How do you handle sensitive matters, like a teacher who has body odor or wears too much cologne? An administrator's first inclination might be to ignore the problems and hope they go away, but when I faced these issues in my school I knew I had to find a sensitive way to handle them
In my years as principal I've had to handle a few very sensitive issues that involved teachers. One of my teachers had very strong body odor, which caused her to become the brunt of a lot of jokes and snide comments -- all behind her back, of course. Another teacher tended to wear overpowering doses of cologne, which caused a colleague to cough and complain. I couldn't ignore the issues in either of those cases, but I had to find a sensitive a way to broach them with the offending teachers.
When I needed to deal with the issue of the teacher with body odor, one of my superiors suggested I leave some deodorant in the teacher's mailbox as "a hint" about the problem. I knew, however, that I had to treat this issue more effectively and respectfully. I made an appointment to speak with the teacher after school one day
I had made the decision in advance that I would approach the body-odor issue from my personal perspective. I would confide privately that "I am sensitive to your body odor." By confronting the problem in that way, I would keep the peace; I would avoid dragging anyone else on the staff into issue. Saying that so-and-so was offended or that the teacher's body odor was the focus of teacher-room talk would serve no useful purpose. I simply kept to my one-to-one, I statement, conversation plan.
After a little small talk, I brought up the body odor issue. I stuck to my plan to use I statements throughout the discussion. The immediate response was one of surprise and, needless to say, a little embarrassment, but I quickly followed with a story about a friend of mine who'd had a similar issue that was caused by a medical condition. I asked, "Would you like me to refer you to a good doctor?" She thanked me for telling her about the odor, she took me up on my referral offer, and soon after that she became one of the most popular instructors with whom I've ever worked.
The I approach has worked in other situations too. "I'm allergic to your cologne," I said privately to another teacher. "Could you refrain from wearing scents to work?" He apologized for making me uncomfortable. From that point on, everyone breathed a little easier, including me.
That problem led eventually to instituting a scent-free workplace policy. To learn more about fragrance-free policies, see Workplace Policies.
I've found that using I statements is a respectful and assertive way to handle issues of a personal nature. Doing that poses the problem as a just-between-the-two-of-us issue; it protects the teacher from any outright humiliation.
When I first tried out the approach, I was not quite sure how it would go. I wondered if she might take offense at me for bringing up the issue. Thankfully, I have found that teachers have appreciated the way I have handled these situations. I've found that being up-front, honest, and speaking in I statements is the most effective approach I can take.
Note: If you confront an employee whose body odor is linked to his/her religion's special diet, you could be treading on anti-discrimination regulations. Never tell an employee his diet is affecting his body odor. Instead, indicate you believe it may be a medical condition and offer support.
About the How I Handled... Team of Principal Problem Solvers
The How I Handled series is intended to be practical resource for all principals and principals-to-be. Each week, members of Education World's How I Handled team share how they solved actual problems relating to school leadership, parent involvement, professional development, and a host of other "principal" responsibilities. How I Handled team members are anonymous; in that way, they can share freely the range of issues/problems they are called on to solve each day.