415 812 6647 manuella@mwhcopy.com

No one wants to be rude. From the time we are children, most of us are told that polite people don’t comment on appearance or hygiene. However, when an employee’s lack of personal hygiene or unprofessional appearance affects others in the workplace, it may be time for you to have an uncomfortable conversation. An employee with problems in one of these areas needs counseling and while it may be the very last thing you want to do, here are some tips to handle that awkward conversation.

An Ounce Of Prevention Through A Good HR Policy

When it comes to professional appearance, what is obvious to you may not be obvious to your employees. A clear, good policy in your employee handbook will spell out expectations about dress, hygiene and appearance. A good policy will:

  • Cover the full gamut of issues including oral hygiene, use of deodorant, and clean clothing.
  • Describe the sort of attire that is appropriate for your workplace – including examples of outfits that are not appropriate.
  • Include a discussion of hair, makeup, perfume jewelry and other personal appearance issues that matter to you.
  •  Make sure that your employees know that they can speak to management about the need for an exception.

This policy won’t be of much use if you don’t let your employees know about it. It should be in your employee manual. If appearance is a critical factor in your business (e.g. retail), then it may be worth having your employee sign an acknowledgment of receipt of the written policy so that the expectation and its importance are clear from the start. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

The Conversation Itself

When it comes down to it, you will be talking to another person about how they look (or smell), which violates the usual rules for good manners. This doesn’t mean that respect, discretion and empathy should be thrown out of the window. It should go without saying that this conversation needs to happen in a private location. Unlike other HR matters, the personal nature of the discussion suggests having this conversation one-on-one. Be compassionate and put yourself in your employee’s shoes. How would you feel if you were in their place?

What should you say? In awkward situations, there is sometimes a temptation to talk too much. Don’t. Keep to the basic facts and avoid any judgmental words. Point out the specific policy that the employee needs to follow: “We need to talk about your hygiene. The office policy has standards about cleanliness, and I have to ask you to make a point to take daily showers and use deodorant.” Make a point to make eye contact with your employee, keep your tone polite and firm, and be patient if the employee reacts. Give the employee a chance to ask questions, and end it there.

Some more don’ts. Don’t tell your employee that there have been complaints. It will be embarrassing enough for him or her without feeling watched and judged by colleagues. Don’t bring up anything else about your employee’s performance. Given a choice between a socially embarrassing topic or anything else, most people will focus on anything else. You do not want to turn this interaction into an impromptu employee review.

It is almost inevitable that your employee will feel some embarrassment. That will pass, and hopefully the problem will be resolved. While we all hope that we never have to encounter this situation, it is always a good idea to be prepared with a company policy and an action plan should you have to speak to an employee about personal hygiene issues.

Manuella Hancock | 415 812 6647 | manuella@mhcopy.com

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