Should you tell a job candidate about her body odor?

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(MoneyWatch) Dear Evil HR Lady,
We have an applicant with strong body odor. By looking at her application I believe she is qualified but seriously I would not want to even be in the room with her when she interviews. Can we tell them or are we opening up a can of worms?

It's definitely a can of worms. Stinky worms at that.

The compassionate thing to do is to tell the person. Even though it may seem shocking, there are people who can make it to adulthood without a clear understanding that they stink. Or, if they know they stink they may not know how to handle it. There are people who manage to make it to adulthood without understanding which parts of your bodies need a good soaping regularly. Additionally, when in doubt, wash your clothes.

Anyway, so when you encounter someone whose body odor is holding her back, it may be extremely helpful if you explain that a bit of soap, some deodorant and laundry detergent could make her career take off.

However, I'll be honest and say unless the person's resume was clearly superior to the other candidates, or I was seriously lacking skilled candidates, or the job would actually share a cube with my worst enemy, I'd probably just do a "Thanks for applying, we'll keep your resume on file for the next 12 months" email.

Why?

First of all, it's a rare person who makes it to adulthood without appropriate instructions in hygiene. It does happen, but it's indicative of other problems. Problems I don't wish to have to deal with in the office. Seriously, no high school friend pulled you aside to offer some Secret? Your mother didn't send you to the shower? Your gym teacher didn't sit by the showers with her check list to make sure you washed your armpits after the strenuous act of standing on the volleyball court and pretending to play volleyball? Something wrong is in this person's past. Don't know what it is, but something is wrong. And do you want that problem to become yours?

Second, if you bring it up and don't hire the person for whatever reason, then they believe that their odor was the cause of lack of a job offer. And while it's perfectly legal to refuse to hire someone who stinks, that protection only extends as far as the problem is caused by lack of soap and not a medical condition. Employment lawyer Jon Hyman recently wrote about the Americans' with Disabilities Act (ADA). He reminds us that the following individuals are protected:

1. Those with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual;
2. Those with a record of such an impairment; and
3. Those regarded as having such an impairment.

You don't know whether it is hygiene issue or a medical one. (And yes, there are medical conditions that cause foul odors.) And so once you bring it up, if the problem is medical and by not hiring the person can argue that you're discriminating against her, well, oy. And even if it's not a medical problem, she could argue that you're discriminating against her because you regard her as having a disability. (Does stinking substantially limit major life activities? My non-lawyerly answer is maybe.)

It's so much easier to just put the resume into the "thanks but no thanks" pile. In today's economy that pile is generally large anyway. It's really hard to win a failure to hire lawsuit when you didn't even make it to the interview stage. And attorney Hyman cautioned that if you decide to not move forward because of the smell that you don't discuss or document that. He said, via email to me, "the smaller the circle, the less likely this would ever get back to the candidate, and create the possibility of the ADA issues you discuss."

Now, two other thoughts. First, if you have a stinking problem that is medically based, I recommend bringing this up as soon as the problem is obvious. (That is, you don't put it on your resume, but when you are face to face with someone you bring it up.) Why? Because it removes the defense that they didn't know about your problem, and therefore couldn't be discriminating against you.

Second, if you already have an employee on board who has this problem, you deal with it straight on and address it as a hygiene issue until they tell you otherwise. It's okay to hand out a sheet with good daily hygiene tips.

Have a workplace dilemma? Send your questions to EvilHRLady@gmail.com.

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