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HR: You're Doing It Wrong - Your Colleague Smells Bad. And?

Fall 2012


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To what extent should HR involve itself in the perceived well-being of its workforce?

By Laurie Ruettimann


Laurie Ruettimann is an HR and social-media strategist at The Starr Conspiracy and founder of

Laurie Ruettimann portrait

Life is one big conflict and hassle. We are born, we attach ourselves to a set of values and beliefs, and then we suffer for the sake of our principles. Some of us are lucky to experience brief bursts of happiness and joy—falling in love, the beginning of a new friendship, finding a new jobbut the majority of our time on this planet is spent sorting through complex emotions of despair, doubt, and shame.

Then we die.

Before we even have the privilege of getting hit by the massive truck that will end our misery, we find ourselves at a crummy jobsurrounded by pride, ego, and misery. While at work, we all deal with bizarre and uncomfortable issues. The colleague who smells funny, the hippy-dippy administrative assistant who seems perpetually confused, the overweight guy who snacks at his desk all day long at his cubicle and breaks into a sweat while walking from his chair to the toilet. Sometimes our co-workers annoy us; other times, we're concerned about their health.

And if you think it is tough to work with people, imagine employing them. Not only do you have to accept the idiosyncrasies and neurodiversity that comes with managing a modernyou have to engage and motivate them, too.

Good luck with that.

Unfortunately, when an employee has a problem with a colleague, the default behavior in most offices is to ask the local HR lady to intervene and initiate an uncomfortable conversation. To what extent, if any, should HR get involved and address a worker who obviously appears unhealthy or kind of weird?

It's tricky.

According to Heather Bussing, an employment attorney and a writer and editor for, employers have an obligation to meet their word. They must provide the benefits they promised to provide. They must honor the time off they promised or are legally required to grant employees. And that's about it. Any efforts to inquire into an employee's wellness or deal with a perceived quirk should have a really good reason and a specific outcome in mind. "If a behavior or attribute does not relate to performance," Bussing adds, "the employer should stay out of it."

Unless an employee specifically asks for help, Bussing points out, there is no legal obligation to intervene. Employers should consider personal health issuesand observations on appearance, personalities, or scentsoff-limits unless the employee is violating the company handbook or seems to be dangerous to himself or others.

Leave it to a lawyer to tell you to stay out of it. Attorneys have no souls.

An HR head, on the other hand, is no litigator. Years ago, an HR director I know worked with a marketing director who always asked her to do his dirty workfrom performance management to interpersonal coaching, no task was too small to require her assistance and personal intervention. One day, the marketing manager poked his head in her office and asked her to speak with a very large employee who smelled funny. He said, "Somebody really needs to help me. It's distracting. People can't work."

She rolled her eyes. Standards of beauty, size, and odor are subjective. Just because someone appears to be unhealthyand is "obviously" smellydoesn't mean that there is anything wrong with the employee. But it just so happened that she was having a meeting near the employee's cube, so she swung by to take a sniff. As she turned the corner, her gag reflex kicked in and her eyes started to water. "Clearly, something was wrong," she recalls. "The signs were obvious to me. The employee was bright red. He looked visibly uncomfortable in his chair. He was sweating from working on the computer."

Couldn't that be any of us after a night on the town or dinner at Golden Corral?

"And he really, really, really smelled. Like death," she adds.

She asked the employee to join her for a meeting, during which he immediately admitted that he didn't feel well. "I really need to go to the doctor, but I keep putting it off," he said.

It turns out that the employee suffered from a condition called "diabetic foot." The tissue in his foot and toes had necrotized, and the entire foot needed to be removed immediately. According to, there were more than eighty thousand amputations of toes, feet, and lower legs in 2009. Many of them would have been preventable if only patients had gotten the right care for their feet. Had someonea manager or co-workerspoken up about the smell sooner, this employee might still have his foot.

But one smelly foot doesn't set the precedent for intervention. I wonderis anyone served when HR speaks to an overweight employee about her BMI or coaches a seemingly spacey or frazzled employee on the benefits of yoga and meditation? If HR is the department that guards against biases and logical fallacies during the hiring process, how do we ensure that preconceived notions don't interfere with the employment covenant?

Bussing advises HR professionals to look inward and check their attribution and cognitive biases at the door before even considering a conversation with an employee about appearance, health, or quirky behavior. Naïve realismand societal assumptions about wellness and healthcan actually backfire and put your company at risk. If you suggest that someone see a doctor for his big gut or foul body odor, be prepared to grant the Family and Medical Leave Act request should doctors discover a medical condition. And when you make assumptions about appearance and perceived wellness, you can also trigger discrimination claims if your actions have a disparate impact on a protected category.

Meanwhile, here's another olfactory case. This one involves a VP of HR whose company works with several different IT consulting firms. One of the organization's full-time employees came into her office and said, "You really have to talk to the new consultant, Arjun. He smells horrible."

Without missing a beat, she replied, "Get over yourself." (As a side note, that's an excellent response for almost every situation in HR.) The employee persisted and told her, "Customers are complaining. Arjun is hurting business. He is known for his smell."

"You show me the customer who is actually complaining about Arjun's smell, and I will look a little further into the situation," the HR director responded.

Of course, there was no name. The employee was homing in on an ethnic attribute and trying to attack the consultant's credibility by creating a false conflict. Now the VP of HR had to investigate the false complaint and think critically about whether or not the employee was creating a hostile environment for other workers.

Sometimes HR is thankless, but it's really thankless when HR professionals feel the need to react and intervene in subjective ways. If it's any comfort, Bussing does not feel that if you see something, you need to say something. She points out, "Suggesting that someone shower, lose weight, change their diet, exercise more, or even see a doctor because they don't look good to you is at best bad manners and at worst legal trouble."

Health and medical issues are about as personal as it gets. Between ADA, EEOC, FMLA, FCRA, HIPAA, and GINA, employers are saddled with rules and regulations about what information they can collect and use to make decisions. So if someone appears very sick, call an ambulance or do whatever is appropriate for the immediate well-being of your workforce. That's often the best you can doand should doin life, and in human resources.


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