So what is HR’s worst nightmare? The one where all your teeth fall out? The one where you find yourself in the middle of a busy street wearing nothing but a too-short vest? Or is it the one where you have to tell an employee that they have a personal hygiene problem? It may not seem such a crisis compared to having to sack someone, but it's the situation we all dread.  Even if line managers are usually happy to deal with their own staff issues, you can bet your socks that when it comes to delivering this most awkward of messages, they will call on HR to do it for them! So here is a simple but effective ‘How To’ (and how not to) guide, to get the message across while minimising embarrassment and discomfort all round!

Don’t say that other staff have complained – even if they have! Realising that colleagues have noticed their whiffiness will mortify your employee. They are bound to ask who said what – knowing will make for tension; not knowing will make for paranoia and suspicion!
So take ownership of this yourself. Start with something like “This is something I’ve noticed a few times, so it would be good if we can talk about it before other people become aware of it.”

Demonstrate some empathy. This discussion isn’t just an HR nightmare; it probably isn’t a dream come true for the employee either. So don’t do what one manager I know did, and tell them (repeatedly, in this case) how awkward you feel , how embarrassing this is for you and how the situation is one that every manager dreads! This is about them, not you, and pointing out what a difficult situation they have put you in will only make them feel worse. So instead, show that you appreciate how they must feel and are trying to mitigate that as much as possible. E.g. “I realise this may be uncomfortable for you, but I really don’t want you to feel embarrassed so please don’t worry, you’ve got nothing to feel bad about”, or along those lines.

Don’t make it a personal hygiene issue – even if it is! Although bear in mind, it might not be. Body odour and bad breath are often caused by health problems, rather than by being a stranger to the shower or mouthwash. So to suggest that the problem is their own fault is not only personally offensive (and therefore only going to make the conversation more strained), it could also be completely untrue. Instead, say that you’re concerned that they may have some health issues. Rather than “You’ve got bad breath”, say “You seem to be suffering from halitosis”. Medical terms are neutral instead of judgemental, and the reference to ‘suffering from’ indicates that they’re not responsible for the problem. If they are in fact responsible, they will know about it – the important thing is getting the message across tactfully, not getting a confession out of them!

Ask for possible solutions, don’t impose them. Whether or not they are responsible for the problem, they are definitely responsible for the solution! Under no circumstance start recommending a stronger deodorant, offer mints or buy them smellies in Secret Santa. Ask them if they were aware of the situation themselves, what they have tried so far, if they have spoken to their doctor or dentist, and what they think they could do to deal with it. Make it clear that you can give appropriate time off for medical appointments etc. if needed. Encourage them to discuss it with you, so they’re not just sitting there feeling horror-struck. They may need a few gentle suggestions, but ultimately they need to feel in control of the situation, otherwise any remaining shred of dignity will be lost!

So there you go. Even if the situation is simply that your employee is a Pongo Snodgrass* with an aversion to their bathroom and branches of Boots, this approach should make them aware that something needs to be done without making them ashamed to show their face at work the next day. Follow these top tips, and even if it’s unlikely to go like a dream, it doesn’t have to be a nightmare!

*Character in Krazy comic, c. 1978 – showing my age!