A Capehart Scatchard Blog

Ooooh That Smell, The Smell that Surrounds (Your Employees?)

For fans of the rock band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, forgive my modification of the lyrics to one of the band’s most iconic songs, but it perfectly captures a moment I experienced recently fielding one of the more interesting counseling questions that I received from a client this year.

The client wanted to know whether it could demand that an employee, who regularly came into work smelling bad and always in an dirty work uniform,“ clean up his act” and present to work with better hygiene because other employees were complaining about the employee’s offending body odor.  It was a great question because it got me thinking: sometimes employers forget that, in establishing job and work performance expectations, professional appearance requirements can be set as well.  Employers have every right to expect that employees will present themselves at work in a neat and clean fashion so that a desired professional image is projected to customers and other employees working in the organization.

The law allows employers to set attire and grooming rules which reflect the type of professional image that the employer wishes to project to the public, their employees, and to their potential clients.  Most (if not all) of the employee handbooks that I either prepare or review will include some type of grooming and/or attire policy, and the handbook is a great place to let employees know what the requirements will be on those issues.  So long as such rules are applied across the board, and no favoritism is shown (to some but not all) employees who violate such policies, these rules are legally valid and provide an effective way of eliminating situations where employees treat personal hygiene issues below the standards desired of the employer.

If you as an employer discover a potential violation of such a policy, it can be easily corrected by disciplining the employee simply by sending them home to correct the problem. Multiple infractions can justify harsher sanctions.

As referenced above, while an even handed application of such a policy is important, accommodations will sometimes need to be made for other legal reasons (i.e., allowing someone to grow a beard for either religious or health reasons because of skin problems associated with shaving.) Nevertheless, those situations can be addressed on a case by case basis, and should never stop an employer from implementing hygiene, grooming, and attire rules where an employer wishes to ensure that employees consistently maintain a professional image.

Accordingly, if your company does not have such policies, you should draft them now so if you are ever faced with a hygiene issue, your tool for resolution of the problem is already at your fingertips.

Hopefully, the next time you hear a reference to “That Smell,” it will be blasting out of your car radio, and not from an employee complaint about a colleague’s body odor.

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Ralph R. Smith, III, Esq.

About the Author

About the Author:

Mr. Smith is Co-Chair of Capehart Scatchard's Labor & Employment Group. He practices in employment litigation and preventative employment practices, including counseling employers on the creation of employment policies, non-compete and trade secret agreements, and training employers to avoid employment-related litigation. He represents both companies and individuals in related complex commercial litigation before federal states courts and administrative agencies in labor and employment cases including race, gender, age, national origin, disability and workplace harassment and discrimination matters, wage-and-hour disputes, restrictive covenants, grievances, arbitrations, drug testing, and employment related contract issues.

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