Tackling the Tough Conversation You Don’t Want to Have


Tackling the Tough Conversation You Don’t Want to Have

Every business owner with staff knows that there are some conversations that are tougher than others.

We also know that the tougher we think the conversation is going to be the more likely we are to avoid it.  If you are familiar with my work, you will know that holding tough conversations is something that I comment on regularly and that’s because they are really important and because I know, as well as you do, that ignoring them doesn’t make it go away.

This time I’m going to cover the tough conversation of when an employee has poor personal hygiene and/or habits.

While these may be things that don’t affect you directly as you don’t work by their side, you are where the buck stops, in terms of being the person to have that difficult conversation.

At times I’ve heard managers talk about an employee whose work performance ‘stinks’, but that’s very different from speaking with an employee who has bad body odour. Before you get too hard on yourself for feeling that this is just too hard and needs to be left alone, I’d like to remind you, that periodically there are articles and guidance provided to human resource specialists on this sensitive topic as well. It’s a touchy subject for everyone involved, but that doesn’t mean you can ignore it.

Typically a manager finds out about poor hygiene from other employees. The people who seek you out for a ‘quiet word’ and who typically use phrases like:

  • S/he’s a nice person but …
  • I don’t quite know how to put this …
  • I’d really like to work in another section/team (and don’t have a clear reason for their request).

What is it that you might need to talk about?

Let’s be clear, poor personal hygiene and personal habits can and do affect workplace performance, and that is when you have no choice but to act.

For the sake of clarity the types of things that I’m referring to are:

  • Body odour and or bad breath.
  • Spitting, coughing up or snorting mucous.
  • Unpleasant smell; this can include perfume (some people have allergies, and it can be a contaminant) or the smell from unwashed hair.
  • Gas; whether a burp or a ‘bottom burp’.
  • Dirty fingernails and hands.
  • Skin conditions such as flakiness or open sores.

In some industries (typically food related or where a sterile environment is essential) these issues are clearly and obviously a risk and can be approached directly. If you work in a chicken hatchery, you cannot have chickens at home due to the risk of contamination. If you work with food, there are standards that ensure infection control.

You may not work in an industry where the rules and risks are so clear-cut, yet you still need to take action.

Where to start that tough conversation?

First, do not ever tell the employee that you’ve had complaints from others. It doesn’t matter that you have. What matters is that you are going to be having a conversation about a very personal subject and it’s going to be awkward enough between the two of you without dragging others in the team into things.

Next, do it in private. This may sound like a complete no-brainer and stating the bleeding obvious, but make sure that your conversation is private and will not be interrupted.

Perhaps, most importantly, is to remember that your concern is for the well-being of the individual as well as for the health of your business. Poor personal hygiene and issues such as this can have a significant and negative effect on morale and company culture.

Here is the approach that you are advised to adopt:

1. Be subtle.

“I’ve noticed (state the issue whether it be smell or gas or emissions) and wonder if everything is ok?”

This approach raises the issue and has you asking from the perspective of the employee’s wellbeing. Remember that you cannot ask directly if there is a medical condition as illness is a protected attribute under Anti-Discrimination legislation.

2. Be curious but avoid prying.

Persist with your focus on wanting to make sure that the employee is ok because the odour or gas that is noticeable may be a sign that something is wrong medically. An employee does not have to disclose a medical condition, however, cannot expect an employer to make special arrangements or give special consideration if that condition has not been disclosed.

3. Be aware that you have the right to set and enforce reasonable standards in your workplace.

When you have employees dealing with customers and key suppliers you have the right to set expectations about how your business is represented (it’s about brand and reputation).

With all that being said, tackling the sticky and stinky issue of personal conduct and hygiene is one that you will always feel better about when you have had a confidential chat about it with someone else. 

To get an unbiased and second opinion of whether you are being too picky or venturing into dangerous territory is important. When that opinion is from someone who respects confidentiality and is well versed in the world of people management and human resources, then you will be in the best possible position to tackle one of the toughest topics at work.

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