How to Tell an Employee They Have BO

How to Tell an Employee They Have BO

I was crossing London last week and standing behind a woman on the escalator going down to the Underground I kept getting powerful wafts of BO from her. Just what you need at the end of a long day. Luckily, she wasn’t taking the same train as me.

Summer can be a lovely time of year… sun, sea, strawberries …. But sometimes it also means smelly workers. Most commonly body odour issues are caused by the following.

  1. Not washing/showering often enough. One study found that 20% of Britons wash just four times a week or less. That’s not enough – especially in the summer.
  2. Not changing clothes often enough.
  3. Going for lunch time exercise and not showering afterwards.

These should all be easily resolvable by the adoption of better personal hygiene practices.

In addition:

  • stress;
  • menopause;
  • fasting;
  • ill health conditions

Can all cause the body to produce unpleasant odours, and these will require different solutions.

Body odour or bad breath is a sensitive subject, challenging to address, but it is just as difficult for those individuals who have to work with the employee who smells. Don't try and tackle the problem by means of well-intentioned hints. Deal with it head on. It is one of the least favourite subjects for most employers. An employer telling someone they smell is far less likely to backfire than leaving it to work colleagues who may be less tactful about how they deliver the message (don’t start squirting air freshener around or leaving bottles of anti-perspirant on a colleague’s desk). This approach can easily escalate into allegations of bullying.

Talk to the employee in private. Say that you’ve noticed the problem and explain what it is. Try to attach the problem to a business issue, for example, the impact on customers or colleagues. NB Remember to be sensitive to the different cooking and eating traditions of different cultures which can affect body odour and the impact of fasting which can cause bad breath.

Ask the employee if they have any medical problem that you need to be aware of; there are medical conditions which can affect how much a person sweats (hyperhidrosis) and what their sweat smells like (Fish Odour Syndrome). Perhaps something has occurred in their personal life which could be causing the problem (finding out an employee has lost their home or is living somewhere with no washing facilities is likely to provoke a different reaction from most employers than someone just not bothering to shower).

Set out your expectations for improvement and a date when you will meet again to review the situation. Ask if there is anything you can do to help the employee achieve the improvements.

Reassure the employee that this informal conversation with them will remain a private matter between the two of you. Make a diary note of the conversation. Monitor the situation discreetly and hold your review meeting.

Hopefully the situation will improve. If it doesn’t you have an obligation to your other employees to progress the matter formally. (Yes, you sack someone for smelling.)


If you’re an employer with HR queries and problems, get in touch!


Although every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information contained in this blog, nothing herein should be construed as giving advice and no responsibility will be taken for inaccuracies or errors.

Copyright © 2022 all rights reserved. You may copy or distribute this blog as long as this copyright notice and full information about contacting the author are attached. The author is Kate Russell of Russell HR Consulting Ltd.