Have you ever worked alongside an employee who had poor personal hygiene, foul-smelling clothes or breath, or an annoying personal habit like making clicking noises? Or worse, the employee drinks heavily in the evening and then exudes the smell of alcohol, often mixed with the equally fetid smell of coffee and cigarettes, all day at work?
Or, worst on the list of most challenging issues, the employee's breath and pores exude a spicy aroma that makes you ill; the employee's clothes are clean, but he or she appears to bathe infrequently, and you're positive that saying anything would be culturally insensitive. Welcome to the workplace coworker situations from hell.
Confronting these issues is likely to be a difficult conversation, so before you react, it's a good idea to mentally prepare yourself. Then, integrate these new tips about holding difficult conversations into your feedback approach.
Tips for Holding Difficult Conversations
- Start With a Soft Approach to Set the Employee at Ease, but Don't Beat Around the Bush: The employee's level of anxiety is already sky-high and making more small talk while he waits for the bad news to emerge, is cruel. Once you've told him that you want to discuss a difficult topic, move right into the topic of your difficult conversation.
- Tell the Employee Directly What the Problem Is as You Perceive It: If you talk around the issue or soften the impact of the issue too much, the employee may never get that the problem is serious. If you reference the problem as "some of our employees do the following," the employee may never understand that you mean him.
- Whenever Possible, Attach the Feedback to a Business Issue: This is not a personal vendetta; the difficult conversation has a direct business purpose. Perhaps other employees don't want to participate on his team, and you've noticed the lack of volunteers. Perhaps his appearance is affecting the perception of customers about the quality of the organization's products. Maybe, an irritating mannerism has caused a customer to request a different sales rep. Make the business purpose of the conversation clear.
- You Also Need to Let the Employee Know That Not Only Is the Behavior Affecting the Business and the Employee's Coworkers, but It Is Also Affecting the Employee's Career: Express directly the impact you believe the behavior is having on the employee's potential promotions, raises, career opportunities, and relationships in the workplace.
- Training Your Whole Staff Is Not an Appropriate Solution: Some managers will provide a grooming and professionalism seminar for all employees to attend hoping that the employee with the problem will get the message via the training. It isn't going to happen. The employee with the problem will not get that you mean him and you will have subjected countless others to training they didn't need.
Professionalism training, dress code training, and similar activities are recommended when employees need a starting base of information. One company even sponsored a fashion show to demonstrate appropriate business casual dress. You need to oppose training as a means to correct the personal problems of individuals. The worst suggestion that a company considered pursuing? Train just the individuals who are perceived by organization members to have the problem. It is offensive and discriminatory. Address the issue with the employee—individually.
- Be Sensitive to the Fact That Different Cultures Have Different Norms and Standards of Appearance, Bathing, and Dress: Leave this discussion to the employee's manager, but your workplace is justified in asking employees to embrace the cultural standards of the workplace in which the employee is working. It is especially true if nonconformance to the standard is interfering with the harmony and productivity of your workplace.
- Be Sensitive to the Difference in Cooking and Eating Traditions, Too: A woman confided to me recently that her fellow students had laughed at her and made fun of her because she always smelled like curry and garlic and other pungent spices. As a working adult, she has toned down the amount of spice in her cooking, but she was injured by the thoughtlessness for years.
- If an employee has repeatedly tried to correct a hygiene issue such as bad breath and is not making progress, suggest that the employee sees a physician so they can determine if an underlying medical condition might be causing the problem. Your thoughtfulness could save an employee's life.
- Finally, If You Are the Employee's Supervisor, You Owe It to the Employee to Hold the Difficult Conversation: Especially, if other employees have complained to you, understand that if you don't hold the difficult conversation, the employee's coworkers will. And, they may not hold the conversation effectively with the goal of minimizing embarrassment and discomfort. A bottle of deodorant might show up on the employee's desk. Soap has been placed in employee mailboxes, in my client companies. Nasty notes have also been left in mailboxes and on chairs. None of these actions contribute to a harmonious workplace. Furthermore, the employee can justifiably charge the employer with allowing harassment and a hostile work environment to exist.
Care enough about the employee and your productive, harmonious workplace to hold the difficult conversation. You will be happy you did.