Personal hygiene at work– The most difficult conversation?

Personal hygiene can be one of the most uncomfortable conversations in a workplace. As an employer, it is difficult for you to handle the issue without causing some offence or awkwardness.

However, depending on the employee’s role, bad hygiene can have a negative impact on other workers or clients, not to mention the health and safety implications if you are in the food and drink industry.

You should not avoid the issue though and instead raise it with the employee in a confidential and tactful manner that benefits all parties.  Therefore, no “hints” or oblique remarks.

Dealing with the issue

Arrange a meeting either through their line manager or directly. This must be a private location without other employees present. The employee shouldn’t be told this information by a colleague or anonymously, it could create an uncomfortable atmosphere and the employee may then feel victimised by their colleague(s).

Close-up of washing hands in a sink

Approach with tact and be prepared to be direct but polite

While it is important to be careful with accusations of poor hygiene, the employee may not believe a problem exists and will require direct information. Remember the human brain can “tune out” sights, sounds and smells.

For example, informing the employee that they have ‘stained or damaged’ clothing when attending work and citing your hygiene/grooming policy.

Alternatively, if there have been complaints made about the employee, make them aware without disclosing who had raised them. This will give an understanding of how cleanliness can affect the business without allowing a hostile environment to form between colleagues.

Once the employee has had the opportunity to either explain their circumstances or take what you have said on board, confirm your expectations clearly.

What may first appear as bad hygiene can actually be symptoms of a serious medical condition. You should be conscious that the member of staff may well be suffering from an illness or take medication that causes profuse sweating or difficulty in their washing routine.

If it is established that the employee is suffering with a medical issue, then establish the ‘reasonable adjustments’ that may need to be made to best suit all members of staff. Seek information from the employee’s Doctor or Occupational Health where appropriate.

What if this does not resolve the situation?

As long as there are no discrimination issues, then ultimately, following the correct process and after seeking the relevant advice, you can discipline an employee for breaching expected/satisfactory hygiene and grooming company standards repeatedly.

Preventing the issue

Having a policy within your staff handbook is a good start in outlining the necessary minimum of cleanliness. By setting clear expectations about grooming you will decrease the likelihood that bad hygiene will be present in the workplace.

Consider including this by the dress code section of your documentation, possibly under a category marked as ‘Presentation’, specifying the company’s expectation of personal hygiene.


Have you considered training for yourself and your managers on difficult conversations and how to handle them?

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