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Could hygiene be holding you back?

By Ian Hope

I often raise the question at training programs what is the one thing that you are most reluctant, and will often avoid bringing up with an employee or team member? More than 90 percent of the time the answer is bad hygiene.

Too bad that they are so reluctant to address hygiene issues such as these, because the truth is that the offending employees often don’t know they have a noticeable problem. Even if they are somewhat aware of it, they may not appreciate the impact it is having on others including themselves. Really, if a supervisor or manager who has responsibility for overseeing staff members, and giving them feedback that will help them in their job and in their career doesn’t share these observations, who on earth will?

When I was quite young, and already supervising others, a situation was presented to me that I was entirely unprepared to deal with. Two ladies from my work group came into my office to complain about the smell of another female employee working in the open office environment. There were seven women altogether and the subject of the complaint sat smack dab in the middle of the group, and yes I had noticed odours when near her myself from time to time. Still, you can be sure that I swallowed hard, quite overwhelmed with the thought that it would be up to me, a young man half this lady’s age, to bring this embarrassing issue to her attention.

At the time, I did what most supervisors would have done, and tried to deflect the complaint away from myself. I suggested to the ladies that it was within their right to mention this, “woman to woman,” to the offender. A few days later I looked at the workstations and saw that instead, each desk now had a large air freshener strategically located at the closest corner to this lady’s workstation. This seemed to have been their solution, and the snide remarks about this lady’s hygiene simply continued.

I look back on this now and realize that while my intention was only to spare my staff member embarrassment, I had not done her any favours in the longer term. I had not done my job. She may well have continued her work with that group for many years always wondering why she was so very unpopular within the group and organization.

I had become a supervisor at only 22 years of age, and it would take me many years to learn and develop the skills that would make me an effective leader and coach that could manage and lead my staff towards better outcomes for both the organization and themselves. I am sure that if that situation presented itself now, I would respond far more proactively.

I’ll give an example. Just a few short years ago a colleague came to me and opened the door to some helpful feedback that he very much needed. He had wondered why he had been consistently overlooked for appointments to senior committee work that would put him together with some of our top people and clients. He had some fairly evident hygiene issues that no one seemed to have brought to his recent attention, and I felt these were holding him back. I found a way to discuss these hygiene issues with him which must have been considered taboo for discussion by his bosses over the years. They were all things that were pretty easy to address once he became aware of themthe gravy and other lunch stains often on his tie, the hair that was seldom groomed and combed, the perpetual five o’clock shadow from not getting close enough to the razor in the morning, and the shirt that was always one or two neck sizes too small.

When looking in the mirror this fellow simply hadn’t seen what was so plain to others. Taken together, they were becoming career killers for him. Happily though, I still recall the next day when he stuck his head in the door of my office, with a broad grin and fresh haircut, wearing a crisp shirt and new tie. He looked like a completely different person! What made our discussion effective was that he quite clearly saw that I was providing my suggestions only to help and not to hurt him. This is the basis that we have to establish with everyone we are giving feedback to about things as personal and sensitive as their hygiene.

In many cases supervisors feel that hygiene issues are personal and “none of their business.” Also, they worry that the employee will not respond positively towards whatever they have to say. To me though, just two questions apply: first, does the hygiene issue affect the employee’s current performance or status? Secondly, might it impede their career in the future? If the answer to either question is “yes” then I will look for a way that I can approach possible improvement with the employee. In almost all cases employees I’ve had such discussions with have thanked me, if not at the time, then later.

Happy thoughts to you!

Ian Hope is the Executive Director of the Alberta Automotive Recyclers and Dismantlers Association (AARDA) and in addition maintains a professional practice training others on highly valued people skills. He provides articles on topics that will help collision repair shops and auto recycling yards, among other businesses, to raise individual and team performance. To enquire about Ian speaking or training at your event, send an email to ianhope@albertacom.com or go to his website at IanHope.com.

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