Magazine article Parks & Recreation

"You Stink!" How Managers Can Professionally Handle Awkward Topics They Dread Discussing with Employees

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

"You Stink!" How Managers Can Professionally Handle Awkward Topics They Dread Discussing with Employees

Article excerpt

Every manager, at some point in his or her career, will be forced to have "that" conversation with one of their employees. The term "awkward" doesn't begin to measure up to the depth of discomfort that both of you will be experiencing the moment the conversation begins.

The Ugly Truth

According to leadership blogger Daniel McCarthy, the "10 employee conversations that managers hate to have" center around these topics: poor performance, co-worker clashes, stinky staffers, promotion passed-overs, terminations, substance suspicions, mental-health maladies, fashion faux pas, musings of motherhood and monetary mysteries of the missing kind.

In my career, I've had the misfortune of needing to address all 10 of those topics with employees, along with a few additional topics ("So, that's you in the video putting the excrement in the vending machine, right?") that would make McCarthy's list look downright mundane. But the most difficult conversations to approach are the ones that are not based on your own observations, but are brought to you by a third party with the very clear "so do something about it" expectation (stated or not).

By a wide margin, the number-one office offense managers seek advice to address is ...? The stink factor. Al though usually a problem based on a lack of personal hygiene, a common variant is the noxious-cologne complaint, often accompanied by the allergic-reaction assertion to ensure it's taken seriously and addressed promptly.

Next, after the issues brought by co-workers within noseshot, are those within earshot, protesting the persistent sniffing-snorting-coughing of a co-worker who clearly has more of a chronic tic than a cold or flu and somehow has never discovered that thing called a tissue.

Loud talkers and headphone-wearing cubicle singers fall into that earshot group as well, but these are trumped in volume (and level of awkwardness) by the complaint of "sexual harassment" that really isn't (by definition) but is more the result of things like what Jerry Seinfeld coined as a "close talker," or the pure-intention remark of "you look nice today" to someone who wasn't in the mood to hear it.

Distinguishing between valid sexual harassment complaints that need to be addressed from situations that were honest misinterpretations and from those of false accusations based on intentionally twisted details of a situation would take a whole second (or third) article to cover, but all three situations are going to require an unpleasant conversation. "Awkward" won't even begin to cover it.

So Do Something About it

Every situation will be different, particular to the details and people involved, but here's my own top 10 list of guidelines that will help you get through those awkward conversations with less stress and more finesse.

1. Prepare with Purpose. Make sure you have your facts straight and be clear about why you really need to have this conversation. Don't address the issue because it's "annoying" (subjective); make sure you can articulate how the issue impacts business or productivity in a negative way (objective). Have a clear concept of what the ideal outcome looks like, too. How do you hope they'll respond? What would they need to do to improve the situation?

2. Permission to Speak. In How to Hold a Difficult Conversation, Susan M. Heathfield says, "Start by stating you have some feedback you'd like to share. Ask if it's a good time or if the employee would prefer to select another time and place." This gives the employee a moment to brace for it and lets you safely forecast it so you're not tempted to delay the "awkward" with disingenuous chit-chat. …

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