Style & Substance: on poor personal hygiene

Dear style & substance:

I have a co-worker who has an issue with personal hygiene. While it is something that we can put up with in the office, we do have clients in and out of the office all day, and she is to the point that she reflects very poorly on us as a company. I’m not in management, but our management doesn’t seem interested in dealing with the issue. I know that she would not take kindly to me mentioning something to her. Any ideas?

You are spot-on in realizing that this issue is a direct reflection of your organizational values. At the heart of this situation is respect: for self, others, and the organization providing for one’s livelihood.

You are also correct in your sensitivity to your colleague. Resolution will occur when all parties are in alignment to the greater good, being a pleasant workplace that includes satisfied customers. Confronting your colleague about her personal hygiene, or lack thereof, may lead to hurt feelings and anger, both non-productive in seeking a solution and bringing about necessary change.

Although we recommend that getting too involved in coworker’s personal lives can lead to distractions and less productive environments, we would venture to say that this lack of hygiene is in large part due to depression or an unresolved emotional situation. Excellent communication and sensitivity are needed by the leader to privately discuss the need for improvement and possibly provide some guidance in whatever the underlying barrier to cleanliness might be. In a general sense, some issues can be addressed with a nudge or gentle reminder by other employees and could include something like, “we feel it brings morale and professionalism down when everyone is not following the dress code.” Even asking the question, “How do we appear to the outside world?” can be a non-threatening way to introduce sensitive topics.

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