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About Body Odor
Employers are often uncomfortable dealing with hygiene problems such as body odor, incontinence, or inappropriate clothing. Some employers try to deal with these problems indirectly by sending anonymous notes or leaving soaps and deodorants on the employee’s desk. Unfortunately, ignoring hygiene problems or dealing with them indirectly may allow them to continue until they start interfering with the work of other employees or driving customers away.
People may have body odor for various reasons, including disability. Individuals with body odor may not be aware that their odor is offensive to others, so employers need to start by discussing the issue with the employee. If body odor results from a disability, employers should consider whether reasonable accommodation is appropriate. For employers who want to deal with hygiene problems directly, the following suggestions may be useful.
Where to Begin:
Employers may want to first decide who will deal with hygiene problems when they arise (e.g., human resources or the employee’s direct supervisor). The person chosen to deal with the problem should verify that the problem exists, by either making sure information about the problem came from a reliable source or through direct interaction with the employee who has the problem. Before talking with the employee, the employer should decide whether the source of the information will be provided to the employee, be prepared to discuss details about the problem, and be familiar with company policy and procedure related to such issues.
Discussing the Problem:
Once the employer is prepared to meet with the employee, the next step is to choose a place and time to meet. The meeting should be in a private area with enough time set aside for the employee to regain his/her composure, if needed, before returning to work.
When discussing the problem with the employee, the employer should be sensitive but direct, letting the employee know that he/she has a hygiene problem that must be addressed. In some cases, the employee may be unaware that a problem exists and may need specific information about what the problem is. The employer may need to describe the problem (e.g., smell of urine or feces, urine or feces left on office chairs, odor from flatulence, smell of sweat, bad breath, disheveled appearance) and let the employee know how it is affecting the workplace (e.g., bothering coworkers, customers complaining).
The employer should also let the employee know what is expected (e.g., when must the problem be fixed, what happens in the meantime, and what follow up will take place). If there is a specific company policy that addresses the issue, the employer should point it out or provide a copy. The employer also may want to make a general statement such as, “If I can help you resolve this problem, please let me know.”
If the employee has a disability, the employer should not assume that the hygiene problem is disability-related. There may be other causes for the problem besides the disability, such as personal problems, financial problems, cultural differences, or simply a failure to bathe. If the employee does not indicate that the problem is related to a disability, then the employer should proceed according to company policy. If the employee does indicate that the problem is related to a disability, then the employer should initiate an interactive process to determine whether the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies and whether there are accommodations that may resolve the problem.
Body Odor and the Americans with Disabilities Act
The ADA does not contain a definitive list of medical conditions that constitute disabilities. Instead, the ADA defines a person with a disability as someone who (1) has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more "major life activities," (2) has a record of such an impairment, or (3) is regarded as having such an impairment. For more information about how to determine whether a person has a disability under the ADA, see How to Determine Whether a Person Has a Disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA).
Accommodating Employees with Body Odor
If the employee has a qualifying disability and the employer is covered by the ADA, the employer must consider accommodations. In some cases, an employee may be able to overcome a hygiene problem through medical treatment. In such cases, the only accommodations needed may be flexible scheduling or leave time for treatment. In other cases, the problem may not be correctable and the employer must consider other accommodation options. If the employee’s job does not require in-person interaction with coworkers or customers, it might be a reasonable accommodation to modify the hygiene policy for the employee or allow the employee to work from home.
On the other hand, if the employee’s job does require in-person interaction with coworkers and customers, the employer needs to explore accommodation options to reduce or eliminate the problem. If there are no accommodations, the employer does not have to allow the employee to continue working in his/her current job if the problem is affecting business. However, the employer should consider reassigning the employee to a job that does not involve in-person contact if one is available.
Questions to Consider:
- What limitations is the employee experiencing?
- How do these limitations affect the employee and the employee’s job performance?
- What specific job tasks are problematic as a result of these limitations?
- What accommodations are available to reduce or eliminate these problems? Are all possible resources being used to determine possible accommodations?
- Once accommodations are in place, would it be useful to meet with the employee to evaluate the effectiveness of the accommodations and to determine whether additional accommodations are needed?
- Do supervisory personnel and employees need training?
Situations and Solutions:
The following situations and solutions are real-life examples of accommodations that were made by JAN customers. Because accommodations are made on a case-by-case basis, these examples may not be effective for every workplace but give you an idea about the types of accommodations that are possible.
A retail clerk with a skin disorder had been leaving flaking skin around the store.
HR talked with the employee and he agreed to wear a long sleeve t-shirt under the company uniform, which was a short-sleeved polo shirt.
A customer service representative recovering from colon cancer had a colostomy bag, which often smelled of feces.
When confronted about this problem, the employee said she had been embarrassed about cleaning the bag in the employee restroom so she had not been cleaning it enough. She was provided with a private area to clean her bag.
A paralegal with diabetes was having trouble keeping his blood sugar under control, which led to very bad breath.
He and her employer agreed that he would temporarily be excused from going into court during trials. They agreed to reassess the situation in three weeks, the amount of time his doctor estimated it would take to get his condition under control.
A receptionist had been leaving urine on her chair and her workspace smelled of urine.
Coworkers had to use the space when they filled in for the receptionist during breaks and lunch. When approached about the issue, the employee indicated she was trying new medication for incontinence and it might take a couple weeks to become effective. The employer provided an extra chair with protective covering for the receptionist’s use only and she agreed to clean the chair regularly.
A claims processor with a gastrointestinal disorder was having flare ups of his condition, which resulted in a strong odor that was affecting coworkers.
He asked to work from home until he could get his condition under control. His employer granted his request.
After receiving complaints from coworkers about an employee passing very smelly gas, the employer discussed the problem with the employee.
The employee said he was aware of the problem, but did not know it was that bad. He indicated that he has a gastrointestinal disorder that had flared up recently. The employer agreed to allow the employee to telework until the employee’s condition was under control again.