Employers must adopt and implement a dress code policy. This policy should set clear expectations concerning employees’ grooming and personal hygiene, which may help avoid the uncomfortable conversations having to address these issues. It is a good idea to provide examples of the company’s expectations and to be as specific as possible. When there is a clear policy stating the level of hygiene that is expected of all employees, your employees will be put on notice of what is expected of them. When new employees are hired, management or HR should go through the employee handbook and highlight these areas.
If there is a situation involving an employee’s personal hygiene, management must identify the issue for themselves. Prior to having any conversation with an employee regarding his or her personal hygiene, a manager or HR personnel should have firsthand knowledge of the situation. Whoever is planning to speak with the employee should personally gather information regarding the issue. This will allow for an open and honest discussion instead of needing to involve other employees and make the situation more awkward for everyone involved.
It must be understood that not all personal hygiene issues are the same and employers should never assume they know the cause of the problem. There are a variety of causes for things like one’s unkempt appearance, body odor, or clothing. For example, a hairstyle may be attributed to one’s religious or cultural customs. An employee’s cultural heritage may include cooking with strong scented spices that leave his or her hair or clothing with a strong odor. Deodorant may be against an employee’s religion. An employee may also be dealing with medical issues that may be the cause of the odor. A medical treatment could be affecting the employee’s odor or appearance. Or the employee’s medications or treatments that result in sensitive skin, rashes, loss of hair, etc., may make frequent bathing difficult or painful. An employee’s tattered clothes might be due to financial issues. Emotional distress may also cause an employee to disregard his or her self-care.
Employers need to understand what protections employees are afforded when it comes to his or her personal appearance. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protects your employees’ religious beliefs and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides protections for individuals with disabilities.
If management has verified that a personal hygiene issue exists, a manager or HR representative should have a conversation with that employee in private. It is important that the manager or HR representative approach the conversation with delicacy and with respect. They must do their best to be respectful of the employee’s privacy; hence the conversation should be had in private area where other employees cannot hear what is being said. Keep the conversation as direct and to the point as possible. Communicate the issue in plain terms without any tone of judgment and be sensitive, since it will be very uncomfortable for the employee to have this conversation with his or her manager or HR representative. The employee should also be afforded an opportunity to respond. The employee may explain that his or her religious practices or beliefs conflicts with the dress code and grooming policy and you might try to come up with an effective reasonable accommodation. Or the employee may indicate the cause of the personal hygiene issue is due to his or her disability. If that is the case, the employer is responsible to initiate an interactive process to determine if the ADA is applicable and whether there are accommodations the employer could make to resolve the problem.
At the end of the discussion with the employee, it is a good idea to agree upon set expectations to resolve the issue and communicate the next steps to be taken. If the employee is responsible to take corrective action, the manager or HR representative should document any potential consequences of the employee’s failure to rectify the issue and should set a time line to follow-up with the employee. If the conversation has led to a reasonable accommodation as the solution, be sure to document all specifics involved regarding the employee’s need for the accommodation, any possible alternatives, and how the employee and employer will implement the accommodation.