Can Body Odor Fall Under Religious Protection?

Dear Evil HR Lady,

We have an issue with an employee regarding hygiene. In a nutshell, he has bad body odor. His belief system is that soaps, deodorants are chemicals are harmful. He interacts with our customers a great deal. How do we address? Help!

–In The Breeze

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11 thoughts on “Can Body Odor Fall Under Religious Protection?

  1. I have to disagree somewhat with jumping right to assuming this person is holding this “belief system” to the level of a sincerely held religious belief. The OP: does use the term “belief system”, but unless there was more to it, I don’t think I’d interpret that in the same way. Many people have strongly held ideas about chemicals/organic/natural substances, etc., but don’t consider them a religion. Unless this stinky employee has said that not using soaps and deodorants is part of his religion, I’d be more inclined to believe he just doesn’t like bathing. I’ve encountered this situation, in various forms, more than once. It’s certainly not comfortable to deal with, but not all that diffcult. Suzanne hit it right (aside from the religious accommodation) by suggesting the OP tell the employee his odor is offensive to co-workers and customers and can’t be tolerated. At that point, the employee has the opportunuity to relate whether he has a medical conditiion or a sincerely held religiious belief that prevents him from bathing. Upon that revelation, the OP can proceed appropriately.

    1. I admit, I’m overly paranoid about lawsuits. Too long in a labor and employment law department, I guess.

      1. Suzanne, you worked in a labor and employment law department? How cool is that?! That sounds like exactly where I’d want to end up. I’m asking because I’m in the beginning stages of my HR career but I love researching and learning about employment law.

        1. It was probably my favorite job, even though it was kind of depressing. I ran layoffs for Wyeth Pharmaceuticals. My bosses were AWESOME.

          There was a lot of technical stuff involved. My job share partner and I were the subject matter experts on terminations and all the stuff that goes with them, which meant we did a lot of writing of general releases and summary plan descriptions. (Approved by the lawyers, of course.)

          In addition to us and the lawyers, we had an immigration parallegal and EEO investigators in the department. Learned tons. Loved it.

          1. That sounds great (not terminating people, of course)! It’s always nice to hear about HR jobs that are not recruiting (not that there’s anything wrong with recruiting, in fact it was my first real job out of college). I know that was completely off topic for this post, so thanks for sharing!

            1. No problem. I really loved that job, which is kind of weird to say because it, you know, involved firing thousands of people. But except for the actual terminations, it was a dream job. Employee relations, data, technical stuff, decision making authority, and input and contact with people at all levels.

              Plus, when the mean onsite nurse wouldn’t give me a parking pass when I had sciatica in my pregnancy, the head of Labor and Employment Law called her boss and gave her a little lecture and I got my parking pass.

  2. I’m surprised he hasn’t tried some of the natural remedies. There are apparently plenty. And lots and lots of organic soaps, plant-based, that even a hard-core vegan would be happy with.

  3. *waves* Hi from another ex-Wyeth!

    (Note: I didn’t get laid off, I quit for a startup job shortly after the PFE takeover, and the layoffs were indeed brutal. But it was a good place to work while it lasted.)

    Don’t know if you still follow pharma at all, but from what I hear Sanofi has done a much better job with their Genzyme takeover-related layoffs than PFE did with Wyeth. Do you talk to your colleagues at other pharmas?

  4. It certainly could be a belief system. The belief that certain substances can pollute the body is a very common religious belief. It’s possible he just doesn’t want to shower for fear of chemicals, but not the only plausible scenario.

  5. I have three friends who don’t believe in deodorant, perfumes and heavily perfumed soaps for partially religious reasons but mainly environmental/health reasons. However, these three people understand that not doing like everyone else means they have to be a bit more vigilant with the personal hygiene so they do stuff like shower twice a day, wear undershirts to catch pit funk, on really hot or humid days they will change clothes or put on some natural deodorant, and so on. I understand their opinions, but if you have a front facing job, it is hard to be a black sheep. Expecting someone in sales to bathe is part of the expectation to present well.

  6. I just googled this topic and couldn’t find anything so maybe this is a rare problem. It hadn’t occurred to me to find out before because this was years ago but I had a intolerable situation where I worked. There was a man that wore the same clothes every day for years (at least for the seven that I was there). He did not bathe for months (maybe longer) and even worse, I was the only one that went to HR to request he be asked to take a bath and wash his clothes. It made my eyes water and I felt physically ill being close to him and I was also afraid of bedbugs or lice because I am certain his home could not have been very clean either (obviously he did not have a wife and apparently he used to have a cat but it died and he left it in his apartment for weeks until people started to complain of the smell). I don’t know if it was psychological but I would feel itchy if he came close to me. I would end up in tears by the end of the day. It was unbearable. The worse part was that he almost always had a hard on (but I was too embarrassed to keep pointing that out after a manager laughed at me and asked why I was looking there). It was a good job with the government but I was constantly freaked out and eventually had to leave because this guy was so protected by the union. I feel bad, I know they guy probably had mental health issues, but it really was intolerable. Meanwhile, I think he was playing up the mental health angle – he had a field day, every time anyone complained he would freak out and get time paid time off, presumably to take a shower but he hardly smelled any better when he came back. And when someone told him I was complaining he would go out of his way to hang around me as much as possible. I am sure everyone in the office thought that it was hilarious but because I like to work and be productive, it was a horrible situation for me. Apparently they thought I was being prejudice. I am not even sure what race he was, he looked like a white guy and I have nothing against anyone of any race, creed or colour but even in the bible it says that cleanliness is next to Godliness. To this day I still feel sick to my stomach when I see an old beat up houndstooth jacket. (I used to have a can of coffee at my desk so I could get the smell out of my nose.) I am not making this up. Has anyone ever heard of such a ridiculous situation?

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