How to Talk With an Employee About a Personal Hygiene Issue
Tactics to Resolve Sensitive Problems in Your Workplace
This reader seeks guidance about an employee whose personal hygiene issues are troubling the other employees in her work area.
She says, "I am searching for a tactful way of handling a matter that is frustrating our work staff. One particular employee consistently does not flush the toilet after use. How can I approach this issue respectfully and tactfully to get positive results? Your help will be appreciated as I am at a loss for words. I look forward to hearing your ideas."
Human Resources responded, "Okay. Yes, this is one of those subjects that can be rather uncomfortable to handle. First off, I'm guessing that you're certain this behavior is coming from a specific staff person and this isn't just an assumption or what everyone believes to be so.
If you're not 100 percent certain, then a general reminder to all staff about hygiene and shared areas in the workplace would be a good first step. If you are 100 percent certain, then I've found that the best approach is to talk to the employee privately. Your approach should be direct and factual and as neutral as possible.
Acknowledge that it's not an easy conversation to have. However, if you come across as if the situation is uncomfortable, delicate, and/or unpleasant for you to discuss, then the staff member will be more likely to become defensive and shut down.
Hold a Private Problem Solving Meeting About the Hygiene Issue
Have this discussion behind closed doors (of course) and don't beat around the bush about the reason for the meeting. "Hi Mary, we need to talk about general hygiene in the workplace and I know this may not be an easy talk to have. It's come to my attention that the staff toilet is not being flushed after use.
What can you tell me about this issue?" (Please note that you didn't say, "I've had a lot of complaints about someone not flushing the toilet." It's best not to set the person up to feel singled out and preyed upon by coworkers.)
It's a good idea to get the person's feedback as opposed to just delivering an edict to "start flushing the toilet." If the employee can communicate why they behave as they do, you then have the opportunity to guide them to do their own problem solving.
Know that you need to be ready for a wide range of possible reasons. The reason might be anything from the environmental—it wastes water—to perhaps an issue with touching the toilet lever with bare hands, to plain old forgetfulness or being too much in a hurry.
Take the Steps Necessary to Solve the Personal Hygiene Problem
Tell the employee that this behavior is a problem and that you need her assistance in coming up with a solution. Ask the employee to devise a possible solution that will help you and the company succeed in resolving this issue.
After helping the employee reach a solution, restate the solution to make certain that you and the employee are hearing and agreeing to the same solution. Note whether there is anything that your organization can do to help the employee solve the hygiene problem.
Then wrap up the meeting by making this summary statement:
"Thank you for your time and your input on this issue. I think you can see that for the overall health and morale of the office team, this practice cannot continue. We're going to do XYZ to assist you; you have agreed that you will do ABC differently, and that will resolve the problem. I need to make sure that you are on board with and agree to take these steps to solve this problem. Can you do that?"
It's not fun to have these hygiene discussions and it sometimes seems that a simple "cease and desist" should suffice to solve the hygiene issue. But, having had these kinds of talks with staff about different personal hygiene issues over the years, a problem solving approach in which you ask for their assistance to solve the problem works the best.
By taking the time to get the staff member's feedback, the individual doesn't feel as judged or ostracized by the workgroup. When you avoid these negative feelings and emotions, you have a much better chance of your message having its intended impact on the employee's behavior so the employee becomes more mindful of their personal hygiene issue.
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