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July 29, 2016

Personal Hygiene: Smelling a Distraction

Ed Pearcey

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If you were to ask any manager to list his or her most awkward topics of conversation with team members, personal hygiene would surely be near the top. There’s a clue in the name — yes, this time it is personal.

An office radio can be turned down, desk interruptions can be limited with a “do not disturb” email, and sunlight can be blocked with a blind. But smells are a different type of distraction. They can become pervasive, quite literally hanging in the air.

As a manager, I experienced this type of rather irritating distraction with a man I’m going to call David, a young and enthusiastic graduate I hired several years ago.

After just a few days in the office, I began to notice his unwillingness to use deodorant. And his willingness to wear dirty clothes. And then, a few days later, I became aware of a rather unpleasant bodily smell. Something had to be done.

I made sure I had the right person before any discussions began. I asked two colleagues who sat near David if they’d noticed any unusual smells. Their answers correlated with my suspicions, so I was sure I was on the right track.

Research Personal Hygiene

I carried out a little research into the most common causes of various types of poor personal hygiene, such as bad breath, unclean hair, dirty clothes, unclean hands, or particularly pungent body odor.

The last on that list was David’s main issue, and on hot days the situation became almost intolerable.

Informal Chat

So, I arranged an informal chat with David. Remember, at this stage, I was a long way from any form of disciplinary procedure. I kept the conversation as light as possible. We chatted at the end of the day, at his desk, when almost everyone had left. I didn’t take notes.

I started with this: “This is awkward, David, but I’ve noticed a smell coming from your area of the office. Do you know anything about that?”

He seemed totally unaware of the problem, or the distraction his personal hygiene issue was causing the people around him, so I explained the situation from my perspective. Finally, I asked him, very politely, if he could "do something about it."

I also made it clear that we all needed to respect our common work space. He agreed, promised to make changes, and our amicable and short meeting ended.

Formal Chat

Sadly, after only a few days, the unmistakable smell returned, as did the dirty clothes. I spoke to David again, this time more forcefully. I explained that it was unfair to expect his colleagues to tolerate such a smell.

"Would you like it if someone else was behaving in this way?" I asked. This seemed to hit home, and his appearance noticeably improved over the next few weeks.

Maybe I could have been a little firmer with him earlier on, but we got there in the end. Thanks to the situation being dealt with quickly, informally, and with discretion, the whole incident was forgotten in a matter of days, and David became a productive member of the team.

What are your top tips for dealing with the distraction of a colleague's personal hygiene issue? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below. Check out our latest article, Minimizing Distractions, for more on this topic.

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4 comments on “Personal Hygiene: Smelling a Distraction”

  1. I had a situation like that in my organisation. I invited a medical doctor to talk about maintenance of personal hygiene to the entire staff of about 75. Before then I brief the doctor of my reason for the invitation. Together we drew up a questionnaire which serve as a guide. Focus Group Discussion forms part of the programme. the target staff was placed in the doctors group. It worked perfectly and with time the young changed completely, we were supplying deodorant to all staff and we created an "institutional adage" . If you meet a colleague you greet by saying " your cleanliness" and the response is " my concern". This young brilliant guy who was using the same dress throughout the week got a healing and became an asset to the organisation.

    1. Thank you Mike for sharing your experiences with this type of situation. It is great to hear that the talk and discussion with this particular individual has helped to change things around in the workplace. Very creative approach!

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