Dr. Steve Albrecht - Preparing For the “Hygiene Talk”

One of the Hardest Patron Conversations
For a Library Supervisor to Have?
Preparing For the “Hygiene Talk”

by Dr. Steve Albrecht

How to Have the "Hygiene Talk" with Patrons Who Really Need It

So a patron has – for whatever reason and there can be many – a significant body odor, dental odor, or other hygiene problem. This is not a patron who rode his or her bike to your library and didn’t towel off properly; this is a person who we can all smell from several feet away. It could be a combination of body odor, mouth odor, a personal toiletry problem, and/or unclean clothes (wearing the same unwashed garments day after day). Either way, this a library workplace issue, which can really start to bother the staff who have to serve or work near this person. It demands a “patron coaching” conversation.

It's Not a Life-Threatening Safety Issue, But …

There are times where a patron coaching discussion is a useful intervention tool for library supervisors, to address chronic Code of Conduct violations and/or library-use issues. Hygiene, or the lack thereof in this case, falls somewhat in the middle of these two corrective areas. It’s not a life-threatening safety or security issue, but it can certainly gain momentum left unheeded.


Recordings are available to purchase of Dr. Albrecht's Library 2.0 Webinars: 
"How to Handle Challenging Patrons" (click here)
"Stress Management for Library Staff" (click here)
"Coaching Skills for Library Managers and Supervisors" (click here)
"Responding to an Active Shooter in the Library" (click here)
(Group prices are available)


The question that can arise with some library supervisors is, “When do I have the right to discuss a hygiene issue with a patron?’’ The answer is, “When it impacts the business of your library in a negative way.”

How to Talk About Tough Topics with Anyone

While we don’t want to pry into patrons’ personal lives, we do have the duty and obligation as supervisors to address patron-use issues or eccentric behaviors that make it hard for all employees to serve other patrons around the person who smells bad, or do their jobs with or for the body odor-offending patron.

In their 2011 bestselling book Crucial Conversations, Kerry Patterson and his three co-authors discussed how to talk about tough topics with anyone, at home, at work, or in life. They define “crucial conversations” as those where: “opinions vary, the stakes are high, and emotions run strong.” A hygiene conversation with a patron certainly qualifies as all three.

Seeing the hygiene conversation as “crucial” can help you shape this important and hard discussion as not about picking on the patron, but rather, keeping the focus centered on what the patron does or doesn’t do, should do differently, and how the issue at hand impacts the library’s business in a negative way.

Getting a Patron's Commitment to Change

Once the supervisor gets the patron’s commitment to change (a key goal), the patron should begin to follow the agreed-upon solution immediately. Any “business impact” discussion should include the consequences for non-compliance, which could mean the possibility of patron discipline. It’s hard to kick a patron out of the library for smelling really bad, but where do you draw the line for what you or other employees or patrons will tolerate?

The key is to focus on the patron’s impact on the library, and not use demeaning labels (“Gee, you stink”) to describe what are actually behaviors, with a variety of behind-the-scenes reasons for them. This calls for a quiet intervention that is understanding, firm, fair, reasonable, and consistent, so the supervisor and the patron can (hopefully) get through this crucial and highly-sensitive conversation successfully.

Four Reasons for Hygiene Issues

Back to the patron with the hygiene issue. As a rule, most hygiene problems have a foundation in four possible areas:

  1. a medical problem (excessive sweating, sleep apnea, or as an adverse reaction to certain medications).
  2. a stress or mental health issue (most often depression, or not caring about personal self-care, that may come from post-traumatic stress disorder, an obsessive-compulsive disorder, delusional thinking, hoarding behaviors, or a disconnection from reality).
  3. a revenge issue (wanting to retaliate against another person, i.e., “I won’t bathe and I’ll wear these same clothes every day for a week; that’ll show them!”).
  4. either unaware; doesn’t care; or aware of the impact on others, but doesn’t know how to fix it: the patron who always exercises at lunch and doesn’t shower afterwards before coming to the library; a patron who believes he or she has the “right” to offend others by smelling bad; or a person experiencing homelessness who doesn’t have regular access to shower or laundry facilities and has become accustomed to the odor.

How to Approach a Patron About Hygiene

The following suggestions can help the concerned (but reluctant) library supervisor to address a patron’s hygiene problem. You don’t have to read this word for word to the patron; just pick out the themes that work best for you and the person or his/her hygiene concerns in question.

Supervisor: “If you have a minute, can I talk to you in private about an issue? This is an uncomfortable yet necessary part of my job. As hard as this is to talk about, I have some concerns that your body odor and/or soiled clothing is making it hard for other people to be around you. I’ve seen for myself that it’s affecting others in a way that’s not good for you or our library. I’m sure it’s embarrassing for you and it’s not my intention to make you feel worse. I don’t know whether you’ve faced this issue before, but if you have, can you tell me what kind of solution has worked for you?”

Medical reason:

“I’m not here to pry into your personal life and I don’t want or need to know any details from you, but sometimes hygiene problems come from a medical issue you’re facing or a medication you’re taking. If you have a medical reason for this problem, please let me know how we might accommodate you.”

Stress or mental health reason:

“I know that sometimes we all face serious stressors like depression, sadness, or not having regular access to a shower that can make it difficult to take good care of ourselves every day. Again, I don’t want to know any details, but if you’re having some personal stressors, I can refer you to a county counselor or social worker. It’s completely confidential; no one will ever know you have contacted them. I brought one of their phone numbers to leave with you just in case you might want to speak to a qualified helping professional when you’re alone.”

Revenge reason:

“Sometimes we have conflicts with people over small things that turn into big things. We can agree that you don’t have to like or even engage with anyone you come into contact with here, but we all have to co-exist here. If you have problems with anyone and can’t work it out with him or her first, please come see me, and I’ll address it with you.”

Unaware reason:

“I know you like to exercise before you come here. Can you make sure that you take a moment to clean yourself thoroughly before you come in?” or “If you need access to laundry or shower facilities, let me see what I can do for you.”

Keep in mind that your success level for this type of difficult, crucial conversation varies as to the level of sobriety, mental acuity, maturity, or sense of either ownership or outrage that the patron has while you bring up this always-touchy subject. This is one of those life issues that can self-correct itself, but it may require you to give it an empathic nudge in the right direction.

Bio note: Dr. Steve Albrecht is best known for his ALA 2015 book, Library Security, and his safety, security, and service workshops for library employees.