Smell is one of our five senses. When our nose picks up a scent, it transmits a signal to the olfactory bulb in our brain.
Our olfactory system contains 1,000 different types of smell receptors; our eyes rely on four.
Our olfactory system also has the only central nervous system neurons that are directly exposed to the environment, and we completely replace them every 28 days.
Smell plays an important part in our perception, memory, sexual attraction and in the identification of our kin. Mothers can smell their babies; smell can bring back powerful memories; horses (and women) can smell fear. Smell has even been linked to parental investment in their children and adoption disruption.
Our sense of smell connects to our emotions and can trigger intense reactions.
Every person smells, and every person has a different odour. Of course, a shower, clean clothes and deodorant every day (hopefully!) keeps our odour from affecting others. But it's always there.
Most people cannot smell their own body odour. Scientists believe that our nose adjusts to constant scents to reduce the impact those scents have on our recognising other scents. We become insensitive to the smells accompanying us.
That means that our smelly employee doesn’t know they are affecting others.
This Creates a Problem for Us as Managers
Smell is a powerful trigger to us. We cannot detect our own smell, but because our nose talks to our emotions, we have opinions about other smells. Ever notice how a dog can smell the most objectionable (to us) odours with complete neutrality? To them, it's just a smell. To us, it’s different.
To us, smells come with opinions attached.
Our staff will change a soiled baby without complaint (well mostly...), but will have very ready opinions about a smelly colleague! And naturally, it affects productivity at our centre to have some staff altering their normal work practices to put themselves on the other side of the centre from the offending individual!
Our parents and caregivers are human too. We are asking them to entrust their most valuable possession to our care. A smelly staff member will have a powerful impact on them and reflect badly on us.
So, as managers, we need to act if we have a staff member who doesn’t smell like roses. It's a conversation that makes most managers' knees shake because it's very awkward for both parties - there’s just no way of avoiding that - however, we owe it to the person, to our other staff, to our parents, and ourselves to let them know.
The issue is just not going to go away by itself.
Techniques and Tactics
So, how do we tackle this?
We smell it for ourselves. We need to make sure there is a problem, one that we have noted ourselves. There are so many potential downsides to the upcoming conversation that we should make sure we need to have it, and we want to make sure it's not a one-off problem reported by a vindictive staff member. We need to note more than one instance ourselves (preferably at least three). We don't want to be acting on hearsay and we want to be able to justify raising the issue without having to use one of our staff members as the excuse (or scapegoat!). We don’t ever want to say, ‘other people have brought it to our attention’. Ever.
We pick the time. We talk at the end of the day so our employee can go straight home. The alternative is a very embarrassing day for our staff member (and little useful work for us).
We pick the place. Our goal is to help and to get a solution. A neutral setting (go for a walk?) may be better than our office (but see the next point).
We meet in private. This is not a conversation we want interrupted by phone calls, other staff members or enquiring parents. We must anticipate tears or anger. Turn the cellphone off.
We keep it simple, honest, direct and as kind as possible. We need to get to the point. Starting the conversation with "How are things going?" is not going to make it easier and will likely deflect us. Instead, we step right in:
I want to speak with you privately. This feedback back is difficult to share, and I’m pretty uncomfortable right now, so I want to make this as simple and straightforward as possible: I believe you may have a problem with (bad breath or body odour).
I want to mention something. It’s awkward, and I hope I don’t offend you. You’ve had a noticeable odour lately. It might be a need to wash clothes more frequently or shower more, or it could be a medical problem. This is the kind of thing that people often don’t realise about themselves, so I wanted to bring it to your attention and ask you to see what you can do about it.
I'm sure you're not aware of it, but I thought you'd like to know that I'm noticing an odd odour. I think it might be your (fill in the blank).
I wanted to meet with you one-on-one because I need to share something with you privately, discreetly and with as much sensitivity as possible. You may not realise it, but it appears you have a body odour problem. I’ve had conversations like this with other employees before, and usually they’re not even aware that the problem exists. I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable, but are you aware of the issue, and if so, is it something you could take care of? I’m here to help in any way I can. Just let me know whatever I can do to help, OK?
We listen. Smell is not solely caused by poor hygiene. Someone may 'smell' to others because of a medical condition, medications, hormone changes, stress, or because of diet or other cultural factors. We need to make sure there is no underlying cause over which the person has limited or no control. So we ask for their input.
We don't threaten consequences. Not in the first meeting - that’s overly harsh. We let the person know there’s a problem and ask them to take care of it. (If they don't then yes, we will need to talk again. But in most cases, a one-time conversation is going to take care of things.)
We give the other person some 'wiggle room'. We emphasise to them that we all have body odour, we've talked to other people about this before, it’s a small matter and easily solved and it’s not a big deal. We might say that we too face the problem on some days and share how we resolve it, and even that you are getting in before someone else notices it. And we ask if there is anything we can do to help.
We reassure. We make it clear to our staff member that this has nothing to do with their work (if applicable). We let them know that it’s about the overall work environment and the impression we want to make on visitors to the centre. Above all, we reassure them that this is an informal conversation that will remain a private matter.
We monitor. We make a diary note of the conversation and track the situation discreetly. We follow up if necessary.
What We Probably Should Avoid (Tempting as They Are!)
- Asking someone to do the job for us. Asking someone else to break the news to our staff member is not a good solution. Even with the best of intentions, it will be tough for our surrogate, and we will appear (quite rightly) to have ducked a difficult issue. True, this kind of conversation is less embarrassing coming from a friend or peer, or a family member, but it is our responsibility. The conversation just might go very wrong, and we're not there to fix it.
- Accusing everyone. Having a meeting to 'remind all staff' of the need to wear clean clothes and shower daily isn't going to fool anyone. We will be taking the easy way out and staff will know it! And it won't work. Our staff will know who we are really talking to, and that person will likely be oblivious! The outcome: we will still have to have the meeting and our staff will see right through us.
- Being subtle. Leaving cans of deodorant placed strategically in bathrooms is a cheap and easy choice. But will it really work?
Food for Thought...
A conversation with an employee about personal hygiene is always going to be awkward.
- When that time comes, we must take responsibility ourselves.
- We should hold the conversation in a private place, at the end of the work day and without interruptions.
- Our conversation should be direct, clear and as kind as possible.
- Our aim is to bring about change, without lasting damage.
- We want to avoid making it 'a big deal'. In the grand scheme of things, it’s just a minor blip.
Above all, we need to remember that the outcome is of benefit to everyone – no matter how uncomfortable the brief conversation might be.
‘Bob, you smell’: What to say to employees about embarrassing personal issues
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How to talk to an employee about body odour
How to Talk to an Employee About Body Odour
How to Talk to Employees about Body Odour: 20 Polite Ways
How to handle an employee with poor hygiene
6 Ways to (Tactfully) Bring Up Personal Hygiene Issues