Can Body Odor Fall Under Religious Protection?
Dear Evil HR Lady,
We have an issue with an employee regarding hygiene. In a nutshell, he has bad body odor. His belief system is that soaps, deodorants are chemicals are harmful. He interacts with our customers a great deal. How do we address? Help!
--In The Breeze
Here's the easy answer: "Bob, I don't care what you have to do to make yourself not smell bad, but when you're at work, you can't stink. If that doesn't work for you, then today will be your last day of work."
But, it's never that easy. You used the word "belief system," which puts it smack in the middle of religious protections. Please stop laughing, as I'm not even joking. (And if it wasn't a religious thing, you'd have to first consider if was a medical thing.)
Your employee doesn't have to produce proof that he belongs to the Church of the Holy Lack of Deodorant. He just has to show that he subscribes to this philosophy with religious-like devotion. At least that is according to a recent court ruling when the topic at hand was not stink but veganism. As employment attorney Molly DiBianca explains, "It is important to note that the court did not find that veganism is or is not a religion. Instead, it merely held that, based on the face of the complaint, it was plausible that the plaintiff would be able to show that she subscribed to veganism with a religious-like sincerity."
This is a very similar situation. So, how to proceed? Well, fortunately, the law only requires a "reasonable accommodation" for religious beliefs. So, then the question becomes what is reasonable?
You know your business better than I do, and reasonableness varies. Would having a stinky salesman be appropriate in a high end menswear store be reasonable? I'd say absolutely not. Would someone who has a mild odor be reasonable in an outdoor lumber yard? Probably.
If he's someone you can smell from across the room, it's probably not reasonable for your business to have him in a sales position. If he's someone who has a mild odor that you can't quite put your finger on until you've been with him for 30 minutes, it's probably reasonable to allow it.
So, you sort out what is reasonable for you and your business and then have a formal, documented, sit down meeting with your employee. Be very clear.
"Bob, as someone who interacts frequently with our customers, it's important that you represent our company properly. Your body odor is problematic. Tell me what you need in order to not smell bad."
Bob will probably then explain to you, for the 42nd time, that he can't use soaps, deodorant, etc. because, dude, chemicals!
I would stay far away from recommending that he try this organic product or that all natural product. Let him come up with the solution. If he does, super. (And remember, reasonable accommodation means that he has to be able to perform the core functions of his job. You're not obligated to give him a non-customer facing job. Although if he's a good employee otherwise, you may consider it.)
If not, and you've determined (and, I hate to say it, checked with your lawyer) that you can't reasonably accommodate him, you can terminate him. If you take this route, don't fight him on unemployment. He'll win anyway and it will just make for bad will. If you can afford to offer severance, offer it, in exchange for a general release.
Have a problem employee or a people management question? Send your questions to EvilHRLady@gmail.com.
SUZANNE LUCAS | Columnist
Suzanne Lucas spent 10 years in corporate human resources, where she hired, fired, managed the numbers, and double-checked with the lawyers.