Personal hygiene can be one of the most uncomfortable conversations in a workplace. As an employer, it is difficult for you to handle the issue without causing some offence or awkwardness. However, depending on the employee’s role, bad hygiene can have a negative impact on other workers or clients, not to mention the health and safety implications if you are in the food and drink industry.
What may seem simple in theory can become very tricky in practice. You should not avoid the issue though and instead raise it with the employee in a confidential and delicate way that benefits all parties. If you have a large number of staff, it is worth considering training for managers on difficult conversations and how to handle them.
Preventing the issue
Having a policy within your staff handbook is a good start in outlining the necessary minimum of cleanliness. By setting clear expectations about grooming you will decrease the likelihood that bad hygiene will be present in the workplace. Consider including this by the dress code section of your documentation, possibly under a category marked as ‘Presentation’, specifying the company’s expectation of personal hygiene.
If your organisation is part of the food & drink or care sector, then there are additional rules you may wish to make clear. Things you may want to consider include:
- Stress to your employees about washing their hands regularly, especially before starting their shift and after bathroom breaks
- Cuts and burns must be covered at all times with appropriate dressings
- Makeup and perfume should be kept to an absolute minimum
Be wary of potential discrimination claims
What may first appear as bad hygiene can actually be symptoms of a serious medical condition. You should be conscious that the member of staff may well be suffering from an illness, or take medication that causes profuse sweating or difficulty in their washing routine. Consider leading the conversation by asking if there are any health concerns that you need to be aware of, this may give you a better idea of their circumstances and help you avoid being accused of discrimination.
Dealing with the issue directly
Arrange a meeting either through their line manager or directly. This must be a private location without other employees present. The employee shouldn’t be told this information by a colleague or anonymously, it could create an uncomfortable atmosphere and the employee may then feel victimised by their colleague(s).
While it is important to be careful with accusations of poor hygiene, the employee may not believe a problem exists and will require direct information. For example, informing the employee that they have ‘stained or damaged’ clothing when attending work and citing your hygiene/grooming policy. Alternatively, if there have been complaints made about the employee, make them aware without disclosing who had raised them. This will give an understanding of how cleanliness can affect the business without allowing a hostile environment to form between colleagues.
Once the employee has had the opportunity to either explain their circumstances or take what you have said on board, confirm your expectations clearly. If it has been understood that the employee is suffering with a medical issue, then establish the ‘reasonable adjustments’ that may need to be made to best suit all members of staff. If it is linked to a disability, the employer, with the employee’s consent could potentially write to seek advice from their GP regarding it, eventually.
As long as there are no discrimination issues, then ultimately, following the due correct process and seeking the relevant advice, then you can discipline an employee for breaching expected/satisfactory hygiene and grooming company standards repeatedly.