small fee, the Web site guru — a cartoon figure called “Ms. Nudge” — sends the offending person a nicely worded letter with some suggestions for improving the problem and a gift aimed at helping to alleviate the situation, most likely deodorant, in this case. (Be warned: The iNudge site is likely to flood your screen with popup ads, but the annoyance may be worth it if you think this approach could solve your problem.)
STINKING LAWSUITS. “When someone is very fragile and becomes upset and defensive if confronted in person, it’s important to give them a way to save face and make the change without being embarrassed or ashamed. A hostile e-mail (“You stink!”) isn’t the right way to do that, but a nonthreatening, supportive letter might be,” Dattner says. “If she’s open to doing something about the problem, this will give you an easy way to inform her. If she’s not open to changing, nothing will help anyway.”
The question of whether or not you can be sued is an interesting one. If there’s a medical problem, such that your employee’s body odor can’t be controlled by conventional means, she may be in a federally protected category that would allow her to sue if fired. But even if she doesn’t have a medical condition, she could still bring a lawsuit if dismissed. Consult an experienced labor attorney before you consider letting her go because of her stench, experts say.
Karen E. Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers entrepreneurship and small-business issues.