How To Tell An Employee They Smell:
- Ask to speak in private.
- Be direct (“I’m not sure if you’re aware of this but you have a strong odor about you.”)
- Reserve judgment ( “I don’t know if it’s from your clothing or if it’s a personal hygiene issue.”)
- Open the conversation (“Are you aware of this issue? Is this something you think you can take care of?”)
- Try not to soften the blow, which can make it seem like a bigger deal than it is.
Hygiene issues in the workplace are a difficult (though common!) problem for leadership. Too often we avoid giving this kind of constructive feedback for fear of hurting the other person’s feelings.
When it comes to a direct report with a distracting smell (e.g., body odor, bad breath, cigarette smoke, or just too much perfume/cologne) there’s really only one approach:
You just have to come out and say it.
Telling an employee they have a body odor problem doesn’t mean you have to be judgemental. The kindest way to deliver harsh feedback is by using language that is simple and to the point. Rip off the band-aid, and after the initial sting, things can finally heal. Just remember that you would want someone to tell you if the situation was reversed.
Always Give Constructive Feedback Directly and Privately
Politely ask for a moment alone with the direct report in question, sit somewhere private, and speak plainly. Being honest will never be as painful as having to extend awkward metaphors to soften the blow. Worse, by trying so hard to be nice it gives the impression that the issue is a bigger deal than it truly is. Instead be direct and non-judgmental.
Effective Feedback Has 3-Parts
In order to properly frame the discussion, try to think B.I.G.: Behavior (or facts), Impact and Getting Agreement. First, describe behaviors or facts, don’t make it about the person. Second, detail the impact it has on the team or company. Third, get the agreement that they understand the situation and on how to move forward.
Sample Dialogue; Employee Smells Badly
Here’s how you can broach the subject:
“Matt, I’m not sure if you’re aware of this but you have a strong odor about you. I don’t know if it’s from your clothing or if it’s a personal hygiene issue. I think it may be distracting to others and could make people reluctant to work with you. Are you aware of this issue? Is this something you think you can take care of?”
Let’s break this down:
- You focused on the behavior or facts. You said “…a strong body odor” and didn’t say they were a dirty person, or have bad hygiene habits.
- You explained the negative impact as “distracting to others”.
- You sought to get the agreement that they understood (“Are you aware of this?”) and are willing to make a change (“Is this something you can take care of?”).
This moment will feel tough. No one likes delivering bad news, but by providing this hygiene feedback you are ultimately helping your employee. Who’s to say that some future opportunities might be closed to them because of this one small (and easily fixed!) problem?
In the end, this subject is always a challenging one to bring up. Remember to think BIG (Behavior, Impact and Getting Agreement) and you’ll have a much easier time providing tough feedback in the kindest way possible.
You may also like:
- LEADx Leadership Show #186: How To Give Effective Feedback (Part 1)
- Giving Feedback That's Radically Transparent by Joe Hirsh
- LEADxAcademy Effective Feedback Course with Kevin Kruse
- HBR's A Better Way To Deliver Bad News by Jean-François Manzoni