Employment Law Blog

News, trends and analysis in employment law and HR

Jul 23, 2013

Summer Heat Brings Summer B.O.

Q&ADisability 

Q: One of my employees smells really bad, and other employees are complaining. Is body odor a disability? Should we just ignore it as an accommodation?

A: Body odor by itself is not a disability, but your employee might have an underlying medical condition causing the smell or he might be taking medication that triggered the odor—either of which could raise a disability issue. As awkward as it may be, you need to address it with him.  For one, if other employees are complaining, there is a greater threat of harassment (e.g., hanging air fresheners on his locker). Also, distracted employees mean lower production and morale.

When you talk to him, the key is to be direct and honest. You might start by stating, “This is a pretty uncomfortable conversation, but I want to respect you by being direct. Several employees have noticed that you have a strong body odor that is really distracting. Are you aware of this odor?” What is really important is NOT to ask “Is your body odor based on a medical condition?” If you do so the body odor could become a perceived disability, and the employee could have grounds to file a claim if you later terminate because the odor is not resolved. By asking open ended questions like “What do you think you can do to fix this situation?”, you allow the employee to suggest hygiene solutions or raise a medical condition. If he claims a medical condition, use Vigilant’s Legal Guide 1078 for a step-by-step walk through of “ADA:  Reasonable Accommodation and the Interactive Process.”

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