How Do We Handle An Employee With Body Odor Issues?

Ideally, he wouldn’t be in food service

What with the amazing technological advances people have been able to devise in the last hundred years or so, given the absurd levels of human understanding we’ve achieved unimaginable to the likes of Da Vinci, Aristotle, or Newton, one might think we as a species should pretty much have this body odor thing licked by now, right?

Sadly, as anyone in staffing or hiring entry-level workers can likely attest, that is far from the case. In some instances, not only do we NOT have it licked, there are pockets of otherwise great people whose stench would make a wet carnival worker cringe in disgust.

Dealing with this issue was one of the rather, shall we say, more rancid aspects of my job when I was a staffing manager. Most people are, of course, thankfully just fine in the smell department, at least when they apply for a job. But the ones that aren’t, well, they’ll take your breath in a way that’ll make you consider keeping an oxygen mask in your top drawer.

It’s not that I ever leaned over to take a whiff or asked them to raise their arms, but if they sat down in my office and a putrid odor came over me like the stench from a three day old dead July possum on a Georgia two-lane, suffice it to say that otherwise impeccable resume just took a hit.

Back in the day, we used to interview everybody, and I do mean everybody, who came through the door, whether they were a former bank president, just out of prison, or both! (If you’re wondering, these days most of our staffers will typically screen online applications and invite those they are interested in to go further in the process based on their qualifications and client needs.) And no, we didn’t get any extra hazard pay for assuming this kind of risk!

I’ll never forget one such interview. Lets call her “Ellen.”

When Ellen came to the door and I stood to shake her hand, she struck me at first glance to be a reasonably fit, fairly attractive young woman. In fact, when the dead possum stench cloud eventually did hit me after I sat down it came as quite a shock, so much so that I even looked around to see if anyone else, dead or alive, was in the room. Alas no, it was just Ellen, sitting there seemingly oblivious to the fact that she smelled like she had just towel dried after taking a bath in a porta-potty tank. I remember glancing at the hand that just shook hers, I guess to see if the bacteria had eaten it off yet. It was still there, but I did rub it on my khakis (like that would have done any good).

It was the kind of stink that burns your nose and makes your eyes water, the kind that makes you want to hold your breath or grab a handkerchief and hold it over your nose like you’re a detective just uncovering a gruesome crime scene. I’m not exaggerating when I say I literally had a hard time breathing.

As we began our interview, which I had already determined would be the shortest interview in staffing history, I looked more closely at Ellen. How could someone this innocuous and normal looking smell like the entrails of a zombie from The Walking Dead?

Despite my initial perception, upon closer look it was obvious from the stains and wrinkles that Ellen hadn’t washed her clothes in quite some time, and talking with her more revealed other issues that brought a clearer picture to her situation.

No, I didn’t give her a job, but I did feel sorry for her. After she left and I had emptied half a can of Lysol in my office and the entire building, I wondered if I should have told her why she wasn’t getting hired.

Its an awkward thing, having to tell someone something so deeply offensive and personal. If it’s awkward for us, I can only imagine how awkward it is for them. It strikes to the very core of who we perceive ourselves to be, especially if we aren’t aware. I know how I would feel if a complete stranger told me I stink, even if I’ve been exercising or sweating in the sun and I know it’s true. But truly, if someone willingly walks into a job interview smelling like that, are they even aware of it?

Even harder are those times where, despite our best screening efforts, one of our temps rolls into a client looking like Pig-Pen from Peanuts. I’ve gotten a few of those calls too over the years. Ben is a great worker and we want to keep him but honestly, Scott, he’s going to cause his whole line to quit or jump off a bridge if he doesn’t do something about that body odor. Can YOU talk to him?

It’s our job, of course. The supervisor knows it’s awkward, and it’s a relief to them not to have to do it. (Maybe we should list awkward conversations as a part of the service we provide in exchange for our fee!)

In those instances, part of me would much rather just fire him or her for no reason than have that conversation. But have it I do, because honestly it’s just the right thing to do.

I usually try to phrase it something like this –

“Ben, I want to start this conversation by telling you what a great job you’ve done so far. Joe (Ben’s Supervisor) says you are catching on fast and he would love ten more like you (or something to this effect, if it’s true) – the point is I always try to find something good to start with). Thank you for making us look good!

(Sandwich method, you see, except this sandwich has rotten tuna in the middle. Now, time for the rotten tuna.)

“When I talk to Joe about the associates we send to work, I like to ask him to tell us the good, the bad, and the ugly. After all, there are always things to work on, right? Well, the thing with you is you are a lot like me – you work hard and you sweat a lot, and if you’re like me you stink when you sweat. When I come home after working in the yard or working out my wife sends me straight to the shower! When you’re working hard at an 8 hour shift, you probably need to make sure you bring a shirt change or put on some extra deodorant. I’m sure you’re not even aware of it, but if Joe had any complaints at all about you that would be it. Please don’t let this make you think we don’t think you’re awesome, because you really, really are!” (Yep, the last piece of the sandwich – and it’s really true! Often, they are great workers except for that issue.)

Sure, its embarrassing, for both of us. But, they do seem to take it OK overall, especially given the subject matter. No, I haven’t had to do this often, but certainly more times than I would like.


A version of this post originally appeared on Staffing Talk