How to Talk with an Employee about a Personal Hygiene Issue

Tactics to Resolve Sensitive Problems

Two business people having serious discussion in modern office
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This reader's question was answered by Human Resources Director, Carol Reed, who occasionally stopped by the former forum and responded to questions from colleagues and other guests. Carol is the HR Director at Mountain Rose Herbs in Eugene, OR.


I am searching for a tactful way of handling a matter that is frustrating work staff.  One particular employee consistently does not flush the toilet after use.  How can I approach this issue respectfully and tactfully to get positive results? Your help will be appreciated as I am at a loss.  Look forward to your ideas.


OK...Yes, this is one of those subjects that can be rather uncomfortable to handle. First off, I'm guessing that you're certain this behavior is from a specific staff person and this isn't an assumption or what everyone believes.

If you're not 100 percent certain, then a general reminder to all staff about hygiene and shared areas in the workplace would be a good first step. If you are 100 percent certain, then I've found that the best approach is to direct and factual and as neutral as possible.

Acknowledge that it's not an easy conversation to have. However, if you come across as if the situation is uncomfortable, delicate, and/or unpleasant for you to discuss, then the staff member will be more likely to become defensive and shut down.

Have this discussion behind closed doors (of course) and don't beat around the bush about the reason for the meeting. "Hi ___________, we need to talk about general hygiene in the workplace and I know this may not be an easy talk to have. It's come to my attention that the staff toilet is not being flushed after use.

What can you tell me about this issue?" (Please note that I didn't say, "I've had a lot of complaints." I've found it best to not set the person up to feel singled out.)

I have found that it's a good idea to get the person's feedback as opposed to just delivering an edict to "stop it!" If the employee can communicate the why for his or her behavior, you then have the opportunity to guide them to do their own problem solving. Be ready for the reason to be anything from the environmental—it wastes water—to perhaps an issue with touching the toilet lever with bare plain old forgetfulness.

Again, have them devise some solutions towards helping you and the company succeed in resolving this issue. After helping them, restate the solution. Then wrap it up with this summary:

"Thank you for your time and input on this issue. I think you can see that for the overall health and morale of the office team, this practice cannot continue. We're going to do XYZ, you'll be doing ABC, and that will resolve the problem. I need you to be on board with this. Can you do that?"

Having had these kinds of talks with staff about different personal hygiene issues over the years, I know it's not fun and seems like a simple "cease and desist" would be sufficient. However, I've found that by taking the time to get the staff member's feedback, the individual doesn't feel as judged or ostracized from the group and you've got a better chance of getting the message through so the employee becomes more mindful.

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Susan Heathfield makes every effort to offer accurate, common-sense, ethical Human Resources advice to management, employers and workplaces both on this website, and linked to from this website, but she is not an attorney. The content on the site, while authoritative, is not guaranteed for accuracy and legality, and is not to be construed as legal advice.

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