"We need to talk about your body odour." How to talk to an employee about their personal hygiene.

In a survey of more than 2,000 bosses and HR managers, it was determined that there are five key ways your appearance could be holding you back from a promotion.

According to the research by Harris Poll, dressing too casually, or wearing clothing that your boss deems “provocative”, were common reasons that held employees back from climbing the corporate ladder.

But perhaps the most interesting finding, and unequivocally the most uncomfortable to address, was the matter of personal hygiene.

It was reported that “23 per cent of managers said that bad breath could end someone’s chances of nabbing a promotion…” Other problems included body odour, unwashed hair or unclean clothing.

A few years ago, I worked with a young intern who struggled with personal hygiene. It didn’t appear she was showering before work, her hair wasn’t clean, her clothes weren’t washed and she had quite potent body odour.

"A few years ago, I worked with a young intern who struggled with personal hygiene." Image via iStock.

She was good at her job and worked hard. But I knew that she would struggle to achieve full time employment if she didn't address her personal hygiene.

Looking back, telling her is probably the kindest thing I could have done. Much like I'd tell a friend if she had spinach in her teeth, or if she had a piece of toilet paper attached to her shoe.

But I didn't know how. I didn't want to embarrass her - and I know if someone told me that I'd be absolutely mortified.


After doing some research, I've discovered that there is a 'right' and a 'wrong' way to discuss an employees hygiene.

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Manager and author Alison Green says that if the issue is being discussed in the office, it is critical that a boss raises the subject.

"It’s reasonable for an employer to set clear expectations for dress and hygiene at work, and to enforce those standards when people are falling short of them," she says.

Although it's undoubtedly an "awkward conversation" she insists "it's part of the job".

Green suggests the interaction go something like this:

“I want to mention something else as well. It’s awkward, and I hope I don’t offend you. You’ve had a noticeable odour 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 realise about themselves, so I wanted to bring it to your attention and ask you to see what you can do about it.”

Tudor Marsden-Huggins of Employment Office adds “It is important for an employer to resolve any personal hygiene issues before other staff members do it in a non-tactful way. If this happens the problem can easily escalate and become a bullying issue."

It is never appropriate to bring the subject up in a social situation, or make inadvertent remarks about 'needing deodorant' or 'a shower'.

HR expert Susan Heathfield has outlined some critical key points for managers to keep in mind:

  • Be kind - but don't beat around the bush too much.
  • Make sure the feedback is framed as a business issue, and you outline the impact it might have on the team.
  • Be direct and outline the problem as you perceive it.
  • Be sensitive to different cultures - their practices, norms and standards of appearance.

Once the meeting has taken place, it's really important to give the individual some time to digest the information. Donna Flagg, author of Surviving Dreaded Conversations: How to Talk Through Any Difficult Situation at Worksays that someone will usually feel extremely embarrassed, ashamed or shocked. They could even feel "physically sick or shaken".

Flagg advises you allow them to go for a walk, have a cup of tea or go to a private place.

Some, however, aren't concerned about odour or cleanliness, and might not understand why it's an issue at all. In that case, it's critical they're reminded of workplace dress and hygiene standards, and how such behaviour impacts their colleagues.

As unbearable as it might seem, speaking to someone about their personal hygiene could be doing them an enormous favour in the long run.