Editor's note: Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.
A reader writes:
A new secretary in my office has body odor. The other staff members have asked me to talk to her about, it since I'm the acting manager. Should I tackle this, and if so, how?
Yes, hygiene and odor--as uncomfortable as they can be to address--really are things a manager needs to speak up about if they've become a problem. You should speak up because it will affect the way your employee is perceived (and it will potentially affect the way your company is perceived, if she deals with clients in person or even just with other visitors to the office). You should also speak up because it's affecting her co-workers and her relationships with them.
Now, this is going to be an awkward conversation; there's no way around that. But you have plenty of awkward conversations as a manager; it's part of the job. This one is more awkward than most, because most of us have very little practice at this kind of thing--but it has to be done.
Ask to talk privately with the employee at the end of the day. (That timing is important so that she doesn't need to sit at work feeling horribly self-conscious for hours afterward.)
Be honest, direct, and as kind as possible. Start by mentioning that her work has been good (assuming that it has been) and then say something like, "I want to discuss something that's awkward, and I hope I don't offend you. I have noticed you have had a noticeable odor lately. It might be a need to wash clothes more frequently or shower more, or it could be a medical problem. This is the kind of thing that people often don't realize about themselves, so I wanted to bring it to your attention and ask you to see what you can do about it."
(Note that you're saying "I have noticed," not attributing it to the employee complaints you've heard. That's deliberate, in order to contain any resulting awkwardness that she might otherwise feel toward her co-workers.)
Likely, the employee will be embarrassed. But if she's resistant or combative, explain that employees do need to come to work smelling fresh and clean because of the impact on the office.
Also, be prepared for the possibility that you'll hear that there is a medical reason for the odor. If she tells you that's the case, then at that point there's not much further you should do, other than thanking her for telling you and reassuring her that you'll of course accommodate her now that you understand it's related to a medical condition.
One last thing: Before you have this conversation, try to observe the issue for yourself. This isn't a conversation you should have just based on someone else's word, since it's not inconceivable that someone cranky on your staff just wants to cause problems for this employee. Also, I'm assuming that the issue is one of not bathing or laundering enough, but if it's more along the lines of cultural differences in food that can lead to different body smells, you'll need to ask the complaining staff members to be more tolerant.
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