Personal hygiene issues

One of my staff regularly smells of urine. Despite sympathetically asking her on many occasions to address the problem she has failed to do so. What is the position regarding her employment? If I have to, can I ask her to leave?


One of my staff regularly smells of urine. Despite sympathetically asking her on many occasions to address the problem she has failed to do so. What is the position regarding her employment? If I have to, can I ask her to leave?

Personal hygiene is always a tricky issue in any environment, but even more so in the working environment because you don’t want to insult your employee, however, it is unacceptable to expect customers and other members of staff to put up with it.

So clearly you have to take action. You have already asked politely that the employee improve in this respect but to no avail. If you have a dress code in place that addresses this issue then it’s relatively straightforward, if not then it will take some groundwork. As you are asking the question I guess that you haven’t!

Remember that this could be a medical problem and if so your employee could suffer with a disability which would protect her from being treated less favourably than other employees who do not suffer with that disability. Asking the employee to leave is an unsafe option and it would be far preferable to take an informal and supportive approach in the first instance, and this would involve going beyond the simple ‘request for improvement’.

Way Forward Meeting:
I would suggest that you hold another meeting with her. Call this a ‘way forward’ meeting. Hold it in private ensuring there are no interruptions. Ask questions designed to get to the cause of the issue and this includes asking questions about the reasons why there has been no improvement. Explain that if you cannot find a mutually agreeable way forward that you may have to take disciplinary action. If the employee is able to redress the situation overnight, then great, but if not and the problem is medical, you will at least expect them to be willing to try to find a solution. If they appear impassive, ask them whether they think it is reasonable to expect their colleagues to endure working in these circumstances and what their suggested way forward is. Keep notes of the answers.

Disciplinary action:
If you draw a blank, then you may decide that there is no alternative but to take disciplinary action.

Write to the employee setting out the required improvement and a date for achieving it, and if there is no medical reason for the problem, you could discipline her for failing to obey a reasonable order if the improvement is not forthcoming. This would be a misconduct issue, but it doesn’t appear to be gross misconduct in the circumstances and so you should follow the ACAS disciplinary procedure starting at the beginning.

If the employee has more than one year’s service then you could be open to a claim of unfair dismissal so you would be taking a big risk if you dismissed this employee without following the full ACAS disciplinary code which allows scope for improvement on your employee’s part and which hopefully may lead to a mutually satisfactory way forward.

Medical problem:
If the problem is medical, then this employee is obviously suffering greatly and to lose her job without the employer at least trying to help her overcome the problem would very likely be regarded as discriminatory and unfair by a tribunal.  I suggest that you ask them to consult their doctor and investigate solutions as a first step and then review at a second meeting. Be supportive and only take disciplinary action as a last resort.

Whichever route you take, you should be building a business case throughout the coming weeks to evidence the need to address the issue and this will go some way to reducing the risk of a successful tribunal claim.

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