Dealing with a smelly employee: How to tell someone they smell

Updated: December 2016

People come in all different shapes, sizes, and unfortunately, smells. A pungent aroma can have a negative impact on workplace morale, teamwork, and relationships between your team - so despite it being an awkward topic to confront someone about, it shouldn't be left to fester. The employee in question is representing your company, and you don't want to leave potential clients with a bad taste in their mouth ... 

Dealing with complaints about a smelly co-worker

As a manager it's your job to deal with any complaints your team has - and sometimes these include internal complaints regarding other staff members. While some complaints are easily settled, others can be more awkward to deal with - especially when it comes down to a colleague's personal hygiene.

There are many ways you could deal with an employee who arrives at work with an odd smell, but not all of them are tactful. Leaving a bucket of water, soap and a flannel on someone's desk may get the point across, but it's highly unlikely they'd ever show up for work again. 

You could introduce flexible working or even shorter working hours to try to get around it, but often the best approach is also the most direct. That's why we think the best thing to do in this situation is to take the time to have a proper conversation - saving all parties involved from any embarrassing confrontations.

Prior to this interview, the first thing to do is to identify the theme of the complaints. The offending smell could be driving away clients or affecting the relationship between colleagues. Either way, the employees' work life and your client base is being affected, which is something that warrants immediate action.

What causes body odour?

Body odour (or BO) isn't always due to poor hygiene. Sometimes people can have a medical condition that causes them to create more odour than other people - and this is more common than you might think ... 

Interestingly, some people create no underarm odour at all - and this is linked (charmingly) to the type of earwax your body produces. It's all determined by a gene called ABCC11. People with dry earwax lack a chemical that underarm bacteria feed on - which is what causes the smell. If you have wet earwax, then unlucky. You'd better keep on buying that Right Guard, because you do have the stink chemical.

Amazingly, almost all Koreans lack the smelly armpit chemical - and East Asia in general displays an astonishing dearth of underarm BO. This genetic anomaly is likely due to natural selection.

Unfortunately, due to the social stigma attached to body odour, it's seldom discussed in public - although treatments are often available. So what are some medical conditions that can cause body odour?

  • Hyperhidrosis is a medical term for excessive sweating - often caused by a problem with the nervous system or anxiety. It can be treated with special over-the-counter antiperspirants like Anhydrol in many cases. Failing this, iontophoresis (treatment with a weak electrical current), botox injections, or even surgery can be effective.

  • Trimethylaminuria is another name for something known as fish odour syndrome. Sufferers of this don't produce the catchily-named 'flavin-containing monooxygenase 3' (or FMO3) enzyme, which breaks down a chemical called trimethylamine. Buildup of this chemical in the body can cause a strong odour of fish - so it's understandably not a very nice experience. Trimethylaminuria is generally managed by making changes to diet, as well as with certain medications.

In some instances, it might be the case that poor hygiene is to blame for someone's bad body odour - and in such cases a simple conversation could be all that's needed to clear up the problem. Such a conversation is not the easiest thing to have, however, and clearly it needs to be done in a dignified, adult manner. 

The talk - how to tell someone that they smell

The kindest thing to do in this situation is to be honest, caring and supportive about the subject. Take the person concerned aside to a separate room, to avoid embarrassing them in front of the office, and make sure the talk takes place at the end of the day to ensure that they aren't spending the rest of the work day sitting in a pool of shame and self loathing.

First off, check with the employee that there are no medical issues that are causing the smell. However, if the issue is to do with the employee's clothing, then start with that. Problems with this can easily be addressed by mentioning that no matter how relaxed the uniform rules may be, employees are required to ensure that clothes are clean and tidy - especially if the person concerned is representing the company directly to clients.

Now that clothes are out the way (if they were a problem in the first place) the more awkward conversation can begin. It's time to get onto the subject of personal hygiene. Making sure not to point fingers or name names, it is first important to inform the employee concerned that complaints have arisen regarding their fragrance, and that this is beginning to affect both the office and their professional life.

By talking with the employee concerned, and ascertaining the origins of the offending smell, you could help them to come up with a solution as simple as washing their clothes more often, taking a shower once they arrive at work, or changing the soap they use to wash with.

Bear in mind that they employee may be going through struggles in their personal life - and may not have access to decent washing facilities or much time to spend on their personal grooming. As always, it pays to tread carefully in any aspect of an employee's life that could spill over into the personal.

The person concerned may not have even realised that there was an issue where their aroma is concerned. By bringing this to their attention privately, you are helping to avoid embarrassment for the employee, and could even share some of your favourite soaps and smellies to try and help them scrub up. After all by keeping it light-hearted and a little less serious, the employee may be a little less embarrassed.

Once the issue has been addressed, you need to make sure that your employee is not upset or offended - and if you've managed the complaints well enough, there is no reason that they will be.

The follow-up - can you fire someone for smelling bad?

Once the meeting has taken place, make sure to put some time aside in the coming weeks to reflect on whether your employee has cleaned up, or is still gathering complaints where their odour is concerned.

If the person concerned has improved their hygiene, then you can thank them for understanding and making the personal changes necessary. But if they have taken no action, despite it being reasonable, then it may be time to think about consequences. Usually this won't be the case, and the conversation outlined above will be enough to rectify the situation, but it always remains a possibility.

When repeated warnings do not do the trick, and there is no medical reason behind the person's odour, then it is time to start considering disciplinary proceedings against the employee concerned. This should follow the usual procedure for your company to ensure that everything is legal - contact your HR department if you are unsure of this.

While it is possible to fire someone for smelling if proper disciplinary procedures are followed, this is not something that anyone involved will really want to go through.

Having to talk to someone about their lack of personal hygiene is an awkward conversation and no amount of training from HR can prepare you for it. However by making sure you're polite, respectful and supportive to your employee at all times, you should be able to solve the issue easily without any lasting damage. 

Written by Matt Atkinson