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Is there a best way to address an employee’s hygiene issues?

Posted February 15, 2017

By Kyra Kudick, associate editor, J. J. Keller & Associates

You have recently had several employees complain to you about working closely with a coworker – let’s call him John – due to his strong body odor and bad breath.

You took John aside and explained the company dress code and policy on personal hygiene, and he admitted that he had not been taking a shower or brushing his teeth before coming to work, but claimed he would do better in the future.

That was a month ago, and the situation has not improved. The other employees continue to complain, and you are now wondering if you can fire John for his poor hygiene – even if his job performance is otherwise satisfactory.

Well, can you?

Focus on your policies

In most states, including Wisconsin, employers may terminate an employee at-will, which generally means you can apply any reason that you deem appropriate, as long as you don’t apply an unlawful reason.

If the employee simply refuses to comply with the company’s personal hygiene policy (and his refusal is not based on a medical or religious reason), you could terminate his employment for failure to follow company policy.

You might try this tactic: “John, I know we have discussed your personal hygiene previously; however, there hasn’t been any improvement. This has become an issue that is impacting productivity. As you are aware, all employees are expected to comply with our company policies on personal grooming. Is there any reason you cannot comply with these policies? Is there anything we can do to help?”

Such phrasing opens the door for the employee to tell you if he has a specific reason for his hygiene issues. The key is to show respect and compassion, but also be firm in the company’s expectations. Choosing to neglect personal hygiene does not place this employee in a protected class, but there might be circumstances underlying the odor that could require accommodation.

About the author:

Kyra Kudick

Kyra Kudick is an associate editor at J. J. Keller & Associates, Inc., a nationally recognized compliance resource company that offers products and services to address the range of responsibilities held by human resources and corporate professionals. Kudick specializes in employment law/HR issues such as employee relations, hiring and recruiting, and training and development. She is the author of J. J. Keller’s Employee Relations Essentials manual and SUPER adVISOR newsletter. For more information, visit