How to Handle Awkward Hygiene Conversations as A Manager – The Managers Helpful Hub

How to Handle Awkward Hygiene Conversations as A Manager

Hygiene is an extremely personal concern. Why should you care, much less initiate a conversation about it with an employee?

As a manager, you are expected to be prepared to take on difficult, even embarrassing topics with the people you lead and work with.

Perhaps one of the most awkward moments you will ever face is when you will need to talk about the poor hygiene of one of your employees.

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Body odour and bad breath are two topics that are tricky on their own. So the challenge becomes even more difficult when it’s discussed between a manager and a team member.

I have had to do this a couple of times.

The first time, I was a newly appointed manager, probably about 21 years old. I did my duty, plucked up the courage and spoke to the girl concerned. We were both embarrassed and that was the last time I saw her, she never came back to work!

The second time, a few years later I handled it better and the issue was quickly sorted and the relationship between me and my team member was strengthen as she trusted me to handle personal matters with respect and dignity.

However, if you’re really serious about establishing sincere, effective management, then it is important to take on this task.

The personal topic issue of bodily smells and such can become a professional concern because:

  • It can, and it will, negatively impact the professional image of your employee.
  • Clients, shareholders and visitors may form a negative perception about the person.
  • A bad impression made by one employee will have an impact on the entire company.
  • If other employees feel bothered by the situation, it may affect how the team works.

Here are some things you should remember when preparing for “the talk”:

Form your own take on the issue first.

Verify the information if it has only been passed on to you.

If you have noticed it yourself, try to look for possible reasons behind it: Is there a medical reason behind it or is it a hygiene problem?

It may also be a matter of cultural differences, in which case you should know how to handle the matter carefully to avoid making discriminatory remarks.

Remember that how you say something matters as much as what you are saying.

Speak from the perspective of someone wanting to help, and not to accuse or ridicule. Be choosy about the words you’ll use and the tone of your voice.

Treating everyone with dignity, kindness and professional respect is a proven way to effectively navigate a difficult situation.

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Make it private.

Arrange for the conversation to be done on a one-on-one basis, and assure your employee that everything you’ll talk about will remain confidential.

Offer help.

If the body odour is due to the hot or stuffy work area of the employee that is causing him or her to sweat profusely, then offer to put in a fan, direct the air conditioner or improve the ventilation in the area.

If the bad breath is something medical-related, allow the employee to take a leave of absence so he or she can go 

to the dentist or doctor for a check-up and treatment. The important thing to emphasise is that you’re willing to help.

End with action steps and on a positive note.

The meeting should wrap up with you agreeing on the possible solutions you have discussed. Talk about how you will be making a follow-up on whether the measures have been implemented and if these led to positive results.

We are soon releasing a toolbox training on this very subject, complete with a “script” of things you may say to your team member should you be in this situation.

Kind regards, 

Irene Conlin

I founded The Managers Helpful Hub to help people thrive at work and have a great life while making a positive impact on businesses. I love the coast and spend time cruising around the world on nice ships enjoying wonderful food, drinks and conversations.

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