The Tough Talk

As an employer, there are many sensitive issues you will likely deal with over time. Terminations, bad behaviour, bullying, disagreements between employees – but how do you handle those other touchy subjects such as someone wearing inappropriate clothing or smelling foul?

These aren’t subjects that come up often at management meetings but how you address the problem is critical. Handled insensitively and you may embarrass the employee or worse, appear that your comments are perceived as discriminatory.

Let’s start with unpleasant odours. Issues such as wearing too much perfume or cologne is easily handled by many companies by developing a fragrance-free policy. With the number of people who suffer from allergies, this type of policy is justified in many circumstances. Sadly, too few companies have a policy for “don’t microwave fish in the staff room” however, that’s a post for another time.

How do you address an employee about body odour. First, determine if there really is cause to discuss the situation with the employee. Employees who do manual labour tend to sweat throughout the day and thus, this is a normal situation. Someone who arrives at work with an unpleasant odour or a salesperson who meets with the public, might qualify for a discussion. If you’ve ever been stuck in a cubicle for weeks on end with someone who has poor hygiene habits, you’ve likely bit your tongue as you didn’t want to offend your colleague. That is obviously an unpleasant and distracting environment to work in and one that needs to be addressed.

First, what what not to do. Do not use passive-aggressive hints such as leaving antiperspirant on the employee’s desk. Do not insinuate that you are merely the messenger for your colleagues. Learning that a number of your colleagues have been discussing you behind your back is embarrassing and demoralizing.


The Setting

What you should do, is approach the subject directly in a private and non-threatening environment. If appropriate in your role (e.g. manager, colleague, peer), you may wish to invite him/her out for coffee or a beer. Called in for a meeting and sitting across the desk from your manager usually equates to an employee feeling as if they are in trouble. Whatever setting you choose, keep in mind that you want to ensure that he/she doesn’t feel this is a personal attack.

The Atmosphere

Instead of launching immediately into the issue, engage them in other non-threatening dialogue (e.g. how was your weekend). When it feels appropriate, indicate that you need to discuss something sensitive. Again, do not mention that someone else has brought this to your attention but rather, indicate that because you are their friend/care about their well-being/really value them as an employee – pick the correct situation, you have their own personal interests at heart.  

Once you have indicated that it is a sensitive issue, and could cause unintentional offense, you can give them the choice if they wish to hear the information. This puts the control back into their hands and solidifies that this isn’t a personal attack.

The Hard News

Now you need to tell them. As sensitively as possible, explain that on one or two occasions recently, you noticed body odour. If it’s the summer, add in a reference such as “probably due to this hot spell we’re having”. Indicate that you are sorry to bring this up, but you thought they should know and as their friend, that you’d rather they heard it from you in case someone else in the office notices.

Wrap Up

You will need to gauge their reaction but he/she will likely be a bit shocked. Ask if you did the right thing by telling him/her and reinforce that you didn’t mean to offend.


Good luck with the tough conversations. It’s never easy but not addressing these issues can cause disruption in the office environment, chatter and eventually, the employee will find out and will likely be more offended that it wasn’t brought up with them.


Post by: Lynn McIlwee