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“You Have B.O.” & Other Conversations that Stink: Training Your Supervisors on the Soft Skills They Need to Survive

By Holly Mockus   |   

Nobody likes an awkward conversation. Nobody really wants to tell a friend, colleague, or direct report that they are causing other people discomfort, especially when it’s related to personal hygiene. But we’ve all been in the company of someone with foul breath or an unpleasant body odor.

But the stakes are a lot higher and a lot more personal when it’s an ongoing issue. At work the dynamics can make something that’s awkward even more challenging. If your employees are working with an individual that has poor personal hygiene in close quarters, it usually falls to supervisors to handle these situation. This is but one example of personal-level conversations a supervisor must have to keep the workplace a positive, productive environment.


Unfortunately, these conversations aren’t something that many supervisors are trained on. The skills that got supervisors to be supervisors aren’t typically of the “softer” kind. But we can help you by providing key learnings to help them with these difficult conversation so that everyone can come up smelling like a rose.


Personal Hygiene Affects Everyone’s Health

Now more than ever, the issue of personal hygiene is essentially a life or death situation, so it is the perfect time to revisit ways to address it. First, we’ll tackle the easy part of managing employee hygiene: mitigating the spread of viruses, such as COVID-19, through training workers on vigorous and diligent hygiene procedures throughout the day. This is something you can educate employees on through training courses, quizzes, and reinforcement via posters and digital signage displayed around your facility.

But when it comes to more sensitive matters, there isn’t always a handbook or visually appealing material to display. In the corporate world, Human Resources is often the department consulted first, to both log the concern and any complaints, and for a highly trained professional to relay the news in a private, confidential manner.

But what if it falls upon an untrained supervisor to convey to an employee that they…well…stink? Here are a few tried and true tips from experts that you can pass on to supervisors to guide them:


Plan Your Approach

Think about how you would want the news delivered to you (okay, no one wants to ever hear anything of the sort, but put yourself in his or her shoes). You’d likely want this to be a very private conversation, away from the workspace, and you would want whomever it is to be discreet, professional, and kind.

So do that. Provide a safe space, away from other people’s ears.


What to Say

Well. It’s hard to imagine saying to a person, “You stink and everyone has noticed this.” That’s not going to fly.

You’re going to need to choose your words very carefully. There could be a lot of reasons for a body odor problem: medical, financial, home life challenges, etc. And there are lots of places in a facility where it’s hot enough to sweat through a deodorant application!

You’ll want to carefully phrase your words, and always include kindness and compassion — don’t mix any opinions on work performance with this personal matter. Take a few minutes before you meet to think through what you will say and how you will phrase it, and remind yourself to use good active listening skills during the conversation.

Once you’re in a private setting, deliver the reason why you’re both meeting in a way that most HR experts agree is the most diplomatic way to phrase it:

“I need to address something that is going to be a little awkward for the both of us, and I hope you know my intention isn’t to offend you. I have noticed that you have had a distinct (or noticeable) odor lately. Many times people become ‘nose blind’ to themselves, I wanted to bring it up so that you can address it.”

If your employee chooses to respond then and there and engage in a conversation, brace yourself for any range of emotions that the employee may bring to the conversation. And now is the time to practice those great active listening skills referenced above:

  • Make eye contact and really listen to what the employee is saying and how they are saying it. Listen to seek solutions.
  • Use nodding and affirmative comments to show you are hearing what is being said.
  • Rephrase and repeat to ensure you are understanding what the employee is saying.
  • Offer to help where you can.
  • Escalate if the problems are outside your wheelhouse.


During your conversation, you may have to bring the discussion back around to your concern for them personally if he or she is becoming defensive or steering the conversation in a different direction.

And consider, if appropriate, following up in the next few days to ensure that he or she is doing okay. If the situation is resolved, discreet praise may be just the thing to keep your relationship with the employee intact. But sometimes these conversations need to be repeated or different solutions need to be tried. Don’t give up, however, as persistence pays in the long run.

Hopefully, they will be motivated to take care of matters immediately and you’ll never need to speak of it again.


Spread Information, Not Germs and Hurt Feelings

Hygiene is a delicate issue, fraught with complicated feelings: pride, shame, and embarrassment. It is uncomfortable for all involved, as for the most part, the “offender” likely has no intention of being the source of anything malodorousx

It never hurts to spread the good cheer of cleanliness around the entire workforce. You can reinforce best practices for hygiene habits via training modules, digital signage, and via huddle guides.


Soft Skills Training is Necessary, Not Elective

This is a good reminder that all supervisors need soft-skill training. Personal hygiene issues are but one of many sensitive issues that supervisors will be dealing with over the course of their entire career. It’s a part of being a great leader who builds great teams . . . and contributes to making a workplace that encourages employee retention.

On board with this approach, but not sure where to start? Our leadership development courses can help you:

  • Transform supervisors into successful leaders
  • Reduce turnover and raise morale
  • Develop people skills in your supervisors


These courses make it easy to create an ongoing culture of open, honest, and caring communication.

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