Friday, December 09, 2016

Hygiene Issues at Work

Written by  Richard Finger

In recent weeks, I have had been in discussion with an HR colleague telling me about a work situation that is likely just a small example of what we will encounter as political opinions become even more pronounced. In her situation, she is working through a concern regarding an employee of Sikh religious beliefs that suffers from a hygiene issue. The employee has been with the company for almost six years, and during this time, there have been just a few conversations to address the issue, nothing documented. Unfortunately, the hygiene issue is bad enough that coworkers and clients have raised their concerns. When discussing the issue with a senior manager in the organization, she was appalled by the reaction, specifically hearing these words, “Well, the issue will not go away. He isn’t going to change what he eats.”


When my friend told me about this issue, she hadn’t taken into consideration the employee’s religious beliefs, or the nationality of his decent. She had been addressing the issue as one of hygiene, and attempted to handle the concern the same way she would handle it if had been a person of any other race or ethnicity. She was taken off guard by the blatant response of the senior leader, who happens to be a white male over 50. She was asking me if I felt the current political environment had contributed to his remarks. We both agreed, it is difficult to draw a confident conclusion on this. That said, we also agreed that with the popular political mood being what it is, it is certainly lurking in the background of everyone’s sub-conscious, and perhaps there was some undertones of discrimination in his statement.

Hygiene issues at work are already a very sensitive matter to handle, as the nature is so personal, and so sensitive. In this case, the matter needs to be addressed delicately, to address the hygiene issue, and not to have this employee feel like his rights are being violated, or subjected to any discrimination. My friend discussed with the employee’s direct manager that they should talk to him, and simply address the importance of hygiene when working in a professional environment, and also as part of the company’s dress code. There was no discussion about his religious beliefs or about the food he chooses to eat.

I was very proud of my HR colleague for her actions of taking the higher road (I couldn’t help but think of Michele Obama’s quote, “When they go low, we go high.”). She coached the management team on how to navigate through the concern, in a safe way that protected the company from any liability, and also to treat the employee respectfully. I am sure this will not be an isolated incident as we proceed into 2017. As an HR practitioner, I fear that if we allow discrimination to creep into the workplace, we cannot predict how people will react. Now more than ever, it will be important to be vigilant. I always say my role in human resources is work towards providing a fair and respectful work environment, and to create an atmosphere where all employees can be their most productive selves. I know I cannot do this in isolation, but will do my best to keep those that work with me and around me working towards the same mission.


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