Do you pass the Smell Test?

Do you pass the Smell Test?


Poor hygiene could be holding you back from career advancement

He needs a shower

I often raise this question with leaders at training programs: “What is the one thing you most tend to avoid bringing up with an employee or team member?” More than 75 percent of the time the answer given is “poor hygiene.”

Poor hygiene can cover a great many things—everything from uncombed hair, to crumpled and soiled clothing, to body odour, offensive fragrances and everything in between.

It’s too bad that managers and supervisors are so reluctant to address hygiene issues because the truth is that the many employees with hygiene issues aren’t the least bit aware of it. Many managers also don’t see how it affects co-workers, customers and others in the workplace—not to mention how it can limit their own job and promotional prospects.   

When I was quite young and already supervising others, a situation arose which I found myself unprepared to deal with. Two ladies complained to me about the body odour of another female employee working in our open office. There were seven women altogether and the subject of the complaint sat smack dab in the middle of the group. And yes, I admit I had noticed and then ignored these odours when I was near her myself from time to time. I swallowed hard, overwhelmed with the thought it would be up to me, a young man barely half this lady’s age, to bring this embarrassing issue to her attention.

At the time I did what many 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 poor hygiene simply continued. 

I look back on this now and realize that while my intention was only to spare my staff member’s feelings, I had not done her any favours in the long term. I had not done my job and made things better for both her and the work group. For years she may have wondered why she was so unpopular within the group and organization.

After a great many leadership ups and downs, and in particular a lot of learning from mistakes, I’m confident that if a similar dilemma presented itself now, I would respond far more proactively.   

As an example, just a few years ago a colleague came to me to seek some helpful feedback about his hygiene that he very much needed. He had wondered why he’d been consistently overlooked for appointments to senior committee work that would put him together with some of our top people and clients.

In my view, he had some fairly evident hygiene issues and I felt these were holding him back. I found a way to give him some coaching on these issues which he later said had never been mentioned by his ‘up-line.’ They were all things I believed he’d find easy to remedy once brought to his attention, such as the telltale lunch stains often on his tie, the hair that was seldom trimmed 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 leaving the knot in the tie askew.

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 recall that the very next day he stuck his head in the door of my office grinning with a closely shaved chin, sharp haircut and also wearing a crisp shirt and new tie. Wow! He looked like a completely different person!

What made our discussion work was that he could clearly see 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. And by the way, this gent did get the appointment he had so much wanted about a year later.

So my advice is not to wait for others to point out that you have a hygiene issue. Take stock of your hygiene and make improvements that happily are almost entirely within your own control. You can enhance your own potential in the workplace and on the team by being at your best and this includes reflecting a high standard of personal cleanliness and appearance at all times. Happy thoughts to you!

Top 10 Reasons To Maintain Good Hygiene


Taking care of yourself is the highest form of self-love. Caring for your hygiene shows respect and gratitude for your body and your life.

Sex Appeal

When you take care of your personal hygiene you smell good, dress well and bring a fresh air of confidence. No one is attracted to someone who is dirty, unkempt and smells bad.


Bad hygiene is an embarrassing and socially unacceptable quality. Others will be less likely to invite you to join in social activities and gatherings. Conversely, if you keep good personal hygiene others will feel comfortable around you and find you approachable.


Taking good care of yourself shows that you are responsible and self-reliant. Good personal hygiene also makes a good first impression on potential employers.

Mental Health

What happens to your body affects how you feel inside. Having a high standard for taking care of yourself gives you a sense of pride.


Maintain good hygiene to prevent bacteria from weakening the body by growing in unwanted places.


A clean mouth with brushed and flossed teeth is far less likely to have cavities and require dental maintenance. A clean body less likely to harbour viruses and bacteria.


Others can also be infected by diseases and illnesses you carry if you do not maintain personal hygiene. Viruses and bacteria spread quickly between people.


Setting a good example for personal hygiene will help your children incorporate it into their routine and make it a healthy habit for the rest of their lives.

Lower Costs

Brushing your teeth and keeping clean could reduce visits to your doctor and dentist, saving you money on prescriptions and extra dental procedures.

Ian Hope BCom, CMA
Ian Hope is a management consultant; certified facilitator; speaker, and writer, who trains others in people and leadership skills highly valued in today’s workplaces. Ian sees a strong association between health and improved outcomes in interactions between people, and specializes in assisting others to improve their lives by competently using their people and communication skills.


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