Human Resources

Someone Smells Funky

How do you address offensive body odor in the workplace?  This can be a very delicate employee relations issue.  Such a problem cannot be ignored, whether it is something you notice, or if a colleague complains.  Yet, it is important to take a direct and sympathetic approach directly with the individual.  If it is left unresolved, it could affect the employee’s ability to work with others and reduce productivity.  Additionally, if the employee with body odor deals face-to-face with customers, relationships and even sales could be hurt.

This problem can result in either an embarrassing situation, or worse, a potential discrimination claim.  For example, if an employee’s body odor is caused by a medical condition, and you do not deal with it correctly, you may violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  Similarly, criticizing an ethnic diet that causes body order could trigger a complaint under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  Here are some “Dos and Don’ts” when dealing with body odor problems in the workplace:


  • Try to observe the employee’s body odor firsthand to confirm complaints.
  • Discuss the problem with the employee privately, ensuring confidentiality.
  • Treat the body odor like any other job-performance issue.  Tell the employee this is a problem, and that he or she must take care of it.
  • Think about what you want to say ahead of time. Be specific when describing the problem and the effect on the workplace.  Be prepared for different scenarios, such as a defensive reaction, unawareness, cultural differences or legal issues.
  • Offerappropriate   For example, suggest seeing a doctor, showering more often, or bringing a clean shirt to work.
  • Address any potential teasing or conflicts with co-workers to avoid ostracizing the employee with the issue.


  • Ignore or dance around the problem.  Be direct and tactful.
  • Make assumptions or inquire about the cause of body odor.
  • Mention cultural differences, such as diet. This could trigger resentment, as well as potential discrimination claims.  Never ask the individual to change his/her diet.
  • Delve into medical conditions; you may be wading into gray areas of ADA.  If the employee mentions a medical issue, you can request a doctor’s certification for confirmation and further direction.

If an employee volunteers that the odor is caused by a medical condition, listen to this person.  It is important not to jump to conclusions.  If the issue is caused by a medical condition, the best course of action is to brainstorm accommodations, whether or not it is required by the ADA.  Some possible accommodations include alterations to the employee’s work space, use of a fan or other forms of ventilation, offering flexible breaks to address hygiene, and/or use of antibacterial soaps and deodorants.

~The Employers Association

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