HR professionals may not go looking for trouble, but that doesn’t mean trouble doesn’t go looking for HR. Complaining employees regularly find their way to HR and often demand a solution to a problem they either don’t want to handle themselves or should leave to management. One such problem is a coworker with an offensive odor.
No ironclad guidance exists on how to conduct that conversation. So the HR professional called on to tackle it has to decide what to do based on the situation and the personalities involved.
Consider legal risks
There are some points to keep in mind, though. First, assess the situation for any legal risks. Most odor cases are likely to be simple hygiene issues, but it’s possible an odor could be because of a disability or even a cultural issue, and those cases would need to be handled with care to avoid discrimination concerns.
If medication or a disability is causing an odor, an employer needs to take the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into account when having a conversation with the employee, says Kylie Crawford TenBrook, corporate counsel for Best Western International in Phoenix, Arizona. If you don’t know that the odor is related to a disability, you shouldn’t make that assumption, she says, but if the employee volunteers that it’s a result of a medical condition, HR should engage the employee to determine whether there is a legally acceptable solution to the problem.
Privacy issues also may also come into play. If an odor is related to a medical condition, employers have to be careful not to divulge private health information. That can be tempting if coworkers are demanding an explanation. In such cases, HR or the employee’s manager should say something to the effect of “This is something that management has taken into account. We appreciate your feedback, but it’s a management issue,” TenBrook says.
Besides the ADA and privacy issues, it’s possible — although not likely — that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 could come into play if, for example, an employee burns incense at home for religious or cultural reasons and brings the odor to work. In such a case, HR needs to look for a solution without discriminating against an employee based on religion, national origin, or ancestry.
How to have the conversation
Often odors have nothing to do with any protected status, and that can make it even tougher to decide how to broach the subject. TenBrook says to make sure the conversation is private and that workplace policies are followed consistently. You don’t want to tell one employee to take steps to eliminate an odor and ignore the same problem for someone else.
Audra K. Hamilton, an attorney in Tulsa, Oklahoma, well-versed in the ADA and other employment law matters, adds that there’s no set formula to follow. “I can’t give a bright-line suggestion,” she says. “It’s personal to each situation.”
If the odor is a result of poor hygiene, HR should explain the reasons why the job requires a certain level of hygiene such as contact with customers and coworkers, Hamilton says. How to have the conversation is “very much a judgment call,” she says, but it needs to be handled privately and with compassion. If the odor is so offensive that it’s causing complaints, it may be worthwhile to have the conversation and even beneficial to the employee causing the problem.
Odor or fragrance?
Often employees are complaining not about a lack of proper hygiene, but instead about their coworkers’ efforts to smell good by using perfumes and other strongly scented products. TenBrook has dealt with such complaints in her own workplace, and she says requests for fragrance-free work zones are getting more common.
It’s an important area for HR to address because sensitivity to perfumes and other products can be considered a disability, TenBrook says. People with asthma especially are often sensitive to scented products.
“In that case, you really need to work with employees to limit the scent,” TenBrooksays. In her own company, there are areas where employees are instructed to use unscented products, and employees are regularly reminded of the rules.
“There’s nothing that I can imagine that would protect an employee for wearing perfume,” TenBrook says, if the fragrance-free policy is an accommodation for someone with a disability related to scents. With the passage of the ADA Amendments Act, “more and more things are qualifying as a disability,” and she expects scent sensitivity will be a growing trend.
Tammy Binford writes and edits news alerts and newsletter articles on labor and employment law topics for BLR web and print publications. In addition, she writes for HR Hero Line and Diversity Insight, two of the ezines and blogs found on HRHero.com.